NEW ORLEANS – Christmastime for Tyson and Ginny Graham means driving nearly 300 miles south of their Columbus, Miss., home to New Orleans for shopping, holiday concerts and the highlight of their trip – indulging in a grand réveillon dinner.
The elaborate meals, which stem from the old French tradition of eating a lavish meal after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, have become a popular draw for visitors to New Orleans during the holiday season.
In the weeks surrounding Christmas, about 50 restaurants offer four- to five-course meals of pan-roasted oysters, braised pork belly, duck confit, foie gras beignets and other holiday delicacies. The recipes have roots that date back to the beginning of the French city’s nearly 300-year history.
Though some restaurants serve réveillon dinners after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and after midnight fireworks on New Year’s Eve like in the old days, most offer the special menus during regular dinner hours.
“Thank goodness,” Tyson Graham, 71, said with a laugh. “After midnight is a little late for me.”
Graham said since he and his wife of 45 years, Ginny, discovered the city’s réveillon dinners about 15 years ago, they’ve been to New Orleans almost every December.
“It’s been a great way for us to experience all the restaurants we’ve frequented over the years, but we get to have something a little different,” he said.
The way it works: Restaurants offer fixed-price réveillon menus on top of their regular dinner menu starting in the weeks before Christmas and continuing through New Year’s Eve. Réveillon dinner prices can range from $35 to $90 a person depending on the restaurant.
John Magill, a historian and curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection museum and research center in the French Quarter, says réveillon is French for “awakening” and was a term used by early Creoles to describe a meal that followed an evening event.
In the 1700s and 1800s, that could be as simple as beignets and café au lait at the French Market after a night out at the opera.
“You would eat to revive yourself after an evening event,” Magill said. “It didn’t always have to be a big heavy meal.”
Réveillons surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Eve, however, were grand affairs, he said. Families would spend days preparing a menu of comfort foods such as grits and grillades, gumbo, cakes and pastries, and the New Year’s Eve spread would be even more decadent, with oysters, duck and lamb.
The Christmas réveillon would traditionally take place after a full day of fasting for communion at midnight services.
Magill talks about réveillons in the 2009 book he co-wrote called, Christmas in New Orleans, which also touches on the long-held tradition of holiday shopping on streetcar-lined Canal Street, caroling in the French Quarter and worshipping at St. Louis Cathedral.
Richard Stewart, a fifth-generation New Orleanian who is Catholic, says he wasn’t familiar with the old tradition of réveillon until the mid-1980s, when French Quarter restaurant owners began reviving the practice as a way to get more diners during the holidays.
“In December, you were lucky if you got 10 people a night in your restaurant,” said Stewart, co-owner of the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter for 30 years before selling the establishment four years ago.
Stewart became fascinated with the fancy meals and even hosted one for his family in 2009. He said the five-course meal took weeks of research and days of preparation, with a menu that included an oyster soup and daube glace – braised short-ribs chilled to a gel form, then sliced and served with crackers or thin toasted French bread.
Today, Stewart serves on a committee that oversees the city’s réveillon menus to make sure the chefs are using ingredients that would have been used in the early days.
“The idea is to keep it as traditional as possible but leaving some room for creativity with the ingredients,” he said.