By William Potts
Under the iridescent glow of Bourbon Street bar signs, a group of men sit slumped over on egg crates. Their hands periodically emerge from winter coats only to light the next cigarette. Spotless windows with the words “Galatoire’s Restaurant” gleam in gold beside them.
They don’t live there and, even though it’s 4 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, they’re not drunk. They’re paid line sitters, hired by intended Galatoire’s guests to secure a table for the popular Friday brunch. The restaurant famously does not accept reservations for this mealtime, which means that for these sitters, their six-hour shift has just begun.
If you show up and start chatting, you’ll quickly be dismissed. But after spending the morning alongside them, as I did that day, they’ll warm up to your questions. I asked one of the men how often he came out here, and his answer was appropriately blunt.
“Whenever I can,” he replied. “The money’s too good not to.”
Since its inception in 1905, Galatoire’s has cemented itself as a city icon. This fine dining establishment delivers French-Creole inspired dishes while staying true to the familial traditions and style of its founder, Jean Galatoire, and his hometown of Pardies, France. One tradition that has stood the test of time is the first-come first-serve policy for the first floor dining area on Fridays.
For many patrons, waiting in line before the break of dawn is a daunting task not worth the loss of sleep. For these entrepreneurial locals, it’s easy money.
Two of the men sit supreme among the rest. Dale Juneau and a man who goes by Bob are veterans to the game, and over the years have amassed a large clientele. Through word of mouth, any new guests looking to join the Friday dining experience often find their way to these two. What once was a one-time gig has turned into a consistent business for them, each with their own team of hired help.
“I called both of those guys but they weren’t available and they didn’t have anyone else because it was St. Patrick’s Day,” Kristy Saunders, a long-time New Orleans resident, said. “They said it was going to be super busy, and that’s why I was desperate to find someone and reached out to Tulane Classifieds.”
Saunders was eager to get a table that Friday. One of her closest friends would soon be moving to Brazil for two years, and she wanted to provide a proper send-off. She had received the numbers of Juneau and Bob through her network of city connections and looked to them first.
After responding to her posting, I found myself joining the ranks of sitters Friday morning. I was an obvious outsider amongst a crowd that knew each other all too well. When I arrived to grab my place at the back of the bunch, a few of the men were bickering like brothers about the Saints. I was the youngest there by 20 years, so I wore my most stoic face and settled in for the long wait ahead.
Two hours later, I was stirred from a half-sleep by a tap on the shoulder. Another line sitter told me the street cleaners were arriving, so we had to move to a new block until they were finished. Huddled with my new cohort, we watched in silence as an army of trucks rolled by. Inch by inch, the debauchery of the previous night was washed away only to make room for a new day of trouble.
For Saunders, the line sitting job seems beneficial to everyone in the process.
“If you need money, or don’t know where your next meal is coming from, this is a great opportunity for you…” Saunders said. “It’s no labor involved at all.”
Others, like Tulane graduate student Jamie Palefsky, are less comfortable with what the system seems to represent.
“It’s interesting that this one establishment that is so old and famous kind of reflects the socioeconomic divide of the city,” Palefsky said. “Some who can’t afford to eat in the restaurant are waiting outside for those who can.”
Back at Galatoire’s, the maitre d’ Arnold Chabaud has arrived and walks down the row with his clipboard. When he gets to me, I state my party’s name and number of guests. Just like that, the job is done.
As I walked down Bourbon St., I looked back towards the restaurant once more. Through the open doors I saw the interior for the first time that morning. Inside, a sea of white tablecloths, polished light fixtures, and brightly colored wallpaper. Outside, those who remained of my new friends sat rosy cheeked, clutching their worn clothes.
Despite their differences, at the end of the day both line sitter and patron will walk away richer. One with money, and one with a brunch memory unlike any other.
“There are brass bands that come through and play, there’s lots of champagne flowing,” Saunders said. “The food is always good, but you don’t go to Galatoire’s for the food. You go for the experience.”