DINING | New Days for a Beloved Old Favorite

A look at how the oldest family-owned restaurant in the country has fared during the pandemic.

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


 

Change comes slowly at Antoine’s, the oldest family-owned restaurant in the nation, which will mark its 181st year of continuous operation this year.

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Lisa Blount, wife of Rick Blount, the current proprietor and CEO, laughs as she recalls an early exchange between her and her then-new husband.

“Almost nine years ago, we were traveling, and I made a dinner reservation for us on Open Table. To my surprise, Rick asked, ‘How did you do that?’” Apparently, Open Table had been pursuing Antoine’s business for quite some time, but Rick Blount believed conforming to an online system just wouldn’t work for them. He told Lisa, “We can’t do that! People call their waiters for a reservation.”

Rick’s grandfather, Roy Alciatore, would have been shocked by that whole conversation. Back in the late 1940s, when Antoine’s had a phone installed in the restaurant, Alciatore was quite dismayed to learn that guests wanted to phone the restaurant for reservations. “People can’t call us!” he proclaimed. “They need to write a letter to make a reservation!” a procedure established by his father, Jules, in the late 1800s. With glee, Lisa Blount recalled that once Open Table was in place at Antoine’s, the guest count increased over 15% in the first six months.

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Sometimes change is not by choice, however, as has been the case with COVID-19. From March 16 through Sept. 25, 2020, the restaurant was closed, the longest period ever in its history. Despite the future’s uncertainty, Rick Blount used that time to complete long-term projects, including adding an elevator and other related infrastructure.

“The elevator was long overdue,” Rick Blount said. “The steep staircase restricted access for many of our guests. Now, the elevator also makes the waiter’s job easier and opens future possibilities for use of our third and fourth floors.”

The shutdown also gave Antoine’s chef, Rich Lee, an opportunity to upgrade and redesign the enormous kitchen.

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“We were able to increase efficiency by more than 25% by moving the hot line closer to the stoves, while adding prep tables closer to the kitchen door,” he said. Now during service Lee serves as expeditor, inspecting every plate before it leaves the kitchen.

The down time also allowed for much culinary exploration. Antoine’s installed their first smoker, allowing for the creation of new dishes like smoked pompano dip. Lee literally dreamed that one up, waking from a sound sleep at 2:30 a.m. with the recipe wholly formed in his head.

“I quickly got up and wrote it down exactly as we’re making it today,” he said. Served with butter crackers and crudité, the new menu item has proved quite popular.

While only 25% of the former front-of-house staff have been able to return to work, within two weeks of reopening last fall, the Blounts found themselves in need of a new manager to guide the team that was left. That’s when A.J. McAlear entered the picture.

With over 30 years of experience in New Orleans’ hospitality industry, McAlear is a familiar face to many. Most recently, he served as sommelier and floor manager at Emeril’s Delmonico, which was closed when he heard of the opening at Antoine’s. McAlear regards his new position as “an unexpected opportunity — a gift that almost fell into my lap.” Interestingly, at the time he applied for the job he had only dined at the historic establishment once.

“Back in 1989, I was included at a birthday celebration for Dan Mosley, thrown by our mutual friend, Brobson Lutz,” he said. “How serendipitous that during my very first shift on the floor at Antoine’s, who walked in the door but Brobson!”

Both in the front and back of the house, life continues on and health safety concerns remain paramount. Following CDC guidelines, Lee instituted a new ritual in his busy kitchen. “We’ve got a 20-minute timer set,” he stated, “and every time the buzzer goes off, we all sing a new little tune. ‘Wash your hands everybody! Everybody wash your hands!’”

Good advice indeed in these difficult times.

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

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