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Great River Road Trips: Last in a series

Lisa Blount often receives love letters, usually written by people she doesn’t know.

Husband Rick Blount is the fifth-generation proprietor at Antoine’s, the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, and the notes are memories of first dates, last suppers, weddings, anniversaries, reunions.

Lisa, as project manager for the business, talks about turning the customer correspondence into a book, but first she’d need to do a lot of sifting and winnowing. Lots of letters come to Antoine’s because it’s a classic, and genteel — meant for special occasions.

Antoine’s is billed as the nation’s oldest family-run restaurant. It opened in 1840 as a pensione — a boarding house whose rates included meals, one block from where the family of founder Antoine Alciatore works today.

The Italian immigrant was 18 years old and wanted his name associated with fine food. Son Jules was sent to France to study cooking and would later invent Oysters Rockefeller, whose rich sauce inspired a link in name to wealthy financier John Rockefeller.

The sauce recipe remains secret. “Many try to imitate it,” Lisa Blount says. Pernod (the anise-scented liquor) is one ingredient, but spinach isn’t part of the equation.

Hundreds of celebrities have left behind autographed photos, framed and filling Antoine’s walls. The restaurant’s 14 artifact-filled dining rooms are a mix of old and new, thanks to $14 million in damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The banquet-sized Japanese Room, designed as it is named, was closed 43 years, starting right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the seven-foot-long Wine Cellar are 25,000 bottles. In the Tabasco Room is just one table, for two to seven diners.

A French-Creole fusion of flavors mixes old with new in cuisine, and saucy seafood entrees prevail.

Start the night with Ecrevisses Cardinal, crawfish tails in a sauce of tomato and white wine. End it with old-school-cool Baked Alaska and steamy Café Brulot Diabolique, a coffeebrandy-cinnamon-clove cocktail prepared tableside, with fire. antiones.com

Also in the neighborhood

See the elaborate work of producing parade floats at Mardi Gras World, where creative and outrageous designs go from idea to reality for 40-plus parades every year. Add props, costumes and a taste of king cake, a Louisiana specialty. Tickets are $22. mardigrasworld.com

At the National World War II Museum, five pavilions on six acres tell the story of the war that changed the world. Warbird aircraft and wartime artifacts, stories of soldiers and civilians explain the reasons, process and impact of these battles. Admission is $28. nationalww2museum.org

Check out cemetery tours, voodoo relics and psychic readings at New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. It is near St. Louis Cemetery, where actor Nicolas Cage bought a pyramid-shaped tomb, not far from where voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried. voodoomuseum.com

Steamboat Natchez since 1975 has glided along the shoreline as jazz music and steamproduced calliope music entertain. It’s a rare steam-powered sternwheeler. Add a meal or time a cruise with sunset. Tickets start at $34. steamboatnatchez.com

The French Quarter, especially on and near Bourbon Street, defines New Orleans as one of the most colorful, lively and free-spirited cities in the nation. The Big Easy stays awake 24/7 and celebrates its tricentennial this year: neworleans.com, gonola.com.

Ten near-river award winners

The James Beard Foundation recognizes the culinary world’s best, and at least 20 award winners are at work in New Orleans. That includes three America’s Classics Award winners, a lifetime achievement honor for culinarians who stay true to regional traditions.

Secret-recipe fried chicken is a favorite at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, whose founder started the business in her home. Now a great-granddaughter keeps the tradition alive. williemaesnola.com

Lines form at no-fuss Hansen’s Sno-Bliz for finely shaved snowballs (that’s snow cones to Northerners) with unusual syrup flavors, such as cream of nectar. Condensed milk is a popular add-on. snobliz.com

Dong Phuong, a Vietnamese bakery in East New Orleans, is known for its breads, especially unusual mini loaves of French bread, used in Banh Mi sandwiches (and po’ boy sandwiches elsewhere). dpbakeshop.com

America’s Classics winners are on or near other parts of the Mississippi River too. For example:

Italian specialties involve seafood, take at least 50 minutes to prepare and arrive on familystyle platters at Mosca’s, a dinner-only restaurant in Westwego, La. moscasrestaurant.com

On a rural bluff near the river is the oldest-operating Iowa restaurant, Breitbach’s Country Dining, Balltown, where a fifth generation serves long-simmering soups, deepfried catfish, sugar-crust pies. breitbachscountrydining.com

All-beef tamales sell by the dozen at Doe’s Eat Place, whose original home is Greenville, Miss., where it began as a grocery store that happened to serve simple meals. Now Doe’s is a franchise with more than one dozen southern locations. doeseatplace.com

Timing is everything at Jones Bar-B-Q, Marianna, Ark., where the sale of slow-roasted pork barbecue (topped with cole slaw, on Wonder Bread) begins at 7 a.m. and continues until meat runs out. Nothing else is on the menu at this humble, 14-seat barbecue joint, which food historians say is among the nation’s oldest that is owned by a black family. No website.

A hot-fudge sundae arrives with its own little container of sauce at Lagomarcino’s, Moline, Ill., an old-time soda fountain and confectionary whose founder created Green River pop in the 1920s. lagomarcinos.com

Al’s Breakfast, Minneapolis, is considered the city’s narrowest restaurant. The Dinkeytown diner is 10 feet wide, with room to seat 14. Closing time is 1 p.m. Expect a tad of gourmet flair, be it sweet-potato latkes or sweet-corn pancakes. alsbreakfastmpls.com

Dine on nalesnyky (meat-stuffed crepes), varenyky (stuffed dumplings), piroshky (filled buns) and other Ukrainian specialties at Kramarczuk’s, Minneapolis. Items for the deli, bakery, sausage kitchen and restaurant are made by hand. kramarczuks.com

The Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway, follows the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles and through 10 states. Work to identify, promote and preserve the Mississippi River’s natural and cultural assets began 80 years ago. Download an app to help pinpoint the route and its highlights at experiencemississippiriver.com.

Weekly “Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002. These syndicated articles, archived at www.roadstraveled.com, are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

Your column feedback and ideas are welcome. Write to Midwest Features, PO Box 259623, Madison, WI 53725 or mary@roadstraveled.com.

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