If These Walls Could Talk: Antoine's in New Orleans

By Kathleen Squires  |  March 4, 2014

If the walls in restaurants and bars could talk, what stories would they tell about the people who passed through and the events that occurred there over time? Like an old, venerable relative, they can be full of fascinating, quirky, and sometimes sordid tales of the past. In this series, we uncover some of those intriguing histories.

The annals of the Big Easy are full of stories of corruption and charity; tragedy and prosperity; vice and virtue. And few cities in the US have a knack for celebrating through it all. Anyone who wants to understand the history of New Orleans should start at its oldest restaurant. Antoine’s, opened in 1840, tells the story of a city, a family and the restaurant business.

Antoine’s claims to be the country’s oldest family-run restaurant. The original Antoine’s was not exactly a restaurant at first, however, according to Rick Blount, the fifth-generation family member who is its CEO. Young Frenchman Antoine Alciatore, Blount’s great-great-great grandfather came to New Orleans and opened Antoine’s as a pension, a small boarding house. New Orleans was a shipping center at the time, so merchants and seamen waiting for their next passage settled into spots like Antione’s pension until their ships came in. Along with the room came meals, and fortunately for Antoine’s boarders, he happened to be a great cook. His prowess behind the stove made his pension particularly popular.

  • Early Expansion
    But Antoine’s son Jules, who inherited the business in 1898, was the one to credit with turning the business into a full-fledged French-Creole restaurant. Jules had a large dowry from his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, so he expanded upon the original spot by buying up the surrounding real estate. With the revolution of railroads, more and more visitors were coming to New Orleans. In came larger, more modern hotels and therefore less use for the humble pensions.

    Jules, marking the trend, decided to expand the kitchen and dining rooms and shut down the pension part of Antoine’s. “He was essentially inventing an industry that didn’t exist, by basing the entire economic model of the business on selling food and not pillows,” Blount says. It helped that Jules was an equally savvy chef. Some of the classic dishes to come out of his kitchen were Oysters Rockefeller, named so because of their richness; eggs Sardou, poached eggs with artichokes, ham, anchovies, truffles and hollandaise; and café Brulot, a flamed coffee concoction with orange liqueur, cinnamon, sugar, clove and lemon peel.

  • Famous Diners
    New Orleans was booming at the time as a profitable trade port on the frontier of the Wild West. So along with the money that came into town, there were plenty of characters - from performers to prize fighters to gangsters and prospectors. Jules made it his point to welcome them all to Antoine’s, making it a place to see-and be-seen. That tradition carries on to modern day. “Over the years we have served everybody,” Blount says. “We’ve served most US presidents. We’ve served the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox popes. We’ve served almost every Hollywood celebrity you can name. We served General Patton.”  The photos on the walls of Antoine’s showcase even more A-list diners, including Al Capone, Elizabeth Taylor, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Tom Cruise.

    Though Jules didn’t want to be in the hotel business, he did, however, keep the rooms above the restaurant open as “entertainment suites.” The wealthy business owners in town rented them for…entertaining. “The railroad had one. The Cotton Exchange had one,” Blount says. “And perhaps not so coincidentally, prostitution happened to be legalized at the time.” Today, the rooms house the restaurant offices.

    Antoine’s 15 dining rooms each have stories to tell of their own. The Rex and Proteus rooms, for example, recount the history of the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration, its walls adorned with the crowns, scepters and masks of parade royalty from years past.

  • Culinary Collectibles
    The 1840 room, fashioned after one of Antoine’s original dining salons, carries some fascinating culinary artifacts, including the restaurant’s antique silver duck press, a Parisian cookbook dating to 1659, and a particularly interesting newspaper clipping featuring Blount’s grandfather, Roy Alciatore, who took over the business from Jules. “In 1934 there was a competition to coin an American word for hors d’oeuvre, which Americans couldn’t say or spell,” Blount says. “We didn’t have a word to describe that first course, so the Midwest Hotel Association, which morphed later into the National Restaurant Association, ran a national campaign for somebody to come up with an American word that could replace hors d’oeuvre. My grandfather won that competition with two words combined—‘appetite’ and ‘teaser.’” The word “appetizer” was born, working its way onto nearly every menu in the US. Roy Alciatore won $25, and the check is on display along with the article.

  • Speakeasy Style
    Roy was not only good at inventing words, “My grandfather transformed the see-and-be-seen-scene of Antoine’s into true fine dining,” Blount says. “Roy is the one who gave Antoine’s its reputation.” The Roy Alciatore room, also called the Capitol Room, honors him. (The wood paneling on the walls were taken from the old capitol building in Baton Rouge).

    The Mystery Room was also the making of Roy Alciatore. Though a somewhat pious man, “My grandfather was absolutely incensed about the whole idea of Prohibition,” Blount says. He rigged a secret room, accessible through a passage in the ladies room, where he kept booze. The thinking was that the Feds were not brave enough to ever go into the ladies room during a raid; and Roy was right. There, in the room that would become known as the Mystery Room, patrons would sneak in and fill coffee cups with liquor to bring back to their tables. If ever asked where it came from, the standard response was: “It’s a mystery to me!”

  • Modern Tragedy
    In modern times, Antoine’s walls might tell the story of hurricane Katrina, which caused $14 million worth of damage to the building in 2005. The main four-story building collapsed, the top two floors of the building blew off, and the falling bricks crushed the adjacent building. Nearly a decade later, however, Antoine’s is fully repaired and standing strong, a stalwart symbol of not only the Crescent City’s history, but of its resilience, too.