NEW ORLEANS - Mention Antoine's Restaurant and what comes to mind?
Maybe it's the famous dishes they created, like Oysters Rockefeller and Eggs Sardou, and the famous puffed soufflé potatoes.
Perhaps you think of Carnival kings and queens, and some of the restaurant's 14 special rooms that celebrate the history of Rex, Proteus and Hermes.
Or perhaps it is photos that grace the walls of the cavernous French Quarter restaurant, spotlighting celebrities who have dined here, from the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope to Tom Cruise and Joan Rivers. That also includes photos U.S. presidents (from FDR to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) and even a Pope – John Paul II, all of whom have been served by members of the restaurant's staff.
For fifth generation president & chief executive officer Rick Blount, another word comes to mind: family. That's because he runs the restaurant founded by his great-great grandfather – Antoine Alciatore.
"It's hard to imagine that 175 years later we're still in business much less still preparing the French creole cuisine largely the same way he did," Blount said Wednesday at an event kicking off the 175th anniversary celebration.
Antoine's, founded in 1840, rightly touts its status as the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in the United States and the oldest business in the city of New Orleans. It is also unique in that it remains owned by the same family that opened it 175 years ago.
Antoine's kicked off its 175th year by unveiling special menus (admittedly a rarity at an old-line restaurant such as this) and a large calendar of events to celebrate its unique status. There will be special dinners, parties, even a Twitter hashtag for Antoine himself - #Antoines175. Blount said that's just one way to excite the next generation about the food and history that make this such a special place.
"I really don't honestly think Antoine's could exist in any other city than New Orleans, which is wonderful for both us and the city," he said, at an event which featured representatives of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Louisiana Restaurant Association.
Blount is a loving caretaker of the business his family started, and shares the "family business" mentality with many of the restaurant's longtime employees (some of whom are multi-generational employees like himself).
At Wednesday's kickoff, Chef Mike Regua, who leads the 165-member staff, joked that he's a newcomer to the restaurant – with "just" 42 years of service. The longest-tenured waiter, Sterling Constant, has worked there 37 years. More than 12 staffers have worked there longer than 25 years.
For the next year, in addition to carrying on a legacy of fine dining and hospitality nearly two centuries in the making, their goal is also to celebrate a special birthday like no other restaurant can.
Among the special events planned: a special exhibition at the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum and special dinners at the James Beard House and Delmonico's Restaurant in New York (another classic restaurant, which invented Eggs Benedict).
In the summer, the restaurant will recreate "Dinner at Antoine's," a feast paying tribute to the 1948 Frances Parkinson Keyes novel of the same name. And in the fall, there will be several public celebrations planned, including a block party, gala and Alciatore family reunion, Blount said.