Rick Blount’s grandfather may well be turning over in his grave. Blount, the fifth-generation CEO and proprietor of Antoine's in New Orleans, remembers his grandfather being shocked that patrons would deign to use the tacky new-fangled telephone to make a reservation instead of sending in a hand-written note to secure a table.
What he’d think of OpenTable, well one can just imagine.
But it’s exactly those kinds of changes that Blount is deftly trying to broker, maintaining Antoine’s sacred traditions while instituting new ideas – without sending shock waves through the legions of loyal regulars.
The storied Rex Room at Antoine's — Photo courtesy of Antoine's
The jacket-required policy for men at dinner was cast aside post-Katrina. Blount opened the Hermes Bar and Antoine's Annex, a café on Royal Street as more casual options for diners, leaving the main restaurant in all its formal glory.
The oldest continuously operating restaurant in America celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2015. Still run by its founding family, Antoine’s is the birthplace of oysters Rockefeller. Not to mention, Antoine Alciatore – the restaurant’s namesake – is considered the father of Creole cooking!
“It’s too big a story to tell,” says Blount. “It’s really a series of chapters driven by the personalities who led the restaurant.”
But the story starts with Alciatore, his great great grandfather, who opened a modest French eatery and six-room pensione. The legacy continued with his son Jules, a strapping bon vivant who married a wealthy plantation owner’s daughter and used the marital funds to modernize and expand the restaurant’s footprint to close to a city block.
Jules also studied cooking in Paris, and he invented oysters Rockefeller, named for his hero, Standard Oil founder John. D. Rockefeller. Antoine’s became a party place, a place to see and be seen for celebrities and influencers.
Blount’s grandfather Roy was the opposite of his dandy dad, slightly built and serious about running the business. He also is credited with creating eggs Sardou and oysters Foch.
“Everybody brought something different to the table,” says Blount.
Beverage Manager Matthew Ousset in Antoine's famous 165-foot-long cellar — Photo courtesy of Antoine's
When Roy died in 1972, the one thing he didn’t have in place was a secession plan. Roy’s nephews, his son and then a cousin managed the restaurant until 2004. But it didn’t thrive. In 2005, Antoine's needed a new leader, and the shareholders elected Blount, just in time to lead the institution through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Although the restaurant suffered some structural damages, the most devastating loss was 16,000 bottles of wine, plus all the food in the freezers.
Chef Michael Regua, on the job for more than 42 years, oversaw the culinary recovery, while gentle wine guru Matthew Ousset, in Antoine’s service for 33 years, painstakingly rebuilt the hallowed wine list, which now includes some 20,000 bottles in the famous 165-foot-long cellar facing Royal Street.
“I’ve learned a lot,” says Blount, 57. “I came in wanting to make all kinds of changes, but I’ve learned that many of the old ways in place work the best. We will always be a work in progress, with the ladies and gentlemen who work with us, multiple generations of families, our proudest resource. ”
As to who will be Antoine’s next steward, there are six cousins in the running, including Casie, Blount’s 24-year old daughter.
“It’s a tough business, and it takes a lot of strength to run it,” he said. “As long as we keep evolving, I think we can be around for another 175 years.”
Throughout 2015, guests can order a special five-course classic menu that serves up an edible history of French Creole dining, dishes like soufflé potatoes, oysters Rockefeller and seafood gumbo. Pay $75 or $68, depending on your choice of beef filet or pompano Pontchartrain.