By Lolis Eric Elie
By the time Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) arrived at Galatoire's in last night's episode, the auction had long ended and the pre-Mardi Gras Friday lunch tables had been won or lost. Judge John A. Gatling (or more likely a campaign contributor) had bought the rights to their table at auction and at said table, the drinks were flowing freely. While our scene focused on the fun being had by the party of Judge Gatling (Tim Reid), there's a back story that contains its own excitement: For more than a century Galatoire's has been the Friday destination for New Orleans ladies and gentlemen who lunch. But since the restaurant has only so many seats in its downstairs dining room, a new New Orleans tradition has evolved to allocate the tables.
Personally, I avoid Galatoire’s on pre-holiday Fridays. It's insane enough on a regular Friday without adding Christmas cheer and Carnival abandon to the well-liquored mix. Lacking an intimate familiarity with this tradition, I sat down with Melvin Rodrigue, the restaurant's chief executive officer to get the 411.
First of all, Fridays are a huge lunch day here because all of the professionals that come in, attorneys, doctors, business owners. Here in New Orleans, the weekend is so important to us, everybody is ready to let their hair down. When they come to Friday lunch here, they've worked all morning; they’ve gotten their affairs in order to close their week out. They usually don't have any intention of going back to work.
We've been here 107 years and all 107 years, the first floor dining room has been dedicated to walk-ins. You can't call me the week in advance and say "Hey, Melvin I'm coming. Reserve me six seats downstairs.” So what happened was people would get here promptly when we opened the doors to make sure they'd get that table. Then over time, the lawyers started sending their clerks in advance. So 11:30 turned in to 11:00 because everyone was trying to make sure they had a table secured. People were getting here before the work day started, 8:00 or 7:00 in the morning. But they couldn't lose their clerks all morning, so ultimately, proxies started happening. People would pay a gardener or whoever to stand in line, particularly the Friday before Christmas and the Friday before Mardi Gras.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, before Katrina hit, people were being paid to stand in line on Tuesday to get a table for Friday. Some of these proxies were making $600, $700, $1,0000. It was just unbelievable -- we made the front page of the Times-Picayune for it, I think twice, because it was just such an amazing story. These 40 tables we have downstairs are such an important part of the community and our customer base is so passionate, they were paying people to stand in line on Tuesday to secure a table for Friday.
After Hurricane Katrina, we decided to make a go of something I had thought about for a long time. We hired Ruthie Winston, the professional auctioneer. In 2006, on a Monday (we're closed on Monday), we brought her in, invited all of our great customers, lubed them up with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Then Ruthie auctioned off the tables and all of the money went to charity. That first auction, we raised about $90,000, around $500 per seat. Just for the table -- it didn’t include food or wine. Now, you show up at 11:30 when we open the door and you are welcome to stay as long as you want. Most people buy the table. They come, spend about three hours, then the tables start turning over.
All of the money goes to charity. The first charity we did was to the Louisiana Restaurant Association. They had a fund where if you were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and you came back to town to work in the restaurant industry, you could turn in your moving receipts. They would pay your expenses up to $1,500. Every year we change the partnerships around. We do two auctions a year, one for seats the Friday before Christmas and one the Friday before Mardi Gras. Since 2006, we’ve raised more than $750,000 for local charities.