It has all the makings of a classic guys’ night out — the tight-knit group of colleagues who faithfully set aside time during a high-pressure work week to share a meal and relax together off the clock.
And so what if their gatherings tend to turn heads and ignite a giddy buzz across the evening’s dining destination? They’re used to it. After all, they’re the New Orleans Saints.
Each week, Saints players gather by position group or unit for after-hours dinner outings at New Orleans restaurants. It’s a custom shared by many NFL teams, and for the Saints it has developed over the years into a cherished ritual, one that players call an integral, if unscripted, part of team development and cohesion.
“It builds camaraderie, and it takes the relationship beyond just the playing field,” said quarterback Drew Brees. “You’re all going out to dinner and hanging out, where it’s nothing about football, it’s about everything else.”
Different groups of players approach the dinners in different ways, and their own unwritten rules and conventions have evolved. For instance, special teams players visit the sushi restaurant Rock-n-Sake together on most Fridays. At the end of the meal they each toss a credit card into a hat and let luck of the draw determine who pays.
“When we go out, it’s just a group of friends who enjoy good food and don’t mind a little credit card roulette,” said punter Thomas Morstead.
Meanwhile, Brees and the offensive line normally dine together on Thursday, with a different player choosing the restaurant for these “O-line dinners” each week, following a progression from the youngest player to the oldest. The player who picks the spot also picks up the tab for the group.
“So you see, as the season goes along, the type of restaurants we’re going to changes based on who’s picking them,” said Brees.
Younger players are more inclined to pick casual restaurants or familiar chain brands while the veterans tend to call in heavy hitters. They’ve dined everywhere from Superior Seafood and the brewpub Gordon Biersch to Commander’s Palace, Restaurant R’Evolution, Doris Metropolitan and GW Fins. Steakhouses are always in heavy rotation across the board.
“We’ve done all the Emeril (Lagasse) restaurants, all the (Donald) Link restaurants, all the (John) Besh restaurants,” said Brees. “We go everywhere, and when new places open we go check them out too.”
Anyone tasked with picking a restaurant can relate to some of the players’ criteria for selecting their weekly destinations. They crave variety and creativity from the kitchen, but as offensive tackle Zach Strief explained, the menu has to have something for everyone. Other considerations are a little more particular.
“I want to go to a place that understands when I say we need a table for 12, it’s really more like for 15,” said Strief, who is listed on the Saints roster at 6 feet, 7 inches and 320 pounds. “We’ve definitely been to places where we just don’t all fit at the table.”
The Saints defense spreads their restaurant picks around, too, though they have their own way of doing things.
“We do it by committee,” said linebacker Curtis Lofton.
That committee includes himself and a few other seasoned defensive players, like linebacker David Hawthorn and cornerback Keenan Lewis. They choose the restaurant each week, and assign a different player to pay the tab, with each member of the defense getting a turn.
Private dining rooms are preferable. While the players don’t necessarily eschew meeting fans on these restaurant outings, Lofton underscored that the dinners aren’t publicity events.
“It’s for us. It’s to get away and relax away from football,” Lofton said. “It’s all about chemistry together, getting together in a different environment.”
The player dinners are not official team meals, though they certainly have the team’s blessing.
“It says you have a team that cares about each other,” head coach Sean Payton said of the tradition. “We play in a city with potentially a lot of distractions, so I like that (the dinners) give guys a way to stick together.”
Restaurateurs relish these player visits, and do their best to accommodate the high-profile diners. This is not always easy, however.
“The challenging thing is keeping your composure up, keeping everyone professional, making sure the staff doesn’t start tweeting it out to everyone,” said Johnny Blancher, proprietor of Ye Olde College Inn, where Brees and his O-line crew visited in October.
“You try to treat them like everyone else, because that’s what they want,” Blancher said. “But, at the same time, these guys are special to this community. They walk in and they’re larger than life, literally. People start stuttering, they’re dropping things.”
Desi Vega’s two restaurants, Mr. John’s Steakhouse and Desi Vega Steakhouse, are regular picks for Saints player dinners. Vega said the key is giving the athletes their space and letting dinners unfold at their own pace.
“You have to treat them with respect, you can’t climb around them and make too much of a big deal out of it. You have to let the guys eat,” Vega said.
Players may linger for hours, he said, watching Thursday night’s NFL game on TVs in the private dining rooms. They tend to fill their table with a parade of appetizers, they’ll order steaks cut extra thick and some polish off two steaks on their own.
“They’re not in there drinking much, but I just tell my people to keep pushing the water and keep these guys hydrated,” Vega said. “And let me tell you, they can kill some steak.”
The price of unity
Extravagant dinners, and their outsized bills, are the stuff of legend in the NFL. They also occasionally spark controversy, especially “rookie dinners” that see new players stuck with gargantuan restaurant tabs as a form of hazing. Dez Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys’ star receiver, reportedly picked up a $55,000 steakhouse bill when he was a rookie in 2010, which he recalled ruefully in an interview earlier this year.
But Saints players say their weekly dinners are a different experience altogether.
“There are no boundaries with what you order or what we spend. If you want a glass of wine or a bottle, that’s fine,” said Strief. “But what’s good with us is it’s not one of those things you hear about where the goal is to screw someone with a big bill.”
Streif said the typical bill of an O-line dinner, with 10 to 13 men, falls between $800 and $1,000, though some get closer to $2,000. Each player takes a turn paying for his teammates during the season, which fits the overall idea of teambuilding at the table.
“It levels the playing field. At dinner, it’s not about starters and backups and rookies. It’s about linemen and quarterbacks getting together,” he said. “I was a backup for five years, and when you’re not the guy being picked to start it does make you feel different. But at dinner that’s not the case. It’s a chance to make everyone feel united and part of the same team around that table.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.