If you had dined at Tujague’s Restaurant anytime between the years 1856 and 2013 you would not have had to think very hard about what to order.
Known as a “Table d’hôte” menu there would be five courses, four of which were pre-determined. The first would be shrimp remoulade, consisting of boiled shrimp with a tangy sauce on top; next would come either gumbo (usually seafood with a crab claw sticking out) or soup (most likely turtle.)
Course three is what really distinguished this old Creole restaurant—the brisket appetizer—a cut of beef breast made tender and juicy by boiling with seasonings. Alongside was a serving of horseradish.
Course four, the entrée, was open to several choices that changed as the years passed, including fish almondine or pork belly sided by cheese grits and fig jam. My favorite was not on the menu but always seemed available. I will reveal it later.
Couse five was a classic bread pudding. If you wanted coffee, bolstered of course with chicory, it was served not in a cup, but a Tujague’s classic glass mug.
There was much that distinguished Tujague’s, which stood at 823 Decatur St., not far from the French Market. Recently the restaurant moved up the street to a new, more spacious spot at 429 Decatur. This will be the third location for Tujague’s, which opened in 1856 at 811 Decatur.
Anyone alive would know Tujague’s for the place it just left; a creaky classic building with a bar that had three incredible claims. It is the nation’s oldest standup bar. It was the home of the Grasshopper cocktail. The mirror behind was shipped from a Parisian bistro in 1856 when it was already over 250 years old. To those credits there is the business itself which trails only Antoine’s in being the city’s second oldest restaurant.
There were lots of quirky items to behold including a shelf with a collection of miniature booze bottles like the types that were once served on airplanes. Nearby was a stairway which contributed much to the restaurant’s creakiness. Upstairs were party rooms which opened to a balcony, from which could be viewed the pageantry of Decatur Street below. The senses could also be piqued by the clopping of the horse drawn carriages, an occasional distant brass band, a muffled ship’s horn, and, on some nights, puffs of river fog.
There was always something to see on Decatur, which could be funky and festive. Characters passed by the glass doors of the downstairs dining room. In another era, a diner might have expected to see a pirate. One time I saw the Easter Bunny riding in a carriage on his big day. Then, too, there was the tourista americanus perhaps in pursuit of the Grasshoppers within.
Food, of course, is the main part of the story and the restaurant flexed its Creole heritage. Here is where I reveal my off-the-menu favorite: Chicken Bonne Femme, a classic French dish for which sautéed chicken breasts are cooked in a pot with potatoes, onions, garlic (lots of garlic) parsley, white wine and whatever else suits the chef. It is a festival of flavors, a culinary destination en route to the bread pudding.
While the Table d’hôte tradition remains, customers can also order individually. Even old restaurants have to bend to modern times. Pity the Creoles. They never had a chance to order Tujague’s BBQ shrimp and grits cooked with Abita Amber beer.