Antoine’s On Our Own Terms

Learning to love New Orleans’s most beloved dowager.
antoines hermes bar

I’ve always wanted to love Antoine’s, the New Orleans restaurant, open since 1840 and famous for, among other dishes, oysters Rockefeller. I’ve always respected Antoine’s for its adherence to tradition and its stiff-as-a-board drinks. (Ditto its well-curated ashtray collection.)

But, truth be told, I’ve never enjoyed Antoine’s.

That’s because, until now, I’ve never felt quite welcome in any of the 15 dining rooms that comprise the grand French Quarter restaurant. My blood is not blue. I’m not a member of a Mardi Gras krewe. More important, I’ve never been able to negotiate the intricacies of the menu, which means that, despite a number of attempts over the past decade, I’ve never passed a pleasant evening at an Antoine’s table.

I’ve tried. Seated in the Mystery Room, I’ve eaten oysters Foch—fried bivalves and pâté, served on toast points and capped with Colbert sauce. Seated in the Maison Verte Room, I’ve tried oysters Rockefeller, which, more than 100 years after its creation, is still a closely guarded recipe (and which, according to sources close to the kitchen, does not, no matter what you’ve heard, rely on spinach).

Then, a couple of weeks back, my wife, Blair, and I cracked the restaurant’s code. We learned how to enjoy Antoine’s, in large part because we abandoned the restaurant and decided to drink next door, at their relatively new Hermes Bar.

The space is lovely: On the far wall is a long, carved-wood bar backed by a gilded mirror. The floor is tiled in an archaic pattern. But Antoine’s trademark pomp is lacking. And so is the circumstance. That’s part of the appeal. (You might argue that too much of the pomp is missing, for you’ll have to ignore the flat-screen TV mounted behind a side mirror, broadcasting ghostly images of ESPN.)

Don Robbins was the bartender on the night we were in the house. He looked just as young as Antoine’s looked old. But he knew how to shake the egg whites in a Ramos Gin Fizz until the resulting gin and orange-flower-water-perfumed concoction was as pleasantly viscous as a milkshake. And he knew how to steer us through the short bar menu.

That’s how Blair came to dip soufflé potatoes in béarnaise sauce while sipping her Fizz. And that’s how I came to sip a perfectly balanced Sazerac, while sampling a three-piece order of oysters Rockefeller, piped with a murky green purée that Blair described—with no small degree of admiration for the flavors at hand—as straight out of the 1970s.

Next time, we plan to take Don’s suggestion and order a po-boy stuffed with oysters Foch. Eventually, we might even work our way back into the refined confines of the restaurant. But for now, we’re happy, on stools, at the bar.

Subscribe to Gourmet