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Dining Under the Rising Sun

Over a century old, Galatoire's, a traditional French bistro-style restaurant, is still owned by the Galatoire family. While jackets are required for men, the restaurant has always maintained a joyous, relaxed atmosphere and presents itself as "a place where time and the outside world pleasantly fade from consciousness."

Almost as famous as Galatoire's food are its waiters, who become like family to customers. Some guests and their families have been served by the same waiter for decades, and the restaurant currently employs two sets of father and son waiters.

"All customers are my favorite," says Imre Szalai, 64, who kissed my hand upon meeting me and left me completely at ease with his heartfelt smile.

Forty-two years ago, Szalai came to the U.S. from Hungary not speaking a word of English, started working at Galatoire's and has never wanted to leave. By now he knows exactly what his customers like, including the "soup du jour" he makes up for a certain guest with a proclivity for vodka and Bombay Sapphire. "Whenever guests ask for you, that's a good feeling," says Szalai.

Creole-Cajun Fusion

Creole food, explains Martin, comes from a blend of French and African influences and evolved when local Creoles started cooking for wealthy French settlers, who desired more butter and cream.

When the Cajun people came down from Canada, they brought the trinity of celery, pepper and onions -- the base of New Orleans gumbos, soups and sauces. Creole and Cajun tastes have blended over the years, and today chefs like Martin experiment with what he terms contemporary Creole, which is lighter than traditional Creole.

If you want heavy creams and butters, the older classical restaurants do those well, says Martin. "[Ralph's is for] people who want the great flavors of our region but want to lighten it up a little."

Still, cautions Martin, messing with certain classic dishes like oysters Rockefeller or grillades and grits is the equivalent of culinary sacrilege.

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