Around 3 a.m. on a winter evening two years ago, a handful of penniless men hunkered down in blankets, lounging on foldout chairs at the doorstep of a five-star restaurant in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Hours later they were still there, half-awake, still squatting along the sidewalk in front of the famed Galatoire’s. Was the city’s century-old gourmet Creole institution doubling as a soup kitchen? Not quite. “They just hire us to sit here,” one of the raggedy-dressed homeless men told a patron.
For a hundred spot, homeless people continue to get hired to serve as placeholders by their blue-blood betters. The down-and-out are there to assure pole position for the Oysters Rockefeller set at 209 Bourbon Street, where where a downstairs table during Friday lunchtime is as elusive as lassoing a unicorn.
“I know some people who have stood out there for 18 hours before—it’s crazy,” said Nancy Mellon, a New Orleans native who now lives in Florida, told The Daily Beast. “It it a Rolling Stones concert? No, it’s for a table at Galatoire’s.”
Since 1905, the restaurant has drawn famous patrons like the playwright Tennessee Williams (who inserted it into his play A Streetcar Named Desire) breaking bread with esteemed power players in government and wealthy families who plunked down handsome sums to gab and grub for hours on end. Mark Twain said the seafood was as “delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
They all came to feast. But also to see and be seen. And lunch (especially on Friday) on the first floor dining room remains as regal now as it was then. Galatoire’s interior is stuck in time, flush with gilded Parisian gold hues: paddle fans dangling above the high ceilings and mirrored walls.
In terms of dress code, as long as you are going for Sunday’s best and can pay the posh prices you have a chance. “Don’t go there in your tennis shoes or fanny pack,” Mellon said. “It’s definitely a searsucker suit, coat, and a good tie and jewelry kind of place.” Indeed, per Galatoire’s policy, a dress jacket is mandatory.
The restaurant’s “No Reservations” edict was amended in 1999, when it began accepting reservations for the cozier upstairs dining room. The same food is served there, but the ambience is perhaps second-rate. “The tourists go upstairs,” Mellon said.
Fact is, any schmuck can make a reservation and sit upstairs. The real jackpot is to eat and quaff for hours inside the restaurant’s vaunted downstairs dining room, where reservations are outlawed and everybody knows their waiter by his first name.
Thus, the seemingly infinite line outside the seafood mainstay that cropped up and remains Big Easy legend.
When it comes to waiting in line, nobody is special. Even senators have to pull their own weight and wait in line like anybody else. That populist policy played out when one Friday afternoon in the 1980s President Reagan placed a call to reach U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnston—who as it happened was waiting in line like anybody else for a Galatoire’s table. He took the call and then returned back in line.
Mellon keeps returning annually to Galatoire’s. She comes for the trout amandine and the lump crab meat replete with a Sazerac cocktail. And she’s done so since she was a teenager. The same courtesies have extended toward the line placeholders.
“It’s the same people,” Mellon said. “They have developed a relationship with these people over the years.
“You get to know some of the homeless people and I used to see the same people standing in line every holiday.”
For anybody to frown on the practice, Mellon suggests this is a tradition that has given a hand to some who are hard up.
“The people that don’t like it—really what harm is it doing?”
But the jockeying for that Galatoire’s table sometimes can boil hotter than their gumbo. “I’ve seen altercations,” Mellon said. “Just before [Hurricane] Katrina, the homeless people were fighting over who was going to get paid for saving a spot.”
Similar scraps occurred in Pasadena, California, in front of an Apple store where homeless people lined up to fetch the newest iPhone.
But in this case the practice is to pay after the line-standing services are rendered. “You can’t give them money until the table becomes available because they aren’t going to stay there,” Mellon said.
Why the brouhaha over a table? It’s because the experience is worth the price of admission. “If you can get that downstairs stable at lunch, there’s nothing like it,” Scott Frank, a 42-year-old anthropologist who lives in Los Angeles told The Daily Beast after a visit to New Orleans last year.
Frank marveled at the the food, but insists the people-watching is tantamount to sipping the famous turtle soup. “I’m an anthropologist and culturally it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s old Southern aristocracy that you don’t think exists anymore.”
In only a few weeks, the bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras will be overflowing with raging fat-cat locals and hedonistic tourists who flock to the French Quarter to binge on open-carry booze, feast on crawfish, and flash boobs for bead-bragging rights.
And many will try to grab a Galatoire’s table by hiring out what some call “day laborers.” For Frank, he immediately was struck by the tradition but didn’t get the sense the practice was degrading. “I never got the impression that the people involved felt any shame,” he said. “To me, it’s how it is in the South. It’s clearly part of the culture.”
The restaurant has even started an annual charity auction for one of the downstairs tables during Mardi Gras. Bids for the table can fetch thousands—meals not included. That’s for a table and seats!
The restaurant’s president and CEO, Melvin Rodrigue, sent The Daily Beast a statement confirming that The Galatoire Foundation for nine years has “allowed patrons to bid to reserve a table in the restaurants main dining room.”
The auction, Rodrigue writes, has garnered more than $1.1 million in funds “benefitting nearly two dozen local New Orleans organizations, from neighborhood-rebuilding projects and crime prevention to youth programs and entrepreneurship efforts.”
Some of the organizations, like Covenant House, serve the homeless.
But that still doesn’t wash with Biaggio DiGiavanni, a lifelong New Orleans resident and executive director of the homeless shelter Osanam Inn.
His homeless shelter is just five minutes away from Galatoire’s. “I can’t afford a meal there anyway but now I’m going to have to pay thousands just for a table,” he said of the shocking sums people were willing to pay to play.
DiGiavanni said that he is quite aware of some homeless men who have been sought after to keep a few bricks warm overnight. “It’s competitive and the homeless people are aware of this line and they think if they can make a couple quick bucks they will hang around Galatoire’s. Now more people are trying to get those spots.”
Today, Biaggio DiGiavanni says the homeless are not just competing for first place in line with each other, but also cash-strapped college students from nearby colleges who will stand in the line for virtually peanuts. “The students dress nicer and they would introduce themselves as going to Tulane or Loyola University and it could be $20 and they’d say ‘I’d be glad to stand in line for you.’”
He said word traveled. Fast.
“Part of the the thing was all of a sudden more people knew about this,” DiGiavanni said.
According to DiGiavanni, the busiest days are the Friday before Mardi Gras and the Friday before Christmas. “That’s when the line is over a block and a half long,” he said.
That Galatoire’s line, with its high society crowds, now snakes past its new (clothing-optional) neighbor in Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club strip joint just a few doors down.
Despite feeling that many of the homeless he advocates for are being used by the rich, DiGiavanni admits they ultimately walk away with a payday they otherwise wouldn’t. “Here’s a homeless person and a chance to pick up a whole bunch of money just for standing around,” he said. “It gives them something to do.”