Editor's Note: This one gets a little weird. I struggled with whether or not to recommend it, but not because of the food (which recent visit showed marked improvement). Rather because the experience far exceeds the food. Which is why there is a dissertation in place of a standard review. Refunds gladly given. Buckle Up.
Few things are misunderstood in the American dining landscape more than "tapas." Just the name is confusing enough to allow restaurateurs to fool an unsuspecting public. Tapas has come to mean smaller portions served at three-quarters the price of a normal plate. It's a great con if you can get in on it. Next time you split a hamburger or only serve your friends three small shrimp, call it tapas and people will swoon towards you like Hemingway to booze.
I am no authority on tapas, but my idea of tapas is that of a free form experience built mainly around drinking and socializing, and lastly eating. The food component is mostly small snacks delivered here and there, quick bites of something salty or sweet, or savory or bitter. Eaten alone, with strangers, or in the company of friends, tapas describes a style of dining more than the dishes served. Tapas are ordered at a set pace - yours. You choose when to switch from sherry to beer or anchovies to foie gras. There may be a menu, but more than likely you pay it no attention. The bartender or waiter guides you as you order. After a few bites, you move on to a different topic of conversation, drink, or food.
By my definition, Galatoire's, that French-Creole bastion, may provide one of the best examples of a tapas dining experience in America. Now, once you are done guffawing, consider this. First, the line between Spanish and French influence in New Orleans is blurrier than your vision after three Hurricanes. The French Quarter is really Spanish. The Civil Code is either French or Spanish, no one really knows for sure. The Saints were originally called Los Santos, and on and on.
Secondly, Jean Galatoire, the founder of Bourbon Street's classiest address, arrived in America by way of Pardies, French. Pardies, a French town just outside of Pau, is as the crow flies about 156 kilometers from San Sebastian. San Sebastian is likely one of the birthplaces or at least an ardent follower of tapas. The area of Southwest France and Northeast Spain has an independent streak wider that a country mile. Neither area really believes itself to be Spanish or French, but its own unique culture. Sound familiar, New Orleans?
Galatoire's is not the high-end Louis XIV to Careme to Escoffier fancy French dining of reservations made months in advance. Galatoire's is not the place you go to sit in a hushed room while golden trimmed waiters deliver silver domed dishes while reciting French poetry. This is a place with more in common to a cafe or bar, where a cast of characters filters throughout the day to make noisy conversation over a Pernod, a newspaper, and a few bites of something simple.
Now this is not to say the food at Galatoire's is by any means Spanish. Pommes souffle, bernaise, marchand de vin are as French as striking government workers. The trout, pompano, crabmeat, oysters Rockefeller, lamb chops, and thick steaks are the food of a culture blessed with abundance. The menu - there is one - has shortened its official offerings, but a waiter will still deliver to your table just about anything he thinks you should have.
Rather, it is the style of dining at Galatoire's that is uniquely Spanish. This is a meal best undertaken surrounded by the company of four to six friends. Preferably, ones you don't see often enough. Skip the first rush towards lunch. It requires you to get out there entirely too early. Instead head for the second wave around 1:30 or 2:00 pm.
Your first round or two of drinks should be cocktails, something refreshing. A martini, Pimm's cup, or Bloody Mary will do. After two drinks, your table should be ready. The garlic bread, which now arrives along with the regular foot long of Leidenheimer, is a significant and worthwhile upgrade. Crusted with butter and the tinge of garlic, they are perfect with a glass of Champagne, should you be in the mood to celebrate.
Souffle potatoes are hit or miss. At times they arrive plump and airy, greaseless and the color of ancient papyrus. But there is likely one, two, or more on the plate which are soggy, dark brown, and deflated. Same goes for the fried eggplant. Finish the Champagne with the Galatoire's Goute, the classiest seafood platter in town. A delicious mound of piquant shrimp remoulade shares top billing with a scoop of pearly crabmeat maison and oysters en brochette. That final offering suffers the same fate as the other fried items. It will either be fantastic or disappointing. All of the food up till now has been served to the table, which encourages sharing, passing and more conversation which leads to more drinks.
After a few more rounds of drinks and idle chatter, move on to Oysters Rockefeller and turtle soup. Time wise, you should be about two hours in to your meal or maybe thirty minutes. Time passes both slowly and fast in Galatoire's. Fish with crabmeat has been a perennial strong point at Galatoire's. Egg dishes and steaks are the sleepers. Steaks are particularly well-done, crusty on the exterior, soft on the inside, draped in your sauce of choice. For me, that often means a few bottles of deep, dark Napa cab. On a recent visit, the Pope upstaged us all with a filet topped with foie gras.
Skip dessert, which has always been a weak point. If you really want a dessert, beg for a hot fudge sundae or ask politely for a Grand Marnier, neat. Contrary to popular belief, Galatoire's is not some restaurant designed only for the elite, rather it is a simple neighborhood cafe serving drinks, bites of food, and a place to socialize. All be it in coat after five and all day Sunday.
Galatoire's is tapas. In the same way it took a Russian composer (Prokofiev) to translate the story of an Englishman (Shakespeare) about Italian lovers (Romeo and Juliet) into music, so it took a Frenchmen in New Orleans to fully execute the genius of Spanish tapas in America. And he accomplished this 112 years ago.
Galatoire's: Is It Worth It? Yes, but not if you are looking for a traditional 3 course meal in an hour.
209 Bourbon St.