Being able to say a business is “Family owned and operated” is often a badge of honor, but Antoine’s in New Orleans, Louisiana, having been a family affair since 1840 takes it to another level all together. As the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, and one of the five Oldest Restaurants in the United States, Antoine’s has been a constant source for world-renowned French-Creole cuisine.
The sheer curtains, leaded glass, and antique tile floors inside Antoine’s span several buildings and the vast restaurant features 15 dining rooms. The 1840 Room, one of the most popular, is a replica of a fashionable though antiquated private dining room complete with an original silver duck press and a museum’s worth treasures including a Parisian cookbook published 1659.
Established in the spring of 1840 by 18-year old Antoine Alciatore, a young French immigrant to New Orleans, Antoine’s is located at 713 rue St. Louis in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally located just one block away, on the same street, Antoine’s has taken residence in their current location since 1868. The French-speaking city filled with aristocrats and social elite felt enough like home for Alciatore that he knew there would be a large and appreciative audience for his cuisine.
In 1874, Antoine was suffering with ill-heath and longing to spend his final moments on earth in his home country of France. He knew there was little time left, and not wanting his family to suffer the pains of watching him deteriorate, he passed management of his restaurant to his wife and set sail to finish his life in the same place it began. Legend has it that he told his wife, “As I take boat for Marseilles, we will not meet again on earth.” He passed away within the year.
When Antoine’s left New Orleans to return home, his son Jules apprenticed under his mother’s watchful eyes for six years. Seeing that he had both the skill and desire to eventually take helm, she sent him to France where he could continue his culinary education in the kitchens of Paris, Strasbourg, and Marseilles. When Jules returned to New Orleans in 1887, he took a chef position at the Pickwick Club where he further honed his skills before taking over for his mother as the head of his father’s already famous restaurant.
After Hurricane Katrina Antoine’s was close to closing their doors and realized that things needed to change to stay up with the times. While the building didn’t flood, there was $14 million in structural damage. The entire third and fourth floors were destroyed and one of the upper walls collapsed into the dining area. Even though the building did not flood, the heavy rain and wind caused extensive water damage on every floor.
Antoine’s infamous wine cellar, which can be described more aptly as a “wine alley” also suffered a traumatic Katrina related loss. The humid conditions, and complete loss of power to the cooling system destroyed their entire collection. The 165 foot (50 m) long corridor once lined by wine racks full of valuable vintages had to be completely renovated, and while it’s not a traditional cellar, it has certainly served as a respectable alternative. The “cellar” is made even more respectable by the fact that it contains more than 25,000 bottles.
The post-Katrina renovations not only restored the restaurant and the cellar, but also relaxed the atmosphere a bit. The lengthy menu, once available in French may now be carefully perused in English, and one of the dining rooms was turned into the Hermes Bar, the first bar in the restaurant’s 169-year history. The dress code was also relaxed during this renovation. While ripped jeans, flip-flops, and t-shirts are still off limits for guests, it is no longer necessary for men to wear a coat and tie.
It has taken a long line Alciatore family members and descendants to guide Antoine’s through some of the darkest times in American history, but if the Civil War, two World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and Hurricane Katrina can’t stop them, it seems that nothing will.
Antoine’s in Popular Culture
Dinner at Antoine’s, a 1947 murder mystery novel by Frances Parkinson Keyes, begins with a dinner party in the 1840. Antoine’s is also mentioned by Keyes, in Once on Esplanade, Crescent Carnival, The River Road, and Vail D’Alvery.
In the 1951 Bugs Bunny cartoon French Rarebit, a reference to Antoine’s plays a pivotal role, as Bugs convinces two Parisian chefs to let him show them how to cook “Louisiana Back-Bay Bayou Bunny Bordelaise” because it is “a la Antoine”. “Antoine of New Orleans?” one of the chefs questions to which Bugs Bunny replies “Well, I sure don’t mean Antoine of Flatbush!”
Countless celebrities have dined in Antoine’s many dining rooms and some of the walls are lined with photographs of famous guests. The list of notable guests includes George Bush, Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Kate Hudson, Jimmy Buffet, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby but to stop there would only scratch the surface.
Five presidents, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Angelina Jolie, Rex Harrison, and Tom Cruise, have also dined at Antoine’s. Most celebrities enter through a hidden hallway, but when Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans, his meals were served at the archbishop’s house every night.
- Antoine’s was used for the filming of two sequences in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK.
- The Dungeon room is located in a building that was once a French Quarter jail.
- Antoine’s is the birthplace of the culinary classic Oysters Rockefeller.
- With the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mardi Gras, Antoine’s is open every day of the year.
- Antoine’s is recognized as the oldest family operated restaurant in the United States.
- The famous Daniel Decatur Emmett Confederate marching anthem Dixie (I Wish I Was in Dixie) is 19 years younger than the restaurant.
- The restaurant closed the Japanese Room at the beginning of World War II and it remained closed for 43 years.
- Antoine’s chefs used coal burning stoves to prepare meals until 1951.
- During Prohibition, Antoine’s served alcohol in coffee cups that were carried through the ladies’ restroom into the Mystery Room, one of the themed dining rooms.