A Long, Lingering Lunch at the End of the Universe
I put Littlebit on a plane to Baltimore to spend New Year’s Eve with some friends from college. So, with no plans, Mrs. M said to me, “We ought to go to New Orleans.” It was short notice and you can’t tell who is locked down these days so we stayed put. This isn’t a lament about travel restrictions, this is about lunch – those long, lingering affairs that we lost this year.
There is something really satisfying about hosting one: playing with the grill, the forest of empty wine bottles, the talk, the laughing. You can pull together a big crowd for one of those. Well, you used to be able to. Although, there is something really convenient to the long lingering lunch out: more intimate, with nothing to screw up before hand or clean afterward. I knew what table Mrs. M was eye-balling in New Orleans for lunch because I was thinking the same thing.
Several years ago, when Littlebit was still in middle-school, we’d packed up after Christmas and headed to New Orleans. My mother’s family is from there, but we weren’t really after the family roots. We were affectively driving six hours each way, and spending three days in the city for one long, lingering lunch. And as I write this, it still doesn’t sound strange to me.
In a society where self-indulgence and self-expression are one in the same, I just wanted Littlebit to know that the place existed. A place where people wear church clothes to eat and treat it with roughly the same reverence – but with cocktails. And that reverence, in the right context, can be a hell of a lot of fun. I needed her to know that there were places where the food doesn’t come in baskets, or in a sack, where the wait staff is professional and that good service does not mean fast.
My father-in-law caught wind of our plans and generously offered to pick up the lunch tab. He did not offer gas money or just any dinner or breakfast at Café du Monde (where incidentally we ate four times in three days). What he offered, and he was specific about it, was to pick up our lunch at Galatoire’s.
It’s admittedly a place at odds with the modern world: it doesn’t so much have dress code as people are simply expected to know. Men and women are properly turned out waiting in line along Bourbon Street for the downstairs dining room doesn’t take reservations. We got our name on the list and went to wait upstairs. I asked the bartender if the child could sit at the bar. “She can sit wherever she wants.” – and I defy you to try that anyplace else in America.
Technology, for all its utility, has a bad habit of improving the wrong thing. Entire industries are devoted to shortening wait time for everything, but they do it at a price – turning a tedious, medium wait into an unbearable short one. The genius of some places is to make you enjoy the wait. No one wants to make a full body massage shorter, and Galatoire’s just may be a massage for the soul. I’m not sure how long we waited in the bar with bloody marys and Shirley Temples with double cherries because I never looked at my watch. It didn’t matter, I didn’t care, and that’s the point.
Like New Orleans, the grand dame of old-line restaurants has gone through some rough spots since Jean Galatoire opened the doors in 1905. There have been middling years where it has simply coasted on its reputation. For the modern world, the old lady had to up her game. An investor group came in and worked a little counterintuitive brilliance: they polished the place up, restored its former glory without appearing to change a thing.
We were seated near Tennessee William’s regular table in the back and were asked who our waiter was. We didn’t have one, but the fellow who showed up was a friendly professional steered me away from my first order (not today) and made his recommendations. We ordered cocktails and appetizers. French bread and butter came. When Littlebit ordered a pork chop, I wasn’t sure that she got it. Who goes to Galatoire’s and orders a pork chop?
Over oysters, a waiter pinged a glass for the attention of the entire restaurant and made an announcement. It was the birthday of the lady at the table next to us – and she’d spent the previous 29 birthdays having lunch at the same table, and might we all wish her a happy birthday? Chain restaurants that send the staff out to terrorize guests on their birthday and annoy everyone else in the room are a cliché. And if the staff at Red Lobster asked me to sing to another customer – even one I was married to – I’d tell them to go to hell. But the staff didn’t lead the sing-along, we did…every one in the room. Anyone not singing looked like an idiot, or worse, a bad sport. It’s like those Halloween parties where the guy too cool to dress like a fool ends up looking like one.
Our food arrived in its glory, even the pork chop. It looked like a khaki steak. And this was the lunch the child needed to know existed. It lasted hours, we made friends with the birthday girl, dessert was sinful. The after-lunch plans were to sit in a comfy chair and remember meal fondly.
As promised, Mrs. M took out her father’s AmEx and charged it to him. Perhaps he was being nice, but he’s a traditionalist – a firm believer in Sunday Supper. More likely, applying a place like Galatoire’s to a young lady about to become a teenager was an overt attempt to keep a kinder world on its feet for just one more generation – and that was something worth funding.
Get well. And bring back the long, lingering lunch.