Ask any New Orleanian what the hardest event to gain access to is, and you won’t hear playoff games for the Saints or Jazz Fest’s backstage scene.
Try “Friday Lunch at Galatoire’s” instead.
Yes, Friday Lunch is capitalized in the Crescent City, because it is an event. Most of the big-name restaurants host Friday Lunch, but Galatoire’s does it best. Maybe it’s the buttery escargot or the heavy scent of juniper from all the gin martinis; perhaps it’s the waiters in bow ties, with pristine white napkins draped on their arms. But a Friday Lunch at Galatoire’s has all the trappings of the Titanic, without an iceberg in sight.
It also comes with the caveat that you have to earn a seat. Galatoire’s—open since 1905—has never accepted reservations for the lunch. Not for celebrities and not for presidents. Everyone waits in line, first come, first served.
“Sometime in the 1990s, the lines began to start earlier,” says Melvin Rodrigue, the president and CEO of Galatoire’s. “Pre-pandemic, you’d need to be here by five a.m. to secure a seat. People pay proxies to line up for them, and for a seat at Friday Lunch before Mardi Gras or Christmas? Well, people start lining up on Tuesday.”
Thanks to a pandemic that’s rocked every restaurant from Bourbon Street to Beijing, however, that policy no longer stands. Galatoire’s will make you a Friday Lunch reservation for the first time in 115 years—a momentous change in New Orleans culinary history.
“I didn’t know what to expect my first Friday back during the pandemic,” says Pat Morris, a local lawyer and Galatoire’s regular since 1996. “Two steps in the door, it felt the same; less crowded, but somehow equally loud.”
Morris’s favorites—the soft-shell crab Yvonne and the trout meunière amandine— accompany his bar call: a vodka, dirty on the rocks. “That drink usually shows up without me ordering it,” he says with a laugh. “When you go to Friday Lunch, you have no intention of returning to work. The outside world ceases to exist. You are completely consumed by the atmosphere, by the people…it’s like being on vacation for an afternoon.”
While that Galatoire’s afternoon vacation is now by-demand, it’s not the only surprising restaurant about-face.
“When the pandemic hit, we pivoted in so many ways,” says Nina Compton, the James Beard Award–winning chef-owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. “Compére Lapin is still closed, but, when it came time to reopen Bywater, I told my husband that I wanted to do it slowly. It is not about making money right now, but about easing back in safely, with grace.”
Compton announced that Bywater would serve a single table, per night, for the month of June. The $85, five-course tasting menu sold out in minutes.
“Reservations went live at noon on a Monday and at 11:55 a.m., the phone started ringing nonstop,” she says. “The site crashed. It was insane. It turned out, having a restaurant all to oneself is incredibly appealing during a pandemic. We had very special guests…birthdays, anniversaries, and people with compromised immune systems, who hadn’t left home in months. It felt incredible.” The restaurant has since resumed normal service hours, adding sidewalk dining and a smaller, seasonal menu.
At the Elysian Bar, the restaurant at Hotel Peter & Paul in the Marigny, every evening now feels like a formal party. A giant wedding tent shades the driveway, above wrought-iron tables with misting fans. Chef Alex Harrell sends out summer melon salads with jamón and lamb ribs with coriander and black garlic. Last week, the spot announced a new “Church Brunch,” served inside the property’s spacious, historic sanctuary.
Arnaud’s—another French Quarter cornerstone, since 1918—just announced private-dining reservations for September 12, 19, and 26, a “prelude” to their official reopening, with a special tasting menu, as well as Arnaud’s classics, available.
The famed Commander’s Palace is reopening, too, on September 11 for dining in, and will host dinner seven nights per week and their famous Jazz brunch on the weekends. As a pivot of their own, you can now source dishes such as their muffuletta and the crabmeat ravigote to-go, thanks to a brand-new pickup spot located next door, aptly named Le Petit Bleu.
And at Brennan’s, happy hour is now every hour, Thursday to Sunday, and features deeply discounted, rotating Champagne bottles. A Dom Perignon 2006 will cost you $140 instead of $275, and you can learn to saber: The wine director, Braithe Tidwell, is teaching guests to open Champagne the Napoleon way. “Our courtyard is normally closed from May to October,” she says, “but we put in heavy-duty fans, and I think the sabering keeps that party atmosphere, even at half capacity.”
In a year of plague, that’s certainly worth hoisting a wine sword for.