Carnival’s Reigning Restaurant
At their 175th anniversary, Antoine’s history is entwined with that of Mardi Gras
Antoine’s Restaurant celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2015. Since modern Mardi Gras began with the Mistick Krewe of Comus’ first parade in 1857, that means Antoine’s Restaurant had already been open 17 years when that first daytime Carnival parade rolled. In all those years, Antoine’s has remained an integral part of the city’s Carnival celebration.
In a 100th anniversary booklet published in 1940, note is made of a favorite dish of an 1872 Royal visitor:
“The Grand Duke Alexis, brother of the Czar of Russia, regaled himself with Tortue Molle a La Rupinicoscoff, a soft shelled turtle stew prepared from a secret recipe given to Jules Alciatore by a famous Muscovite chef.”
From the beginning, the restaurant and the city’s grand celebration of a pre-Lenten Carnival seemed to suit each other admirably. Founded by Antoine Alciatore, expanded and improved by his son Jules, and still under the able hand of an Alciatore descendant, Rick Blount, Antoine’s consistently serves up the taste and experience New Orleanians love, in just the sort of nostalgic atmosphere required.
The Antoine’s early connection to Carnival was reinforced when the Rex organization’s Carnival Kings’ Club, made up of former monarchs, began meeting there. In April of 1939, the group met in the 1840 Room. In a few years, those meetings would move to The Rex Room.
Antoine’s is located in a cluster of buildings fronting on St. Louis Street. The front entrance opens into the Main Dining Room, which was actually the original restaurant. Inside that room and to the left is the largest dining room, The Annex. A series of small dining rooms are entered from The Annex toward the Bourbon Street side: The Dungeon, The 1840 Room, The Proteus Room and The Escargot Room. Directly behind The Annex and across a hall from The Proteus Room is The Rex Room.
Behind The Rex Room is a small dining room known as The Tabasco Room, named and claimed by the late former Rex, Paul McIlhenny, of the pepper sauce producing family.
Blount explained that McIlhenny put up a sign on the room himself, but as a member of Proteus and former Rex, and as one of the 12 members of the gourmet group for whom the Escargot Room serves as headquarters, McIlhenny could certainly feel at home in most of the dining rooms in that section of the restaurant.
According to Rex archivist Dr. Stephen Hales, the Kings’ Club of ex-Rexes has met annually, but only on one occasion did they meet on Mardi Gras Day: Feb. 13, 1945. “Carnival had been cancelled during the war years, but the past Kings still gathered that year, not to welcome a new King of Carnival into their midst, but rather to honor three who had died that year: Charles H. Hamilton, Leon Irwin Sr. and Dave Hennen Morris.”
In recent years, Rex has claimed the restaurant for the organization’s luncheon on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras. However, that date already had a longstanding tradition as the luncheon for the former Queens of Carnival in The Rex Room. Since the Captain and his Lieutenants had a meeting elsewhere that day, the original organizers invited them by for a toast, another custom that continues.
According to Ashbrook Tullis, a former Queen and current president of the Rex consorts’ group, the organizers, all of whom had reigned, were Dolly Ann Souchon Parker Johnsen, Emmy Lou Dicks Cowand, Henriette Vallon Bland Monrose and Dorothy Clay Vallon. The first luncheon was held in 1952.
Adelaide Wisdom Benjamin, Rex’s Queen in 1953, remembers that her first year as the “baby Queen,” she didn’t have to buy her lunch. The next year, she did: “It was $7, and I had a choice of a filet or pompano.” Then, as now, Antoine’s produced for their dessert baked Alaska emblazoned with a sentiment honoring the “Queens of Carnival.” The annual event has continued in The Rex Room, with the exception of 2006, when Antoine’s was being renovated after Hurricane Katrina.
As Tullis explains, each year the Past Queens honor the new Queen (“the baby Queen”) and also “the most esteemed Queen” (whose reign was earliest of the group). All those present introduce themselves, say who reigned as Rex their year, and say something about the year of their reign. “Then our historian will tell us something about the 50-year Queen and her year,” Tullis says.
Being Queen is an honor. “It’s a great opportunity,” Tullis says. “It’s great fun, but it has nothing to do with who you are as an individual or what you do with you life.”
Rex parade artist Henri Schindler designed a scroll for the Queens that’s now hanging in The Rex Room. The Rex organization supplies the decorations and photographs in the room. Plans are afoot to make adjustments to The Rex Room’s displays during Antoine’s anniversary year. According to a 1950 Antoine’s advertisement, “the walls are lined with cabinets displaying the crowns, scepters and favors of former Carnival rulers.” At one time, a former Rex, Dr. Edmond Souchon, built miniature parade floats that were put on view here.
Souchon had created the tiny Rex floats, complete with tractors, for his children when they had measles and couldn’t go out on Carnival Day. His daughter, Dolly Ann Souchon, later reigned as Queen of Carnival in 1950 and was one of the original organizers of the Queens’ luncheon. Her father’s floats were used as decoration on their early luncheon tables. (The Souchon King’s float was even pictured in a Dixie beer ad titled “Old King Cold.”)
Rex also has Antoine’s as the site for the annual dinner honoring donors to the organization’s Pro Bono Publico Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports community endeavors focusing on the public schools. According to Hales, the annual dinner is hosted by the two most recent Kings of Carnival and is another happy connection between the krewe and the restaurant.
PROTEUS BY THE NUMBERS
While the Rex organization members and families flock to the restaurant on the Wednesday of the week before, the largest Carnival group at Antoine’s now is the Krewe of Proteus at their Monday before Mardi Gras (Lundi Gras) luncheon.
In the past, the biggest crowd of the year at Antoine’s would be for a banquet of the Mid-Winter Sports Association, the Sugar Bowl presenters. Nowadays, the Proteus numbers are higher, ranging about 1,250 according Blount.
Blount, who assumed leadership in 2005, faced head-on and solved Antoine’s most spectacular Mardi Gras crisis: the Proteus lunch of 2003. On the day before Mardi Gras that year, when the Krewe of Proteus took over the restaurant for their annual lunch, an anonymous complaint about the number of guests brought in the New Orleans Fire Department fire prevention bureau. After an inspection, the luncheon resumed with some guests waiting for a second seating, and with fire department personnel detailed as a fire watch.
Afterward, the second floor was ordered closed and restaurant guest numbers were to be limited. Action had to be taken, and, on Blount’s watch, it was.
As Blount says, “We now have all the fire prevention systems the department could ask for. The entire building has a sprinkler system, an alarm system, fire escapes.” And the second floor is now open as well.
The members of the Krewe of Proteus dine in the large Annex room; families and friends are placed elsewhere in the restaurant, and the krewe handles all the location details.
The Krewe of Hermes – whose memorabilia can be found in the Hermes Bar – has a luncheon at Antoine’s on the Friday before Mardi Gras. One of the upstairs dining rooms is named for the Twelfth Night Revelers, a krewe whose ball is held early in the Carnival season. But Antoine’s Carnival involvement doesn’t stop with these krewes. “We do 20 or 30 events,” Blount says. “I’d have to get out the books to be able to name all of them.”
GATHERING OF THE MISTICK KREWE
“Antoine’s is such a piece of New Orleans, it permeates everything,” Blout says. On that memorable occasion in 1950 when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came to Mardi Gras, they had dinner at Antoine’s before they went to watch the Comus parade. After that, they most famously attended the ball at which his bow and her curtsey to local royalty were the sensation of the season.
A final sign of Antoine’s involvement in New Orleans Carnival traditions is the late afternoon meal held there each Mardi Gras by members of the Mistick Krewe of Comus. This oldest Mardi Gras organization last had a street parade with floats in 1991. When the group originally was formed, it took heed of a holiday celebration in Mobile, Alabama. In that tradition, young men took to the streets and raided the stock of a hardware store to add to their merriment. Brandishing rakes and clanging cowbells, they raucously marched along their route, and called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.
And so, on Mardi Gras night, a group of men will emerge from Antoine’s – some wearing white tie and tails, some sporting papier-mâché heads. They will stuff their pockets with doubloons and cups for the onlookers on their route. They will be carrying cowbells and holding rakes, and, to the sound of a marching jazz band, they’ll carouse and march from St. Louis Street to the Canal Street hotel where the Comus Ball is held.
From the door of Antoine’s to the Meeting of the Courts: it’s a well-traveled Carnival route!