What do you get when you take a fallen politician, a bevy of blingy birthday babes, seersucker suits, a brass band, tables on fire and a second line? Friday lunch at Galatoire’s. Tucked between Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and the Mango Mango daiquiri and pizza shop on debaucherous Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, Galatoire’s was established in 1905 by Jean Galatoire of Pardies, France. Galatoire honored family traditions and recipes that the now-fourth generation carries forward. The result has won multiple awards including the 2005 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant and was ranked in the top 25 Most Outstanding Restaurants (U.S.) by Gourmet Magazine in 2001.
“Tradition #78 – Friday lines are as long as our history”
Though I did not have to suffer it, the line for Friday lunch is legendary (the less dynamic 2nd floor is available by reservation). The Fridays before Christmas and Mardi Gras are such hot tickets that people used to sleep in lawn chairs on the sidewalk. Now, the tables for those Fridays are auctioned off, raising more than $100,000 for local charities during the 2008-2009 holiday season and nearly half a million since Katrina.
“Tradition #136 – We serve French Bread as hot as our summers.”
I’d been invited to lunch by Louis Sahuc of the Photo Works gallery. Garlic bread was already sitting at our well appointed table along with Louis, Gerri Jumonville, a petite spitfire with a genuine smile, and straw chapeau-clad Dell Jordan, longtime friend of Brobson Lutz, a, I’d been told, colorful local doctor and French Quarter character who was to join us later. Food began arriving as Brobson made his , and I do mean, “colorful” entrance. His jacket featured a Peter Max-like print in an LSD inspired mixture of pink, green, yellow, orange, blue and white left open to reveal a bright pink tie with a black etching of a stressed cat at the bottom. His round glasses were rimmed in black and green and his “garden shoes” (his name) were like a finely woven basket 2-toned with kelly green. Lest you think the effect was clownish, make no mistake, this was a sharp-dressed man… with a sense of whimsy.
“Tradition #109 – It’s not a special occasion without a feather boa.”
At the center of the room full of linen and seersucker-suited southern gents and their floral-dressed dates sat a table of women in form-fitting, white cocktail dresses wearing colorful Mardi Gras masks and waving white kerchiefs with bling covered hands. Suzy Bergner, a resident of Houston who was born in Louisiana, holds her birthday party at the restaurant every year, calling it “Gal at Gal’s Birthday Fete.” The birthday girl sported a beautiful gold crown and basked in the glow of good friends, good food and plenty of cocktails. Later, I saw her wearing a dainty, white boa halo rather than her crown. Like most people looking to celebrate themselves silly in New Orleans, she comes in peace.
Meantime, vying for most interesting thing happening in the room, former 4-term Governor, Edwin Edwards, who’d been released 2 days before after serving 10 years in prison and 6 months in a halfway house for racketeering, sat at the table next to us along with his “31 year old” bride to be, Trina. Addressing their 51 year age gap. Edwards said, “You’re only as old as the women you feel.” Hefner couldn’t have said it better. And yes, Trina’s as pretty, amply curvy and blonde as you’d hope. Gerri, at our table, worked on Edwards’ campaign in the 70’s and it seemed everyone at the table (but me) knew the Governor somehow.
I remember when Mayor Marion Barry (1979 – 1991) was convicted for smoking crack and was reelected in 1995. People in the country couldn’t make sense of what D.C. natives understood – he was a good leader but not always a good man. Edwards, like the Long brothers before him, was and, it appears, remains respected as a can-do guy who did a lot of good for the state. A reality show is in the works.
“Tradition #78 -Table hopping is strictly permitted”
As the Governor settled in, joined by a liquor baron and a major jeweler, the room became a hive of activity. In addition to the bustling servers and chummy waiters, a steady stream of people came by his table or joined in the celebration at Suzy’s fete or visited friends throughout the room. Suzy buzzed by our table for a time and gave us all white kerchiefs printed with her occasion’s details. She had a way of making her eyes exude and her lashes flutter that should have had an accompanying ultra-femimine magic fairy dust sound effect. No small wonder her husband allows (and, no doubt, bankrolls) this annual indulgence.
“Tradition #5 – Lunch hours become lunch afternoons.”
A cornucopia of starters were passed around our table as Chris Cooper, co-author of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security and former White House correspondent and foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and Brett Anderson, a food critic for the Times Picayune, joined us. It’s never a bad thing to have a food critic at the table. My favorite dish was the Galatoire Goute, a trio of shrimp, crab and crawfish preparations separated by fresh, sliced tomatoes.
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a brass band and realized why we all had white kerchiefs. As the 3 horn players paraded through the dining room blowing out Go to the Mardi Gras, the white dress wearing women encouraged everyone to join them in a second line. There are many moments since I’ve moved to New Orleans when I’m so filled to bursting with the joy of this place, that tears well up in my eyes. Watching grown people dancing through a restaurant in fine clothing waving their kerchiefs behind a brass band was one of those moments.
“Tradition #64 – The menu doesn’t change.”
I love food but I hate mushrooms. It’s the texture that does me in. And, even in candy or ice cream, I hate the taste of coffee. But, I ended up trying the crab entree with mushrooms because it had a beautiful light sauce and artichoke hearts (and there’s always someone who will eat the fungus). As if that weren’t unusual enough, I ended up trying the coffee. For people who know me and whose jaws just dropped, let me add that it also had lots and lots of liquor in it, another beverage I normally eschew. But this was obviously no ordinary coffee.
Cafe Brulot is a combination of coffee, orange, lemon, clove, cinnamon, sugar, grand marnier and brandy prepared at the table in a large silver bowl and set on fire. A ladle traced a curly line of blue-flamed booze around the entire tablecloth – twice. Yes, they set the table on fire. I was drawn in by the spectacle but it wasn’t until Brobson let me know he’d be hurt if I didn’t at least try it, that I grabbed a bite of Dell’s Bananas Foster as a chaser and gave the cup a sip. Then, believe it or not, 2 more. It was the least coffee-tasting coffee I’ve come across and filled with magical boozy, fruity flavor.
Then, much to our delight, Louis had arranged for 2 Caramel Cup Custards, complete with birthday candles and singing waiters and patrons, for Gerri and me. We were later outdone by Suzy’s confetti bombs and her annual tradition of standing on a table or chair, but for one brief moment, Gerri and I were the centers of attention in a room full of centers. They even gave us pens and postcards and Gerri sent mine around for everyone at the table to sign birthday wishes suitable for framing.
The photos at the Galatoire’s website were all taken by Louis and are available for viewing in his Reflections of Gal’s collection. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m also a huge fan of Louis Sahuc’s other collections including The Memories of Margi & Joe and his singular portrait of non-New Orleanian, Dennis Hopper. I may be biased as I produced one of his last films, Quentin Tarantino presents: “Hell Ride,” but I think Dennis has one of the all-time great faces. For those of you unable to go to the gallery on Jackson Square to see the photo, it’s of Dennis pushing his glasses up with his middle finger in a way that’s more irreverent than confrontational – which is an apt description of the chaos of Galatoire’s on a Friday afternoon. Also photographed by Louis – Gerri and me as birthday girls at Galatoire’s!