Though certain dishes and many traditions at Galatoire’s Restaurant can seem timeless, the ranks of people responsible for keeping them vital do change. The latest shift is a big one for the French Quarter landmark, bringing in a familiar name from New Orleans cuisine for a much different role. 

Phillip Lopez is the new executive chef for Galatoire's. He will also lead Galatoire's 33 Bar & Steak, the more modern Creole steakhouse attached to the historic restaurant. Lopez is now spending some time getting to know the staff before he officially starts the new job on Sept. 3. 

The move represents a dramatic change for Lopez. Galatoire's, dating to 1905, belongs to the city's old guard, and many of its regulars order the same dishes at each visit. Lopez, meanwhile, made his name in the avant-garde of New Orleans dining, serving dishes no one had seen before.

He was chef and co-owner of Root and Square Root, a pair of restaurants, now closed, that set new standards for modern cuisine in New Orleans, each in head-turning, sometimes provocative ways.

While acknowledging his new post at Galatoire’s is a departure from this earlier calling, Lopez feels these different chapters start from the same inspiration.

“I’ve always had a huge admiration for the culinary legacy of New Orleans,” Lopez said. “Doing what I used to do was about evolving that further, but it always started with having respect for it. Now, to be a steward for what it stands for, that’s a huge honor.”

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At Galatoire's Restaurant, long-time waiter John Fontenot (left) talks to Phillip L. Lopez, the new chef, in the dining room of the French Quarter destination.

Galatoire’s has seen its share of changes in recent years. In 2009, the family-run restaurant was bought by new owners (led by John Georges, also owner of The Advocate). Galatoire’s later expanded and doubled its size by developing Galatoire’s 33 Bar & Steak just next door.

A spinoff in Baton Rouge called Galatoire's Bistro that originally opened in 2005, closed in 2011 and reopened again in 2013, finally closed for good earlier this year.  

Still, the original restaurant at 209 Bourbon St. occupies a hallowed place in New Orleans dining. It is part of a small circuit of historic restaurants, including Antoine's and Arnaud's, that specialize in the city's unique French Creole cuisine, to the tune of shrimp rémoulade, eggs Sardou, chicken Clemenceau and trout meunière.

Popular with tourists, these old line restaurants are sustained by devoted local followings, with allegiances that often flow through family generations. They have developed valued roles in the city's social rituals. 

Galatoire’s famously does not take reservations for its downstairs dining room. For Friday lunch, which can more closely resemble an indoor, upscale block party than a formal meal, people queue up early to put their names on a first-come, first-served list for tables.

Twice a year, around Christmas and Mardi Gras, the restaurant conducts a live auction for access to its Friday lunch tables, giving the money raised to local charity.  

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Long-serving employees, like Billy Fontenot, have become part of the Galatoire's identity.

Changes that elsewhere might seem like routine upgrades can be touchy subjects in this setting. Some regulars still grumble about the restaurant's decision in the 1990s to switch from hand-chopped ice to machine-generated cubes for its drinks. When a popular waiter was fired in 2002 after sexual harassment complaints, his fans mounted a highly publicized, but ultimately unsuccessful, letter-writing campaign to reinstate him. 

As Lopez gets rolling here, he said he will be assessing the raw materials and techniques that go into the traditional dishes, areas where he can make an imprint without changing the menu.

Galatoire’s 33 Bar & Steak, meanwhile, is more open for interpretation, with dishes like tuna crudo and boudin-stuffed quail already in play around the steaks and chops. Wine dinners and other special events in the restaurant also often call for original menus from Galatoire’s chefs.

Galatoire's previous chef, Michael Sichel, departed in June after a seven-year run. Sichel also came to the Galatoire's job after making his name in contemporary fine dining in New Orleans, and he became the face of this highly traditional restaurant.  

Galatoire's conducted a search for its new executive chef. Melvin Rodrigue, the restaurant's president and CEO, said Lopez rose to the top not because of his modernist culinary credentials but because of his mastery of classic technique.  

“When people think about Galatoire’s, what we strive for them to think about is consistency,” said Rodrigue. “This is a big restaurant. It’s important to a lot of people. What we do is important because it’s the foundation of what New Orleans food is. We have a sense of responsibility to protect that.”

Lopez is a New Orleans native who was raised in a military family that moved frequently to posts around the world. He opened his first restaurant, Root, in the Warehouse District in 2011. It deployed a workshop of foodie special effects that included foams, savory cotton candy (spun from foie gras) and even, for one signature dish, cigar smoke (enveloping scallops, served in a cigar box).

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - The Galatoire goute platter combines Creole flavors at Galatoire's Restaurant.

Square Root, which opened in 2014, took his style a step further. It served a lavish chef's tasting menu exclusively, presenting a progression of a dozen or more courses. The restaurant itself was designed around an open demonstration kitchen. Guests didn't reserve a table; they bought tickets for those seats as if attending a show. For a time it was the city's most expensive restaurant.

Lopez and his partners in the Rebel Restaurant Group also developed other concepts, including a downtown deli, and the restaurant and bar for the Troubadour Hotel. These dropped away one by one, until the last, Square Root, served its final meal on New Year's Eve.  

Since then, Lopez had largely dropped off the radar. He said that was by design.

“I spent a lot of time dedicating myself to my restaurants, and it took a toll,” he said. “I wanted to take some time to reconnect with my family and think about who I was as a chef and what I wanted to do. I’ll always be in this business. I love it.”

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Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.