After six Februarys of camping within 30 miles of the French Quarter, not to mention 15 years of working in walking distance of those 156 blocks, I have come to realize that Kat and I have not dined at some of the classic NOLA restaurants. Emeril’s and Prudhomme’s various locations blew in like hurricanes, only to become passé. We never ate there, but I bought their cookbooks and cranked out many a fine main course. The real classics remain as they were in the prime of Tennessee Williams -Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Tujague’s, and although in the Garden District, don’t forget Commander’s Palace. Kat and I know about Brennan’s – we have had breakfast, lunch, and dinner there, not to mention lunch, martinis, and dinner at Commander’s. I had a business dinner at Antoine’s and had the sense to order Oysters Bienville and Trout Amandine in English, but came away unimpressed. I have never wanted to dine at Galatoire’s for dress code reasons (coat and tie) but they recently relaxed their code for lunch. Still, I hold a grudge: Galatoire’s may feel free to besame el trasero!
This leaves Arnaud’s and Tujague’s wanted but unvisited. Next year we will visit one. Great Spirit willing, in 2021 we will dine at the other. Both have compelling stories, and I would invite you, our small band of highly intelligent readers, to suggest which we should enjoy first.
The first story is Arnaud’s. ‘Count’ Arnaud Casanave was a very successful liquor and wine salesman who bought up nearly a block of adjacent properties in The Quarter, and put in one of the city’s best restaurant kitchens, arguably its very best bar, and more than a dozen dining rooms which encouraged a high degree of secrecy. During Prohibition coffee at Arnaud’s was everyone’s prelude to any meal possibly because The Count found a way to import the whiskey necessary to make Irish Coffee. He viewed Prohibition as a silly obstacle to running a world-class restaurant, and spent some time in the joint for selling first-rate but illegal booze. The chronicles speculate that his was among the best of New Orleans’ speakeasies, and inasmuch as cops, politicians, and average Joes alike enjoy a little taste, we cannot seriously doubt them. He chose his daughter to operate Arnaud’s after his retirement. She was quite a character with an off-the-charts lust for life in all its facets. She became one of the first people on the planet known by just one name: Geraldine (Casanave Wells). She is gone now, but the great restaurant lives on.
Tujague’s was NOLA’s first great restaurant, and like all the greats in anything it clung to its old ways too long. It started out table d’hote and didn’t change for over a hundred years. And with a fixed menu, in a Catholic city, on Fridays in Lent the menu could only include eggs and fish. No beef, pork, or chicken; that’s out of the question. My old friends, Steve of New Orleans, Sherman of Dallas, Sidney of Houston, and Gervys of San Antonio were fiber recycling pioneers from the late 40’s to the late 70’s. Sherman was the dominant personality, while Gervys was the worldly one. Sid had a crooked side, and Steve was our philosopher. So our four working boys wound up their strategy meeting with a Friday night dinner at Tujague’s, circa 1955. The menu offered but two entrées: Trout Meuniere or Eggs Sardou. Gervys, a Presbyterian, objected to those choices, and announced to the group “No! They’ll cook me a steak.” The group laughed, loudly. Sherman reminded Gervys that Catholics (then) don’t eat meat on Fridays: That’s not gonna happen. Gervys replied “I’m the best salesman at this table and I will confer with our waiter. While the rest of you eat fish or eggs, I will enjoy a hunk of beef!” They all laughed again.
Sherman threw down a C-note, handed it to Steve, and announced “There’s a hundred bucks that says No beef for Gervys!” (In 1955 $100 would spend like $900 now.) Gervys found enough 20’s to cover the bet, and then spoke privately with their waiter.
In time the entrées arrived and Gervys crowed about the flavor of his beef. It seems the waiter had a busboy ride his bike a few blocks to The Rib Room and bring back a very rare prime rib. Tujague’s cooks brought it to medium rare, added sides, and the rest is history.
Well, almost history. After dinner, Gervys picked up his check and took the $200 Steve held. He handed the C-note to the waiter. “I am so honored that you served me the meal I wanted. Thank you, vaya con dios … and … keep the change.” And he turned to Sherman, “Kaplan, I told you. I am the best salesman in Texas and Louisiana!”