- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Galatoire's restaurant, a French Quarter institution of fine dining, is in the middle of an all-out food fight.
It has received more than 120 letters of protest from loyal patrons, some of whom once dined there weekly. The angriest are boycotting the place. They say Galatoire's managers are ruining the 97-year-old restaurant.
The 19th-century Bourbon Street building was renovated. A new dining room opened. Hand-chipped ice gave way to machine-made cubes. A waiter was fired.
Minor changes? Not to these diners.
"Something drastic is afoot, a renovation not only of the physical features of the classic old Creole eatery, but a renovation of its very soul," W. Kenneth Holditch, a retired University of New Orleans literature professor, said in a letter of protest.
Patrons say the changes are galling because the restaurant has remained true to its roots for so long. It debuted in 1905, founded by Jean Galatoire, a French immigrant. It stands as a civilized reminder that Bourbon Street was named after French kings, not American whiskey.
Galatoire's fans appreciate the dress code (jackets required for dinner), the lamb chops bearnaise ($28) and the sauteed poisson with crabmeat Yvonne ($26). They like the tiled floors, gleaming brass fixtures and tuxedoed waiters.
"The mise en scene is as good as it gets in New Orleans," said John Stinson, an antiques dealer who takes clients to Galatoire's several times a year. "The drinks are stiff; you're never hurried. The best dinners I've ever had in my life I had at Galatoire's."
Galatoire's developed customers loyal enough to pay someone else to stand in line sometimes all day to guarantee a table and get around the restaurant's refusal to take reservations in its first-floor dining room.
A key to the restaurant's success has long been a staff of expert career waiters, some of whose fathers also worked there. Some regulars never look at the menu, relying on their waiter to pick appetizers, entrees and wines. Until recently, in fact, there was no wine list, only a waiter's suggestions. Waiters also mixed the cocktails.
"The waiter always knew what you wanted and how to make it," Mr. Holditch said.
The protest letters started coming after the firing April 27 of Gilberto Eyzaguirre, a waiter for 23 years who was popular with customers but had twice been accused of sexual harassment.
Mr. Holditch and other letter writers, including a former judge, doctors, lawyers and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, praised Mr. Eyzaguirre's wit, taste and skill. Some have said they won't go back unless he is rehired.
"I urge you to reinstate Gilbert post haste and stop the radical, devastating tide of change," Mr. Holditch wrote.
Mr. Eyzaguirre was traveling and unavailable for comment. Melvin Rodrigue, Galatoire's general manager, would not discuss Mr. Eyzaguirre's case.
Mr. Rodrigue has become the main target for critics of changes at Galatoire's. He was hired five years ago, the first time the family-dominated board of directors selected a non-Galatoire to run the restaurant.
When some longtime patrons noticed changes after his hiring, they blamed Mr. Rodrigue. He declined to address their complaints directly.
"I'm very appreciative of how passionate people are about our restaurant," he said. "They hold our traditions dearly, and we appreciate that."
The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a three-page article about the dispute. In some circles, Galatoire's and Mr. Eyzaguirre's firing have become topic No. 1. Others say the issue has been overblown.
"It's a tempest in a martini glass," said Marcelle Saussy, who eats at Galatoire's on special occasions. "I think it's crazy for them to say they'll never go back to Galatoire's."

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