JJ Townsend


The Black Tourist: NOLA

This is part TWO of my reviews on restaurant in the southeast. This piece was originally published and featured in The Daily Mississippian, The New Orleans Tribune, The Louisiana Weekly, and here

I’m writing about the dazzling, passionate, ruined South, the land of sazerac and second-line, of magnolias and music: charming too in its defiance to keep pace with the painful changing times while marching to the sound of a slightly different drummer. I’m writing about New Orleans.

Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, about 72 miles east of New Orleans, I visited the city about once or twice a year with family. As a little boy walking through the French Quarter I always stared at the horse carriages going by, the black driver, and in the back the man and the woman were usually young and always white — I was always black, and hardly charmed. Though, there is something about this city that brings me back every year. As I grow into manhood, I realize the festive intoxication of carnival has left me undisturbed from the nuances of romanticizing the ‘Old Nouveau South’ that has characterized New Orleans from the rest of the south. But this time was different. I was there to observe, to think, to learn, to listen.

Last week, as I stepped inside 713 rue St. Louis, the self-proclaimed epicenter of the Quarter, with my classmates, I scanned the crowd and gazed at the beautiful, spacious, light-filled main dining room. We were greeted by Chuck Wonycott, the maître d’, who was everything but ordinary. He was the quintessential steward who lingered after taking orders and interrupted you in mid-sentence to make a frivolous remark. He was plump in stature with a thick, old-orthodoxical American accent that I assume, and hope to be, part of his caricature. We were taken to our seat up the stairs to a private dining room known as the Tabasco Room. I would describe the space as if I was describing one of the rooms at the White House — intimate, original wood floors that echo, classic 20th century décor, heavily patterned floral trimmings, and appropriately painted Tabasco Red walls in adulation of its namesake. There too, were French doors leading to a balcony that overlooked the French Quarter. But most notably was a portrait of the restaurant’s patriarch, Antoine Alciatore, staring down at the sole dining table in the room. I willfully chose the center seat directly facing Monsieur Alciatore.

Unfortunately, restaurants seem to be a place for racism to brew. It’s subtle — invisible, audible only for the time it’s there. It dances in the air with the aromas that transpire from the food. I believe the toxic energy goes into the upholstery and finally into the tablecloth. Book shelves groan under the weight of essays and books that have been written about the black experience, because no matter what a black man’s area of writing or interests are, at some point in his life, he will find himself writing or talking about racial issues. Thus, one writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. I typically write about fun things like my thoughts on Mad Men episodes, or my running experiences, social entrepreneurship ideas, and even crisis communication strategies. But today, I’m compelled to write about an incident at Antoine’s Restaurant.

As we took our seats and looked over the menu, we noticed the drink special for brunch was a 25 cent cocktails. Of course, almost everyone ordered the cocktail. Out of everyone that ordered, only the two black faces were asked to show their driver’s license. First, me and two seats down, another black face. Chuck thought I looked like a “14 year old boy,” so like any 22 year old man determined to take advantage of a 25 cent cocktail, I respectfully showed my ID and he preceded. I emphasize the usage of ‘boy’ and ‘man’ because African American males are often misrepresented and over-dramatized as ‘hulk-like’ superhuman creatures that too often lead to our demise—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice. As well, black boys have had the wonderful experience, as put by Pres. Obama, of “Walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.”

Table-side racism is yet another example in which African Americans are stereotyped and subsequently treated poorly in everyday situations. One surveypublished in the Journal of Black Studies, also found that 52.8% of servers reported seeing other servers discriminate against African American customers. Black diners are asked to wait unreasonable amounts of time for a table and even refused service.

Initially this didn't seem like a big deal to my white counterparts— they benevolently chuckled about me being the only one to be ‘carded’. However, they immediately noticed my displeasure and their smiles faded because they had just witnessed subtle racism. A study conducted by San Francisco State University Professor Alvin Alvarez identified everyday racism as,

“a subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently. These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual’s mental health.”

I’m sure Chuck is a stalwart and will be recognized upon his death for his decades of service to the restaurant. I’m also sure that Chuck wouldn't consider himself racist nor claim to perform explicit biases daily. However, in contemporary culture, prejudice is more likely to be revealed implicitly, which forms discriminatory behavior in people who might consciously reject prejudice. A black boy eating at such establishment wasn't conceivable — unless, of course, he was an employee on lunch break — given the Chuck’s behavior within which my black body was viewed as inferior. To Chuck, I was something (not someone) clearly foolish, perhaps monstrous or even fictional. My presence, for him, was a weapon. I was far from the New Orleans gentilly of the 1840s and Antoine’s would certainly not be included in my modern version of the “Negro Traveler’s Green Book”.

I’m not the only black with a wanderlust that tends to eat a lot —

17% of African-Americans take one or more international trips a year, and we spend $48 billion on travel in the United States alone, according to the Mandala Research firm. When you look at per capita income, black’s travel spending is significant.

Many of these blacks will end up at events in New Orleans like the Essence Music Festival, Jazz & Heritage Fest, sporting events, or one of the many Mardi Gras festivities. Any respectable economist will champion that a welcoming and inclusive tourism environment reaps a prosperous local economy. In other words, name an area that refuses to embrace diverse tourism and I’ll show you one too inept to rise to it’s potential.

I have eaten the finest seafood in the New England area, drank wine at some of the nicest restaurants along the French Riviera, and had the most delicious dessert at the Maison Dandoy in Brussels. I’m not saying this to be pompous; but rather to emphasize that as a black traveler, I seek liberation through exploring and am constantly reminded that in other parts of the world, having black skin is an asset not a liability. I also say this to explicate that when a black man travels to the American South to be merely a tourist, no matter how cosmopolitan he may be, he will encounter racism. One would be shocked to experience such abhorrence in a city like New Orleans, the queen city of the Mississippi River, that has become highly regarded at the achievement or the misfortune of the black hand — jazz, art, food, Saints Football, Pelicans Basketball.

In retrospect, I would speak up in the moment and call out Chuck’s behavior for what it was, implicit racism. I’d have a no-holds-barred discussion no matter how uncomfortable or impolite the conversation may be. I refuse to be stuck in the ‘victim’s dilemma’ where I maintain everyone else’s peace while I struggle to determine if I have examined my own experience too closely.

During my formative thought process in writing this review, I questioned myself. I contemplated on the angle I would take. Would I criticize Antoine’s for clinging on to their passé ways? Should I point out the problematic elements of the restaurant? Do I focus on the specific incident I experienced? Or could I remain in my comfort zone and simply critique the cuisine?

Of course, I will critique the food. Simply, it was as repellent as the maître d’. Henceforth, I will gladly exclude Antoine’s from my culinary explorations. Here’s why:

First up on my plate was a nicely simmered, smooth, pumpkin brown soup with legitimate proportion of crayfish. Next up was the “fresh” Louisiana Drum (fried filet) served over cream spinach draped with Béarnaise sauce topped with cheese and bread crumbs. The fish’s taste was unrecognizable partly due to how under-cooked and badly battered it was prepared. The creamed spinach underneath tasted of chilled pulpy cream. Finally, I had a fourth-rate bread pudding for dessert induced with pecans, cinnamon, raisins, and topped with a rum sauce. The pudding seemed to be a few weeks old that had been frozen in time, microwaved, placed on my plate and accessorized with a spoon-size dip of mascarpone cream. Bread pudding, which happens to be my favorite dessert, should be warm, distinguished, homespun, and comforting. This was a miss.

I mean, the food can be praised for historical significance, but it is apparent the cuisine has gone in a downward spiral. For that reason, I’m convinced no one actually visits New Orleans to eat at Antoine’s. Brennans, around the corner, was our first option but they couldn't accommodate our group size at the time. Either Alan Richman’s 2006 sentiment, “It’s [Antoine’s] just another tourist standby,” is valid or perhaps my taste buds were starched before I could even place the crisp white tablecloth on my lap.

Under normal conditions, when I have the pleasure to meet the Chef whose food I’d just eaten, I have several remarks and inquiries about where the food is sourced and how it’s prepared. This time, however, as I was given an impromptu tour of the wine cellar and the back of the house, Chef Regua asked, “How was your food?” Speaking ill of a chef’s food in his own kitchen is just as taboo as a presidential candidate denigrating his home country on a campaign trail overseas. You just don’t do it. So I replied, “Good.” He responded brassily, “Just good?” “Yes,” I replied. And on we went to tour the rest of the kitchen.

James Baldwin poignantly wrote, I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Well, I also love New Orleans more than just about any other city in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Antoine’s, though, will always have a special place in my stomach.