Antoine's, the city’s oldest restaurant, marks a major milestone this year with its 175th anniversary. Through the course of 2015, the restaurant will host events and promotions tied to its long history and deep well of tradition, including special dishes resurrected from its recipe archive and an event paying tribute to the 1947 novel “Dinner at Antoine’s.
While celebrating its past, however, Antoine’s is also using the anniversary to introduce changes to the restaurant’s menu and marketing that are aimed squarely at the future and at its own survival.
Though hardly sweeping on their own, the changes are aligned with an ongoing campaign to make Antoine’s more accessible to more potential customers. It’s an effort that management views as essential for a huge and historic restaurant that embodies the traditional mode of old-line French Creole dining to compete in the rapidly-changing modern culinary scene.
“The most critical issue, the only thing that will keep us open in the next generation, is if we keep Antoine’s relevant to that next generation,” said Rick Blount, president and CEO of the restaurant started by his great, great grandfather Antoine Alciatore in 1840. “If my daughter’s friends don’t think Antoine’s is cool, then it won’t matter what else I do here. It won’t matter if nobody cares. So my goal is to make Antoine’s fun and relevant for the next generation.”
Preserving, and recasting, tradition
This week, Antoine’s rolls out a redesigned menu, featuring a handful of new dishes, with signature drinks and an overall new look intended to be more user-friendly for those not already acquainted with oysters Foch, soufflé potatoes, chicken Rochambeau and other Antoine’s staples.
Presentations on the plate will change too, though not the recipes themselves — many of which harken back to the earliest chapters of French Creole cuisine and some of which were created by Antoine’s chefs.
“The flavor profile and the way we cook the food will remain exactly the same, but the way it looks when it comes out of the kitchen will change,” said Blount.
Beyond its menu revamp, Antoine’s has also pursued a more modern marketing edge. The restaurant brought on a social media manager and adopted the OpenTable online reservation system — a significant shift at a restaurant where regulars often request reservations directly through their accustomed waiters. Executive chef Michael Regua, who has been at Antoine’s for 42 years, is now promoted at appearances as a celebrity chef. And the restaurant hired the New Orleans firm Peter Mayer Advertising, which is coordinating its 175th anniversary promotions (see below for upcoming events).
Any of this would be simply business as usual at most restaurants.
But Antoine’s is treasured by its most ardent regulars for the ways it is unlike most other restaurants. So here the changes have entailed a delicate, sometimes fraught navigation between the touchstones that loyalists expect, the logistics of running a restaurant with a long legacy in the modern era and the onus to attract customers for whom the restaurant is not already a tradition.
For inspiration, Blount looks to the history of the restaurant and his own family tree. Though its reputation may be for steadfast resistance to change, Blount’s read on the history of Antoine’s flows like a series of chapters, each defined by the personality of owners who differed radically from one to the next. But eventually, he said, the culture of the restaurant began to ossify, with management always looking back to how things had been done in the past rather than to how they could be improved.
“The old way of doing things here was to be stuck in time,” Blount said. “The new philosophy ought to look like we’re based in history, but evolving too. Our identity ought to be as the grande dame of French Creole cuisine, and we need to be authentic to that.”
Grand dames face change
The effort comes as change has visited all of the city’s old-line restaurants, long considered unchanging bastions of New Orleans tradition. Most recently, and most dramatically, Brennan’s Restaurant changed hands after a bankruptcy, and the new owners have orchestrated a massive renovation and begun charting a more modern culinary tone. At Tujague’s, established in 1856 and the city’s second-oldest restaurant, next-generation family owners completed a light renovation and a heavy menu redo in 2013, following speculation that the landmark could close. Arnaud’s (est. 1918) has seen some menu updates lately and has burnished a reputation as a craft cocktail destination since the next generation of its own family ownership took the helm in recent years. Broussard’s (est. 1920) has new owners and a new culinary path. And Galatoire’s (est. 1905) has a new ownership group (led by John Georges, who is also publisher of The Advocate), who in 2013 opened a new bar and steakhouse next door to nearly doubling its overall size.
At Antoine’s, the momentum for change has been building for years and has come from within the family ownership. Blount worked at the restaurant during his high school and college years, then pursued his own career in other fields. He rejoined the family business and took over management in 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit. In the years that followed, Blount said, the restaurant was essentially struggling to “get back to normal,” though he soon realized that the old normal would not sustain the restaurant.
“By the time I got to Antoine’s, the problems were systematic and deep,” he said. “We had two computers, but there wasn’t even a network between them. There was no accounting system. We were still using ledgers. The food costs were out of control.”
While working to streamline operations behind the scenes, he also sought ways to introduce the restaurant to more customers. In 2009, one of Antoine’s 15 dining rooms was converted into the Hermes Bar, an upscale saloon with live music and a bar menu. In 2010 came Antoine’s Annex, a counter service café for sandwiches, coffee and gelato.
“We needed to take stock, to take a look at what was working and not working, to decide what’s classic and timeless and what needs to be rethought,” Blount said. “We looked around at what our contemporaries were doing and what our customers cared about.”
Striving to evolve
That assessment goes beyond restaurant operations and dining trends and looks to the way that, over the course of 175 years, Antoine’s history and sense of place have become engrained in the traditions of some local families and institutions, especially Carnival organizations. In fact, some of the changes in store for Antoine’s this year reach back to those roots. The restaurant’s Japanese Room, a banquet-sized hall with a Far Eastern motif, will be redesigned around a Carnival theme, the particulars of which will be announced later this year.
“It’s not the fundamentals of changing the menu, but small things like which table someone dines at on a particular evening that has a huge amount of emotional significance, and that dictates a very cautious approach,” Blount said.
For instance, no one complained when the restaurant replaced costly, custom-made tablecloths with a generic version provided by an outside linen service. But when it swapped out monogrammed dinner plates with plain white plates, Blount immediately got an earful from customers. He’s now in the process of bringing the monogrammed plates back.
“To have customers who care about you and your restaurant to that level is extremely powerful. It’s fabulous. But on the other hand, trying to manage that is extremely difficult,” Blount said. “I don’t think everything is broken but evolution does need to happen. In some ways that’s more difficult, to evolve it rather than to just change it. But I think that’s the appropriate process. The evolution has started and we’re moving at a much greater speed now.”
175th Anniversary Events
Antoine’s Restaurant (713 St. Louis St., 504-581-4422; antoines.com) has events planned throughout 2015 to mark its 175th anniversary. Details are taking shape, but here’s some of what’s ahead:
Antoine’s in New York
‘Dinner at Antoine’s,’ recreated
In early fall, Antoine’s plans to re-create the book release party for the 1947 murder mystery “Dinner at Antoine’s” as a fundraiser for the Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden Museum, the historic proprty where author Francis Parkinson Keyes once lived.
Fall anniversary plans
From Oct. 3-5, the restaurant will host public and private events, a block party and other festivities to officially mark its anniversary.