History on the halfshell: Antoine’s Restaurant and oysters Rockefeller
In 1899, Jules Alciatore, son of the Frenchman who founded Antoine’s Restaurant in 1840 and gave it his name, created an oyster dish with a sauce so rich that he named it after John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil tycoon who was, at that time, the richest man in the world. The sauce, which includes puréed green vegetables and butter, is topped with bread crumbs and baked — and it is delicious, helping oysters Rockefeller become a mouth-watering New Orleans culinary classic and further burnishing Antoine’s reputation as a true Crescent City culinary classic.
Antoine’s stands proud as the granddaddy of New Orleans’ storied restaurant scene, and oysters Rockefeller has become as much a part of its identity as anything else. A staple on Antoine’s menu, it has been imitated by other chefs, and recipes are prevalent in cooking magazines. But because the original, definitive recipe is a closely guarded secret that has been kept within the family, all that food writers and chefs can do is speculate about how to make this classic dish.
- How about an order of escargots à la Rockefeller? That was what Jules Alciatore initially had in mind, but he was forced to abandon that idea when a shortage of French snails led him to consider oysters, which, being local, meant they’d be readily available.
- There is no record that John D. Rockefeller ever visited Antoine’s to enjoy his namesake dish.
- Perhaps the most famous incident involving oysters Rockefeller happened in April 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt lunched at Antoine’s, flanked by Gov. Richard Leche and Mayor Robert Maestri. While the president was enjoying the bivalves, Maestri — hardly the most sparkling conversationalist — asked him, “How ya like dem erstas?” Roosevelt’s response was not recorded, but Maestri’s query has become legendary.
- Two of Antoine’s glitziest guests ever, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, partook of oysters Rockefeller when they dined there on Mardi Gras night in 1950 before heading to the Rex and Comus balls. They also had turtle soup with sherry, a concoction called South African guinea squab à la Windsor, soufflé potatoes, a salad, baked Alaska and café brulôt. Three wines, including Veuve Clicquot Champagne, were served.
- The list of famous people who have dined at Antoine’s is seemingly endless, and many of them have their pictures hanging on the walls at the restaurant. Among the more impressive dignitaries to have eaten there are Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II.
- Although the oysters Rockefeller sauce is green, Antoine’s chefs have insisted spinach is not part of the recipe. In 1986, “Big Secrets” author William Poundstone conducted a laboratory analysis that led him to announce that the primary ingredients are parsley, puréed and strained celery, scallions or chives, olive oil and capers.
- Herbsaint or Pernod may be added, although the original recipe probably used absinthe.
- More than 4 million orders of oysters Rockefeller have been served, according to the restaurant.
- Even more than 175 years after it was found, Antoine’s is still run by fifth-generation members of the family, thus its billing as the country’s oldest family-run restaurant.
- The original Antoine’s operated on St. Louis Street, but about a block from its current location. That changed in 1868, when the popularity of the restaurant prompted a move to bigger quarters down the street, where it has remained ever since.
- The restaurant’s 18 dining rooms each have their own stories. Among the more fascinating: the Mystery Room, which got its name during Prohibition, when people would enter the room through a door in the ladies room and exit with a coffee cup of booze. If they were asked where they got it, the standard reply was, “It’s a mystery to me.”
Oysters Rockefeller has gone mainstream, appearing on myriad menus and in many food-related magazines, as hordes of chefs, in a quest reminiscent of the search for the Holy Grail, have tried to duplicate the winning formula that Jules Alciatore devised in 1899. Many come close, but in a city that values good food almost as much as it values originality, there’s really only one Antoine’s. That much is known even by Bugs Bunny, who, in the 1951 cartoon “French Rarebit,” brags to a French chef of a recipe cooked “à la Antoine.” That prompts the chef to ask, “A la Antoine? You mean the Antoine, of New Orleans?” Bugs’ reply: “I don’t mean Antoine of Flatbush.”