Some cities you need an excuse to visit. New Orleans is not one of them.
A lively, welcoming place at all times, the Big Easy blossoms into a nonstop polyglot block party during Mardi Gras, a legal state holiday since 1875. After the stray feathers, beads, and beer suds are rinsed away — which happens with shocking, Cinderella-like precision at midnight on Tuesday — the spring season offers the best conditions for visitors looking to experience the city’s unmistakable flavors and genuine hospitality.
In the dozen years since the devastating Katrina and Rita hurricanes, New Orleans has evolved into a vibrant, many-layered restaurant scene with modern-minded and ethnic spots taking their place alongside the glorious time-traveling classics. At the same time, the number of restaurants has multiplied dramatically, from roughly 900 in 2005 to 1,400 now. Restaurateurs are taking risks – and reaping rewards – in neighborhoods beyond the well-trod French Quarter, although that area is still home to some of the city’s best bets. While Creole and Cajun flavors remain the city’s calling card, there are strong Vietnamese, Latin American, and Italian influences, too.
Here are the six essential reservations you need, plus a bonus list of casual eats, bars, and more.
New Orleans has plenty of places doing great things with oysters, crawfish, and shrimp. But none like the Warehouse District’s Pêche, a restaurant specializing in rustic, live-fire cooking that takes its style cues from Uruguay and Spain as much as Louisiana’s coast and bayous. Local oysters are reliably briny, and snapper tartar with coconut and lime, served with slices of sweet potato and crisped rice, is soft and crunchy, creamy and sharp. Intensely flavored shrimp bisque is a can’t-miss dish, as is the fire-grilled whole fish of the day. Pêche is part of the Link Restaurant Group of chef-proprietor Donald Link, whose empire includes Herbsaint, Cochon, and Cochon Butcher.
Alon Shaya, in partnership with prolific restaurateur John Besh, delivers highly perfected versions of staples from his native Israel at Shaya, winner of a James Beard Award for best new restaurant. In the warm, white-brick space, Shaya mans the pizza oven, pulling out light, puffy pita breads that perfume the room. To accompany it are crispy and fluffy falafel and creamy hummus with such toppings as king trumpet mushrooms, lamb ragu, and curried cauliflower. You’ll want to try everything on the menu, and we recommend doing so.
Kill two birds (or a delicious four-footed animal) with one stone at Toups South, a meat-intensive Central City restaurant that shares space with the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. It’s the second outpost from Isaac and Amanda Toups, whose Toups Meatery delivers a menu packed with Cajun-styled pork, chicken, duck, and venison. At Toups South, start with a basket of the renowned cracklings and the biscuits with crab fat butter, then follow with the BBQ beef deckle (the rib-eye cap), accompanied by baked beans. The fanciful cocktail list includes the rum and rye-infused port city and the Toups julep, made with sweet tea syrup.
A 70-year-old French Quarter institution in a candy-pink 18th-century building, Brennan’s has eight elegantly draped dining rooms that still feel fresh and relevant, thanks to a $20 million renovation in 2014 and the efforts of innovative, yet tradition-minded, chef Slade Rushing. Don’t be put off by the aggressive “Breakfast at Brennan’s” marketing that begins on arrival at Louis Armstrong International Airport and follows you into the city: It’s a must-have reservation. For those so inclined, the brandy milk punch is a relaxing way to start the day. Go traditional with dark mahogany filé gumbo, studded with shrimp and oysters, or nouvelle with egg yolk carpaccio. The Benedict variation eggs Hussarde, with coffee-cured bacon, hits all the right notes, too.
It’s hard to believe a restaurant that’s been around for 27 years can dominate a city’s dining scene. But Emeril Lagasse’s namesake spot in the Warehouse District continues to do so, firing on all cylinders. The wood-ceilinged space includes a handsome main dining room, a handful of semi-private rooms, and a vast wine room befitting the well-chosen bottle list. Lagasse and executive chef David Slater stitch multiple ethnic influences together, in such dishes as Hunan-style duck wings with toasted peanuts and Creole-marinated fried calamari with muffaletta-style olive salad. Grab extra napkins for the New Orleans barbecued shrimp, served with buttery, garlicky barbecue sauce.
In service since 1893, no New Orleans dining room is more iconic than Commander’s Palace, a bright blue-and-white-striped Victorian mansion in the Uptown Garden District. By adhering to a few simple rules — treat every guest as a VIP, for one — Commander’s has retained its best-loved restaurant status through changing consumer tastes and the ravages of natural disasters. Chef Tory McPhail presides over a vast menu of such haute Creole and Cajun dishes as a rich turtle soup finished with aged Sherry and Creole-spiced chicken with a crab boil. The impressive wine list is big on Champagne, cabernet, and Burgundy, and at lunchtime, a range of martinis are available for a quarter apiece, with a limit of three per guest — though a waiter advised, “You may be entitled to a fourth, dependent on good behavior.”
The best of the rest
If you’re looking for great pastry, a well-mixed drink in an actual glass, or a few more excellent lunches and dinners, add the following places to your New Orleans itinerary.
Bayou Bar at the Pontchartrain Hotel. Fresh off a two-year, $15 million renovation, this NOLA institution has an array of drinking and dining options. At the clubby Bayou Bar, John Besh’s menu of roasted oysters, burgers, and seafood gumbo complements an extensive whiskey and beer program. For drinks before dinner at the jackets-required Caribbean Room, ascend to the elegant rooftop Hot Tin Bar, styled like a 1940s loft, with sweeping city views.
Sucré. This mini-chain of chic, glossy patisseries specializes in French-style pastries, gelati, handmade chocolates, and café-type drinks. The three hot chocolate variations — milk, dark, and white — are quite good. The menu also nods to New Orleans flavors, including king cake gelato and Sazerac macaroons.
Le Croissant d’Or. Café du Monde is the hands-down classic breakfast stop in the French Quarter, but if you’re in the mood for something savory, or simply more Gallic, walk to the charming, white-tiled former Italian bakery nearby and enjoy a croissant-and-egg sandwich or the gloriously sticky kouign amann.
Killer Poboys. What began as a pop-up at the back of the dive bar Erin Rose, Killer Poboys is now also a free-standing sandwich shop a few blocks away in the heart of the French Quarter. Married chefs Camille Boudreaux and April Bellow offer a short roster of modern poboy sandwiches on Vietnamese bread, with such fillings as Louisiana rum-glazed pork belly or beer-braised beef with pickled peppers.
August. Chef Besh has a dozen or so New Orleans restaurants to his name. The best — perhaps of any in the city — is his fine-dining flagship. In a 19th-century French Creole building with crystal chandeliers, August offers immaculate dishes such as Parmesan-crusted drum with green garlic fumet. The $27, three-course Friday lunch is the best fine-dining deal in town.
Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. Staffed by friendly, white-jacketed professionals whose skill behind the antique bar is unmatched, Arnaud’s delivers the quintessential New Orleans bar experience. There are well made modern drinks, but go for a classic: the French 75 or a Sazerac.
Balise. The second restaurant by chef Justin Devillier — who first won acclaim for La Petite Grocery — Balise has the grown-up happy hour you need. Weekdays from 4:30 to 7:00 p.m., sit at the bar and enjoy raw or roasted oysters, Brussels sprouts with peanut romesco, and a cocktail from Maison Premiere alum Jesse Carr. Then stay for dinner.
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