New Orleans, that beloved jewel of the Gulf Coast, is easily the most underrated culinary destination in the country. In comparison to its flashier dining counterparts like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, New Orleans flies slightly under the radar. To overlook the city’s food is a mistake indeed; the best way to learn about the rich and storied history of the region is to delve into its cuisine. New Orleans cuisine, commonly categorized as Cajun and Creole cooking, is a tapestry woven by the intertwining of Spanish, African, French, and Native American influences. The culture, cooking techniques and ingredients of these influencers show themselves in the slow, rich flavors for which the region is known.
Don ‘t forget the city is home to a number of famous award-winning chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, John Besh, Susan Spicer and Paul Prudhomme—the man credited with popularizing New Orleans cookery. These chefs and their colleagues were doing farm-to-table, or more appropriately, ‘gulf-to-table’ cooking long before it became trendy. From the deep backwaters of the bayou to raucous Bourbon Street, there are so many restaurants that showcase the best of the Gulf. Grab a fork and your best elastic waist pants and prepare to eat your way around The Big Easy.
Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave.)
The famous eatery, with its distinctive blue- and white-striped façade, has been a career launch pad for many celebrity chefs including jovial television superstar Emeril Lagasse. Current chef and James Beard Award winner Tory McPhail mines the depths of Creole cooking by blending inventive and traditional techniques—all while paying homage to New Orleans’ deep roots. Guests chow down on beautiful plates of food like the shrimp and tasso Henican while grooving to the soulful sounds of a troupe of good-natured in-house musicians at the traditional Sunday jazz brunch. For a truly decadent experience (and, yes, it is an experience), order the “Legacy of Top Chefs” multi-course tasting menu which highlights the best creations from former Commander’s Palace chefs. Wrap up any meal with the famous bread pudding which gets a tableside pour of crème Anglaise.
Mother’s Restaurant (401 Poydras St.)
Be prepared to wait when visiting Mother’s because the line often snakes out of the door and around the corner as hopeful patrons try to snag a table. The restaurant may be known for its baked ham but the menu is full of can’t-miss favorites like po’-boys and the roast beef and debris (pronounced day-bree) sandwich. What exactly is debris? It’s the collected jus from the roasting process that has little bits of tender beef in it; the sandwich gets a healthy slathering of the flavorful liquid which transforms it into something out of this world. If your appetite is yearning for something a tad more substantial, opt for one of the heartier plates like the crawfish étouffée or the filé gumbo. Service can be a little abrupt but patience will be handsomely rewarded with mouth-watering food and one of Mother’s famous paper hats as a souvenir.
The Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal St.)
One word: brunch. One-upping the traditional New Orleans Sunday jazz brunch, this landmark restaurant serves brunch daily—and what an event it is. Pace yourself as you navigate the spacious self-service food bar as the buffet is seemingly endless. The selection of hot and cold dishes can be overwhelming but rest assured there’s no such thing as boring buffet food here. Made-to-order omelet and carving stations, a number of specialty salads, and a huge offering of fresh-baked breads and house made desserts fill the bellies of hungry diners. As if the buffet selection wasn’t enough, a full menu of entrées (think Creole jambalaya and duck à l’orange) are available as well. As the restaurant’s name implies, the open-air courtyard is the perfect place to take in the gorgeous scenery, listen to live music and dine alfresco.
Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St.)
Cajun cuisine is typically centered on the rustic cooking of the indigenous people of the bayou. An old joke states that Creole cooking is about feeding one family with three chickens and Cajun cooking is about feeding three families with one chicken. That, of course, is a reference to the historical financial differences between the two sects and really speaks to the resourcefulness of Cajun folks. Cochon’s menu reads like a list of Cajun greatest hits; tuck into shrimp and tasso ham with charred greens, smoked pork ribs with pickled watermelon or the most famous of Cajun meats—fried alligator served with a piquant chili garlic mayonnaise. Big flavors abound and it is not the place for timid palates; true southern Cajun chow is the focus here.
August (301 Tchoupitoulas St.)
Charismatic celebrity chef and Top Chef judges’ table regular John Besh has an empire of restaurants in the city but French-inspired August is his undisputed crown jewel. This is white tablecloth dining at its finest; the focus is on using local ingredients while providing a vehicle for Besh’s classical European training. The only thing more striking than the menu is the breath-taking beauty of the richly detailed architecture in the restaurant’s three dining rooms. A dinner at August is a lesson in refinement and the kitchen shows a deft hand in dishes like the seafood-studded court bouillon and the slow-cooked, pecan smoked beef with marrow dumplings. August’s menu proves Louisiana born-and-bred John Besh is at his best when he adds innovative twists to classic Creole dishes.
Emeril’s New Orleans (800 Tchoupitoulas St.)
Emeril Lagasse may be the king of the one word catch phrase (“Bam!”) and play the court jester on television, but he’s a serious force to be reckoned with in the culinary world. He has numerous dining ventures around the country but he truly shines at his eponymous Tchoupitoulas Street charming rustic eatery. For over 20 years, Emeril’s has been serving authentic fare kicked up a notch or two with the addition of imaginative ingredients. Start off with the smoky barbecue shrimp and work up to the tamarind glazed pork chop—an ample cut that will satisfy all porcine cravings; cap off the meal with the upside-down whiskey pecan cake with sweet potato ice cream.
Café du Monde (800 Decatur St.)
True foodies usually avoid tourist traps like the plague but if there is one such place that deserves a visit, this iconic café is the one. The 24/7 café serves coffee and beignets only and you haven’t lived until you’ve had a cup of traditional New Orleans coffee and chicory and a fresh-from-the-fryer beignet dredged in powdered sugar. Located in the French Market, this is the original location (though there are several dotted around the city) and is always packed so it’s best to perfectly time your visit and get your beignet fix during off-peak hours or make a late-night run. Be sure to grab plenty of napkins—it’s going to get messy and if your clothes are covered in powdered sugar by the time you’re finished eating, you’ve done something right.
Central Grocery (923 Decatur St.)
This small, old-fashioned Italian-American grocery store offers a pleasant, delicious deviation from traditional New Orleans food. Situated in the center of the bustling French Quarter, the pint-sized store has a big claim to fame: It is the birthplace of the famous muffuletta—a submarine-style sandwich slathered in marinated olive salad and layered with mortadella, salami, ham, mozzarella and provolone. It is a regional delight and was a major culinary contribution from the city’s Italian immigrants. Sidle up to the sandwich counter and order like a pro; the famed sandwiches are available in quarter, half and whole portions.
Drago’s (2 Poydras St.)
Charbroiled oysters are a decidedly unique Louisiana delicacy and no restaurant does them better than Drago’s. Sure, there’s a sundry list of classics on the menu—there are plenty of po’-boys, seafood dishes, gumbos and soups to satisfy those looking for the standards but those glorious oysters are the true highlights. Local Gulf oysters are topped with a blend of grated Italian cheeses and herbs with a heavy-handed drenching of butter and garlic and served on the half-shell; after one taste, restaurant patrons soon draw the conclusion that this is the best way to enjoy an authentic Lou’siana oyster.
Dooky Chase’s (2301 Orleans Ave.)
The name of this restaurant often makes the uninitiated giggle but there’s some serious cooking going in the popular comfort food stronghold. Presidents, politicians and a host of celebrities have dined here. Be forewarned: You will most certainly have to wait in the long sidewalk line before you even cross the threshold at the institution helmed by celebrated culinarian Leah Chase. Be thankful that once you do score a seat you won’t have to make any difficult decisions; there’s a lunch buffet served Tuesday through Saturday so you won’t have the tough task of choosing just one entrée from the menu—you can sample a bit of everything. Friday nights are special as Ms. Chase prepares a unique menu of Creole dishes that will make you forget long lines and wait times.
Restaurant R’evolution (777 Bienville St.)
New Orleans cuisine is so steeped in history and tradition that it’s easy to overlook newcomers on the dining scene, but the recently opened Restaurant R’evolution (housed in the luxurious Royal Sonesta Hotel) is hard to ignore. Helmed by business partners and über chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto, this new kid on the block is already making waves and creating buzz. The focus is on approaching typical Creole and Cajun with a new and creative mindset; ease into the pool of Folse-Tramonto cleverness and try the foie gras biscuits and gravy or the beer-battered crab beignets. Decadence is the name of the game with carefully curated salumi boards, terrines and a lily-gilding selection of caviar. Heartier mains like snapper à la plancha and an indulgent triptych of quail serve as a comprehensive introduction to the revolutionary inner-workings of the minds of the world famous chef duo.
Broussard’s (819 Conti St.)
How does a nearly century old restaurant stay on the public’s radar? Well, Broussard’s allows the menu to do the talking. Inspired by the original owner Joseph Broussard’s formal Parisian culinary training, his namesake restaurant continues to serve a hybrid menu of native Creole fare with distinctive French dishes. The saucy-titled Oysters Menage à Trois present a trio of bivalves topped with Andouille, Gruyère and crab-meat respectively. The overtly French menu relies heavily on the Gulf’s abundant offerings for its seafood heavy dishes but don’t overlook the land options because the wild mushroom dusted ostrich filet is a thing of beauty.
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz (4801 Tchoupitoulas St.)
Get the notion out of your head that snow cones, or sno-balls (or sno-bliz as the treats are called here) as Louisianans call them, are just for kids. In the sweltering subtropical climate of New Orleans, they are an absolute necessity and though sno-ball stands are scattered all over the city, Hansen’s is the unassuming go-to destination for the cool treat. Opened in 1939, the legendary stand is thought to be the oldest of its kind. Fluffy ice and homemade syrup are layered one by one to create the sweet, teeth-chattering goodies. Out of this world flavors like anise, cardamom and ginger-cayenne rival old faithful choices like strawberry, wild cherry and coconut, but the real magic lies in the cream flavors and the cream of nectar sno-bliz reigns supreme as a perennial customer favorite.
Author: Iris M. McCarthy