173-year-old family-run New Orleans restaurant may lose a daughter
Casie Blount grew up at the storied Antoine's Restaurant in the French Quarter and has been groomed to take over, but she's ready to walk away from her beloved home.
She grew up crawling around the dining room of her family's French Quarter restaurant, lost under crisp white tablecloths stamped with fleurs-de-lis and smoke drifting from gentlemen's cigars, a towheaded child nicknamed "The Wildness."
As a girl she had little interest in the family business, which counted presidents (Kennedy, Nixon and both Roosevelts, to name a few) and a pope (John Paul II) among its clientele. Then one day when she was 14, Casie Blount's father dragged her to work, mainly because her mother had to take her little brother to the doctor.
Bored and fussing, Blount finally sat at the front desk. That's when Joan Rivers called.
"I'm leaving the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, and I just have to eat at Antoine's," Rivers said. "Will you be open in an hour?"
Blount didn't miss a beat.
"We will see you in an hour, Ms. Rivers," she said. And when the comedian showed up, Blount carried her purse and got an autograph.
"That was my first day," she said.
It was in keeping with the history and mystique of the 173-year-old Antoine's Restaurant, which bills itself as the longest continuously family-run restaurant in the nation. There was a little bit of glamour, as well as the kind of attention to detail that has seen families dining at Antoine's for generations, often with the same waiter, passing down favorite tables in their wills.
But is Blount, now 22, prepared to inherit the restaurant she has grown up with?
"There's still questions in the back of my mind," she said, "as to whether this is truly what I want."
It all began with Antoine Alciatore, 27, a French chef and emigre who opened an eatery and small hostel with his wife on Rue St. Louis to serve New Orleans gentility in 1840.
About 30 years later his health failed and his wife, Julie, took over, then his son, Jules, who perfected recipes for what would become Antoine's signature dishes: oysters Rockefeller, escargots a la bourguignonne, souffleed potatoes and baked Alaska.
Jules married well, buying up property and expanding behind the building's facade with its lacy black wrought iron balcony, converting a former slave quarters and carriage house until Antoine's boasted 14 dining rooms that seated about 800 people.
Each room was decorated according to a theme — Escargot, Maison Verte, Rex, Proteus, Twelfth Night — many named for the Mardi Gras "krewes" that frequented the deep pile carpets, their kings and queens the de facto aristocracy of New Orleans.
Jules' son, Roy Louis, took over as proprietor in the late 1920s and ran the restaurant until his death in 1972, when Antoine's passed first to his nephews, William Jr. and Roy Sr. ("Big Roy"); then to Roy's son, Roy Jr. ("Little Roy"); William's son, Bernard "Randy" Guste; and eventually his cousin Rick Blount, Casie's father.
Antoine's has a staff of about 160, many related by blood or marriage, especially the fleet of waiters, black and white, from all over the city. All aspiring members of the wait staff spend two to three years in the restaurant's apprentice program before they "make waiter." Clifton "Cliff" Lachney waited tables into his 70s before becoming maitre d'.
Those were the men who watched over Casie, telling her stories about ghosts in the dining rooms, how Antoine's survived Prohibition (hustling hooch into the Mystery Room through the ladies restroom in coffee cups), World War II (closing the Japanese Room for 43 years) and one hurricane after another.
"My family hasn't told me as many stories as the waiters have," she said.
In the New Orleans' caste system, Blount never saw herself as separate from her co-workers. Her father taught her that.
Rick Blount never joined a Mardi Gras krewe, never paid to ride in the parades as part of a Mardi Gras court, and neither did she. Despite her slim figure, flowing blond hair and good looks, Casie Blount was not raised to be a debutante, although her parents could afford to send her to the private Mount Carmel Academy and the University of New Orleans.
"My family's always been the serving class," Rick Blount said. "The way I raised her was not to put on airs, that just because you're from this family, you're no better than anyone else."
He says he has groomed his daughter to succeed him in part because he never was.
In college, Casie majored in business administration with a minor in management and hotel restaurant tourism. At the same time, she kept working at Antoine's, taking reservations, working as a bartender and more recently coordinating banquets and social media.
Her father started at Antoine's about the same age she did, working the front desk, chopping fish in the kitchen, rising to maitre d', then assistant manager while attending Loyola University New Orleans. A big man with a ruddy face, he was a talker who also liked to work with his hands — and longed to run Antoine's.
But he had to bide his time.
Blount worked in real estate and insurance, moved to Texas, eventually returned to New Orleans to run a shipyard. When the restaurant struggled financially, he saw his chance, helped install a new board and eventually took over as chief executive in 2005.
That was about six months before Hurricane Katrina.
The storm didn't do much damage to their building; a wall collapsed, but there was no major flooding or mold. They lost 16,000 bottles of wine from the heat, plus all the food in the freezers.
The real damage was to Antoine's family, the network of staff and customers.
Some died, including Lachney, 71, the maitre d', whose rented clapboard house flooded during the storm, killing him and his disabled 28-year-old son.
In the weeks that followed, some restaurant staff moved away, unsure whether Antoine's would reopen.
"Nobody was home," Rick Blount recalled of the devastated city. "You could cook like crazy, but nobody would come."
Still, he felt he couldn't close: "I didn't believe I had a right to do that." Antoine's reopened the following New Year's, serving about 100 customers.
Standing on the restaurant's balcony recently, Casie and her grandmother, Yvonne Alciatore Blount, gazed across St. Louis Street at tourists dining on the balcony opposite at what used to be a family place called Tortorici.
"They're all split up," her grandmother said of the family-run restaurants that once surrounded them. "Thank goodness that didn't happen to us."
Casie, whose brother, Ricky, is seven years younger than her, smiled uneasily.
It's not that she doesn't want to take over Antoine's. She just thinks that before she does, she has to leave.
She figures she needs to work at another company, maybe in another part of the country. She would be the first woman to run Antoine's since the founder's wife took over in 1874, and she thinks she'll need the authority of outside experience.
Her father jokes about his baby girl running off and falling for some guy in Pittsburgh, but despite his "not so secret hope" that she will succeed him, he agrees.
"I'm going to do to her what Billy Guste did to me: Boot her out into the world and say you've got to figure it out. Because that's where real confidence comes from," he said.
Still, saying goodbye, even for a time, will be difficult for his daughter. In many ways, Antoine's is home.
One day she and waiter Derrick Roberts sat at a table in the dining room, talking after the lunchtime rush. Roberts, 35, wore his waiter's uniform: white shirt, black slacks, vest and tie, his name tag pinned to his lapel just so. She was in a suit and sandals, swollen after a week of watching Mardi Gras parades with the masses.
"She's our socialite," he joked.
Roberts has worked at Antoine's for 15 years, giving Blount "brotherly advice" on everything from boys to getting along with her dad, "Mr. Rick."
Roberts lost everything in Katrina, but moved back to New Orleans to raise a family and work at Antoine's. "This is where my roots are at. I want to make sure my family knows where they're from," he said. "You plant a flower, you want to see it grow."
As for Casie, "she always have a place here. Always," Roberts said, looking across the table at her meaningfully and laughing. "Especially when your family owns the joint!"
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