From Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street to Anne Rice House in the Garden District: New Orleans lives on
The “power lunch” lives.
You just need to travel to New Orleans to find it.
On a run through the Big Easy last week – a city as steamy and haunting as ever – I found myself in the schmoozy midday embrace of Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street. At the citadel of Franco-Creole cuisine, in addition to being one of the oldest operating restaurants in America, I felt transported to the pinnacle of 1980s “doing lunch” (the air-kissing! conspiratorial heavy hitters!). But not only that: I got an instant dopamine hit of that one thing that’s been so lacking in the last two years: the inimitable buzz of a truly bustling restaurant. White noise, baby.
at Galatoire. Where men are asked to wear jackets (norms!), waiters don bow ties, the long bright room is full of gossip, the whole place comes to a standstill and sings “Happy Birthday” when there’s a celebrating in the room (like there was the day I was there) and the turtle soup comes with a small pitcher of sherry. Check: the white tablecloth, the ceiling fans, the black and white tiles.
Gone since Jean Galatoire bought it in 1905, and soon sent to France for his three nephews to come and help run it, it has attracted a whole constellation of names. Babs was present. Just like Mike. Tennessee Williams, a local, used to regularly sit at Table 11, near the front.
” Where are you ? This question rang out, over and over again, as I focused on my crawfish house, listening to the tables around me. New Orleans-ese, basically, for “How are you?”
It’s going fabulously, as I told David Gooch when he came to greet me later. One of more than 30 descendants of the original Galatoire, who eventually sold their combined shares of the restaurant in 2009 — in what appears to be an “Succession”-style showdown — he still hangs out at the diner. “What? Like some kind of ambassador? I asked.
“Well,” he smiled, taking a card out of his pocket. “Ambassador”: precisely what he reads. Asking the diplomat if there are so many people every day (answer: yes), I continued to inquire about the beautiful tiled floor. How long had he been there? “Post-Katrina,” he muttered, which stuck with me because it was something I heard a lot during my time in New Orleans.
“After Katrina.” “Pre-Katrina.” As people casually mark time, memories of the 2005 disaster are never far away. Emblematic, too, in fact of the paradoxes of this Louisiana city: a vigorous place which also openly bears its scars. French and Spanish and Haitian and Catholic, it is also where slavery and warfare intersected with many waves of immigration. Did you know that the expression “sold down the river” refers to New Orleans? But that there were also, at one time, more “free people of color” than any other American city, a place where an elite class of wealthy black people spoke French, held salons and sometimes owned themselves slaves? A port city where jazz is king, the seersucker was born, a southern city with no “southern” accents, and its famous French Quarter looks more like Seville or Majorca than Paris.
Conversing with yet another part of New Orleans, I wandered the so-called Garden District after my lunch; famous for its shady oaks and pre-war houses. Undertaking many ‘steps’ with my guide, who gave me a crash course in architecture (a ‘shotgun house’, for one) while pointing out some of the most famous addresses (the ‘Manning House’, for example, where two NFL greats grew up, Eli and Peyton), he finally delivered me to my main target: Anne Rice’s house on St Charles Avenue.
“She dreamed of living in the Garden District,” the guide told me of the Queen of Goth Lit who died just months ago and was more responsible than anyone lately for marketing the mystique of New Orleans. (Certainly for me.) Grew up poor, not far off, with a sort of rough upbringing, it turns out. But after the success of “Interview With the Vampire” (both the book and the film), while spinning an entire cultural phenomenon (its gendered vampires resonated strongly during the rise of the AIDS epidemic), Rice started buying several properties in this fancy pants neighborhood, including the house she moved into that I was now looking at.
Rose-colored, three-tiered and Italian-style. I couldn’t help but notice the huge mossy tree looming in front of him, winding up towards an upper window. There was something moving about seeing the tree that Rice herself had watched for years, standing upright.
Too serious ? Alright, maybe. This, after all, is the same author who once arrived at a book signing a few blocks away in a coffin, carried by a horse-drawn hearse.
The new, the old and the new-old. I managed to fit in a bit during my visit. A walk in Louis Armstrong Park, for example. One night: dinner at Peach, a very good seafood destination in the warehouse district that is a more modern NOLA hotspot (New Orleans, Louisiana). Obligatory, of course: a straight line for donuts at Café Du Monde. Classic: Catch a quintet in historic Preservation Hall, an intimate, classroom-sized experience where the music moves with the building. Love I’ve Always Loved: Faulkner House Books, a bookstore beauty in the building where William Faulkner lived.
To end my trip, finally, the place where I put my head: Hotel Pierre and Paul. Nestled in the bohemian district of Marigny, this is a hotel that I’ve been browsing for a while on my Instagram feed: a design ace in that it was once a presbytery, a convent, a church and a school (all redesigned by the renowned ASH NYC design team). The restaurant there, the Elysian (where the priests once slept), is like stepping onto a soundstage and was at Bon Appétit 2019 list of the best new restaurants. The suites: an anything but typical explosion of modern gingham, hand-painted tiles and whimsy. There’s even an on-site ice cream shop called Sundae Best.
Not a single thing, the place, and often layer upon layer. Just like New Orleans itself.
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