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Lunch at Galatoire’s

I received an e-mail last week from a friend.

He was headed to New Orleans for a few days and wondered what waiter to request at Galatoire’s

I admitted that it has been too long since I’ve dined in my favorite restaurant. But I suggested that he ask for Richard or John. If neither is working, I seem to remember that Billy, Mark and Tony are all good.

There are some unwritten rules to dining at Galatoire’s

First, you must eat downstairs in the room that looks out onto Bourbon Street (and eating at Galatoire’s is the only reason to venture onto Bourbon. Otherwise, stick to the shops, restaurants and bars on Chartres, Royal, Burgundy and Dauphine when in the Quarter). They don’t take reservations for the downstairs dining room. You can make reservations to dine upstairs, but that’s a Siberia reserved from unwitting tourists. So you might want to come at an unusual hour if you hate long waits. I tend to arrive about 3 p.m. for a late lunch that sometimes stretches into the dinner hour.

Second, know that Friday is the day when all the locals show up. Lunch truly does last all afternoon. On Friday, you won’t even get a table downstairs at 3 p.m. unless you’re lucky.

Third, don’t ask for a menu. Ask the waiter to be your guide. If he tells you the pompano or the soft-shell crabs are good on that day, accept his advice.

People in New Orleans don’t like change. There thus was a great stir in the city a year ago this month when it was announced that the descendents of founder Jean Galatoire planned to sell a controlling interest in the restaurant. Businessman Todd Trosclair was the first majority purchaser. He then turned around and sold the controlling interest in the restaurant to John Georges, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New Orleans earlier this year.

Fortunately, not much appears to have changed in the restaurant itself.

Jean Galatoire hailed from the village of Pardies in France. According to the restaurant’s website: “Unlike most modern restaurants, Galatoire’s cuisine is not the creation of a singular superstar chef but rather of a family that has carefully safeguarded its traditions of impeccable cuisine, service and ambiance. Consistently providing this exquisite experience is itself an art form that Galatoire’s steadfastly maintains.

“Galatoire’s traditions have been preserved with little change through the decades. There has, however, been a slight modification of the restaurant’s once impenetrable policy of no reservations. Known for years by its characteristic line snaking down Bourbon Street, patrons would wait for hours just to get a table — especially on Fridays.”

The folks at Galatoire’s love to tell the story of the Friday when President Reagan placed a call to Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, who was waiting in the line outside. The senator went in, took the call and then returned to his place in line.

“Today, Galatoire’s does accept reservations for second-floor dining,” the website reports. “The first-floor policy remains first come, first served at Galatoire’s. Senator or not.”

As noted, don’t bother if you must sit upstairs. The “show” is on the ground floor.

Here’s how Shane Mitchell described it in a piece for Saveur: “No one hands me a menu. It’s just not done on Fridays. Friday lunch at Galatoire’s … starts in the morning, with bourbon milk punch at the upstairs bar. One floor below, a congenial crush of locals clutch cocktails in the foyer. They wait until manager Melvin Rodrigue, in pressed powder-blue seersucker, opens the doors to the dining room of the 105-year-old institution. It’s 11:30 a.m.

“He guides the crowd to their regular tables. The gentlemen hang their Panama hats on brass hooks beneath forest-green wallpaper flocked with fleurs-de-lis, the revived symbol of the city’s fortitude since Hurricane Katrina. A table of ladies in dime-store tiaras and serious diamonds toss confetti into the air. Jacketed waiters bear large platters as they weave between bentwood chairs.

“One of them, Peter or Homer or John or Shannon, recites the specials and brings, without anyone seeming to have asked, orders of the twice-fried souffle potatoes, puffed like starchy zeppelins, with a dose of tarragon-scented bearnaise. Next, a side of fried eggplant sticks.”

Mitchell goes on to describe Friday lunch at Galatoire’s as a “genteel riot.”

That’s as good a description as any.

Please note that a jacket is required for men after 5 p.m. I wouldn’t think of going into Galatoire’s at any time without a jacket. Of course, my friends claim that I even go to the beach wearing a blue blazer.

The restaurant is closed on Mondays. Sunday hours are noon until 10 p.m. The hours are 11:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. the other five days of the week.

Why do I so love Galatoire’s?

For the same reasons that Brett Anderson of The Times-Picayune loves the place: “There was no speckled trout, the souffle potatoes were tepid, the bearnaise congealed and my favorite waiter had ‘parted ways’ with the restaurant a couple of weeks prior. There are better ways to begin a meal at Galatoire’s and, in fact, I have experienced worse. (Pity anyone with the temerity to ask, 50 minutes after having been told a table would be ready in 25, how much longer her party should expect to wait.)

“So why do I persist in loving Galatoire’s? Because even the saltiest waiters can dial up wit at a moment’s notice. Because the sauteed grouper in lemon butter upheld the kitchen’s unspoken maxim that Gulf fish can sing even when it’s wearing little more than its birthday suit. Because of the creme caramel, the Sazeracs, the crabmeat maison and the ridiculous number of people who celebrate birthdays here on any given night. Because only at Galatoire’s do four hours seem to pass more quickly than a river boat.

“The restaurant is a living, breathing metaphor for New Orleans’ uneasy attitude toward self-improvement. Yes, some people actually think the improved wine list is a bad thing. Yes, the restaurant could stand to be more user friendly. But would it still be Galatoire’s if it were?”

John Georges, who also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2007 (coming in third behind Bobby Jindal and Walter Boasso), is the son of a Greek immigrant. His father put him to work sweeping the warehouse of the family business. Georges Enterprises began as a wholesale grocery company known as the Imperial Trading Co. in 1916. Georges began making truck deliveries for the business when he was just 15. He graduated from Tulane in 1983 and expanded what’s now known as Georges Enterprises into offshore marine services, video and arcade entertainment and investments.

As a native of New Orleans, he hopefully understands what Galatoire’s and its traditions mean to the city.

Several family members — Leon Galatoire, Michele Galatoire, Duane Galatoire Attaway, Ashley Attaway and Craighten Attaway — are still involved with the partnership that owns the restaurant.

If you’re in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, you simply must have a meal there.

Make sure you’re hungry.

Now, may I make suggestions:

— Split a couple of appetizers with your dining companions. I would suggest the souffle potatoes and the crabmeat maison.

— Next, have a cup of the turtle soup au sherry.

— Follow that with the Godchaux salad or the avocado and crabmeat salad.

— As noted, let the waiter be your guide for the entree but lean toward the aforementioned pompano, the soft-shell crabs or the black drum.

— Split several sides with your dining companions. I would suggest potatoes julienne, broiled tomatoes and Rockefeller spinach.

— Finish with the chocolate pot du creme and some of that good New Orleans coffee.

Finally, send me an e-mail or text message from the restaurant so I can tell you how envious I am.

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