Reveling with the Christmas Reveillon

New Orleans, LA – It's increasingly common for cities to host community-wide dining specials to entice visitors and draw locals out to restaurants during seasonal tourism lulls. Typically structured as limited-time prix fixe dinner deals, these promotions are often called Restaurant Week, and both winter and summer editions have cropped up. We have something like this in New Orleans too, though, as usual, things are a bit different here.

In New Orleans, the current dining deal is called reveillon, and though this has been re-imagined for modern lifestyles, it's nonetheless based on deep French Creole tradition, that wellspring for so much of our culinary heritage.

Derived from the French word for "awakening," reveillon originally was a meal served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Catholic families would return from the late-night service famished and then set upon a feast waiting for them at home. A typical early reveillon menu might have looked very much like breakfast, with egg dishes, breads and puddings, but it could also include turtle soup, oysters and grillades and game birds. Naturally, these rich repasts were accompanied by wines, cordials and other fortified drinks. The dinners could last for many hours, and by some accounts even until dawn.

Through the 19th century, American holiday conventions like Christmas trees and shopping frenzies began gradually to establish themselves in New Orleans and they supplanted many of the Creole traditions. By the turn of the century, reveillon dinners could be found only in the most traditional homes. They grew more and more scarce as the years rolled on, reaching near cultural extinction.

In the 1990s, however, the reveillon tradition was reawakened, and along the way transformed, by the nonprofit organization French Quarter Festivals. This is the same group that produces the French Quarter Festival itself in April and the Satchmo Summer Festival in August. To help spur some local business when tourism and convention bookings trail off at the holiday season, the group approached local restaurants with an idea for a re-engineered reveillon.

Now, what began as a Creole family tradition in the home is an annual dining extravaganza available for anyone to join at more than 30 local restaurants. These establishments offer four-course or five-course meals at a set price throughout December. The restaurants offering reveillon dinners this season range from old line Creole to contemporary, though across the board their reveillon selections feature many holiday-themed dishes.

Peruse the menus posted on the French Quarter Festivals Web site and you'll find roasted goose, squab or quail at some restaurants, cranberry sauces and pecan crusts, and desserts like eggnog creme brulee, gingerbread and the Creole Christmas classic, the bouche de noel, the French Yule log cake. Some menus even include a winter warmer from the bar.

Some New Orleanians look upon reveillon dinners as an opportunity to sample restaurants they may not often visit, and others have made them a holiday tradition, gathering parties of family and friends for festive meals around a big table in a local restaurant. The format of reveillon is very different from the early Creole days, but the feelings of togetherness and holiday indulgence must be much the same.

Click here to find menus and details for reveillon dinners this season.