Is it possible to taste the essence of Galatoire's in one oyster en brochette? Is the spirit of Dooky Chase's, 61 years in the making, found in a single bowl of the gumbo des herbes served every Holy Thursday? Kerri McCaffety would say yes, but she would suggest that you take a look around while you eat.
By virtue of the fact that her new collection of photographs, Etouffee, Mon Amour: The Great Restaurants of New Orleans (Pelican), includes virtually no shots of food, McCaffety implies that there's more than taste to the staying power of a great New Orleans restaurant. The text she weaves around the images places each restaurant in a historical context, not necessarily a culinary one. There's as much print devoted to Casamento's wall tiles as to the oysters shucked there; she gives 10 pages to Arnaud's -- including aerial views of the grand dining room, and the life story of Leon Bertrand Arnaud Cazenave, a notorious drinker with an exhibitionist daughter -- but not a word about what to order.
It's not that McCaffety doesn't eat; she thanks her trainer in the preface "for helping me not gain fifty pounds" during many research dinners. What is she saying about the essence of these restaurants, then, in the brush of white light dusting Clancy's stock-still, foodless wine room, or in the shot of Peristyle's front step that's still tiled with the establishment's long-ago name, "Gentlich" ? "In the same way a great house reflects the soul of an individual or family, public spaces contain hints of our community's rich and complicated past and character," she writes from Greece during an email correspondence. "I really wanted to concentrate on history, ritual, architecture and the ambience that makes the dining experience about much more than food."
The photos themselves are strikingly straightforward, rarely designed or arty, not unlike her expose on New Orleans' saloons, Obituary Cocktail. For Mon Amour, she did most of her work between meals so as not to disrupt the flow of service. McCaffety doesn't yank the life-force from spaces; she prefers to let them breathe. Many of the images, at first glance, look just like the restaurants you've eaten in, only still. Hansen's Sno-Bliz is a cinderblock box; Mosca's is a small room with a low, black ceiling. But keep looking. Getting to know McCaffety's work is something like getting to know certain New Orleans restaurants: you have to let yourself be convinced. It's like taking an outsider to Liuzza's by the Track. "Is this it?" his eyes ask as he scrutinizes the dingy corners ... that is, until he bites into that barbecue shrimp po-boy for the first time. Suddenly the dumpy neighborhood bar is a mecca of transcendent cuisine. He takes notice of the old racetrack paraphernalia on the walls, puts a dollar in the juke box and orders a second frosty Barq's.
The shared sense of privilege that New Orleanians feel when they dine at institutions like Domilise's, Tony Angello's or Bruning's may be no more easily expressed in photographs than in words, but the combination of McCaffety's reverential images and well-researched histories comes close to providing an explanation for such sentiments. Working on the book enhanced her own restaurant outings. "Now, when I go to one of the great old restaurants, I relish not only the food and wine but the experience of participating for a moment in an ongoing history," she says. Her quiet photos often betray the pride she takes in just being there, like the one of bentwood chairs against a crumbling wall in Sbisa's loggia, where she's careful not to offend the aged air of things.
A quick scan of the 72 restaurants -- from Angelo Brocato's to Zachary's, Gabrielle to Rocky & Carlo's -- reveals that McCaffety's great restaurants of New Orleans are largely the great neighborhood restaurants of New Orleans. (Lack of space left many by the wayside -- Joey K's, for example). Is there a difference? As McCaffety points out, "In a way, all of New Orleans has a neighborhood feel. A lot of the great restaurants here, from Upperline to Jack Dempsey's, have that comfortable, familiar style."
Indeed a restaurant like Galatoire's, no longer considered a neighborhood joint, still caters to a vast community of local diners, and no one would challenge a man in Gretna for claiming Mandich as his favorite neighborhood spot. Most regulars of Antoine's, Arnaud's, and Central Grocery don't live in the French Quarter (unlike, perhaps, their ancestors), but few would feel more at home than when they're digging into pommes de terre soufflees, shrimp Arnaud or a muffaletta. The neighborhood in such cases is measured in loaves of French bread or Sazeracs poured, not blocks.
And so what about the food? "It is a given that if the food is bad, a place does not become a great, old establishment," says McCaffety. "But a lot more than food goes into the recipe." This may explain why Galatoire's doesn't do take-out.