It's the rare visitor who doesn't come to New Orleans to eat. In this town, people are passionate about the details of a great meal, whether it's the hue of the roux, the size of the Gulf shrimp or the dark crawfish goodness emanating from a perfect etoufee. Here, chefs were rock stars way before The Food Network put locals like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse on the national map. Mecca for foodies, New Orleans is a bubbling feast of traditional Creole French fare and creative chefs using Gulf seafood and local ingredients in classic and innovative ways. Crackling with an effusive gumbo of culinary history and cocktail culture, New Orleans is arguably the best place to eat in America.
So, where to start? There are some seminal bites you can’t live without. Beignets and chicory-laced café au lait at Café DuMonde. Trout Amandine at Galatoire’s, the epitome of a Creole Palace, staffed by waiters who have tended the same families for generations. And of course oysters, best enjoyed from a seat at the scarred marble oyster bar at Acme Oyster House, where you can watch the pros in action and the fried oyster po'boys, dressed (with the works) are just about perfect. In a town where getting a bad meal is an anomaly, these 10 fantastic restaurants should be on everybody's bucket list.
Creatively modern just begins to describe chef Phillip Lopez's approach to cooking at Root, the 70-seat Warehouse District space done up with exposed wooden beams and industrial lighting. Lopez, who studied molecular gastronomy in Spain, makes food that is fun to eat, surprising and experimental. Try the daily menage à foie, fried oysters encrusted in smoked cornmeal and topped Manchego foam and Cohiba smoked scallops made with chorizo dust and served in a cigar box. There's a great happy hour 5-7 pm featuring $3 martinis and specially priced nibbles like braised lamb meatballs and sweet tea fried wings. Prepare to be wowed. (504-252-9480)
The turquoise and white awning is the first sign of good taste at this flagship of the Brennan family, housed in a gorgeous Victorian mansion in the Garden District since 1880. Sporting a post-Katrina redo that combines whimsy with elegance, Commanders is a dressy spot, no shorts or t-shirts and jackets are preferred - but not required - for gents at dinner. The kitchen, where Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme started and chef Tory McPhail now presides, delivers haute Creole specialties including oysters with absinthe and skillet seared gulf fish. From your first sip of a Sazerac to your last crumb of bread pudding soufflé, you will enjoy Brennan family hospitality at its best. Ask about chef Tory's new line of bottled sauces, all natural and full of flavor, they're a great way to take home a taste of New Orleans. (504-899-8221)
Generations come and go, but Galatoire's on Bourbon Street, with its classic menu of trout meuniere, shrimp remoulade and stuffed eggplant, will never change. Now taking reservations - a plus if you're planning your dining spots ahead of time - Galatoire's is about as New Orleans as it gets. Locals are not only loyal to this bastion of Creole dining, they're loyal to their waiter, and if they're old enough, to their waiter's son. In April 2013, Galatoire's added a steakhouse to its family of restaurants with the opening of Galatoire's 33 Bar & Steak next door to the original Galatoire's Restaurant on Bourbon St. If you only choose one French-Creole restaurant, make it this one. (504-525-2021)
A native of Southern Louisiana, chef John Besh creates extraordinary Creole-influenced French cuisine in an atmospheric 19th century French building aglow with chandeliers, French doors and sexy red leather seating. THe winner of just about every culinary award out there, Besh is a C.I.A. grad who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe before coming back home. His menu always delights, with creative fare like his B.L.T.--buster crabs, lettuce and heirloom tomatoes and Louisiana rabbit with morels served with sage grits. The award winning boutique wine list is a stunner. A lovely special occasion spot worth gussying up for and if you're feeling flush, get the chef's tasting with paired wine. Expensive, but over the top. (504-299-9777)
Located on the quieter end of the French Quarter, this family/locally owned Creole Italian is a real gem. Follow your nose - you can smell the garlic a half-block away - for an inevitable seat in the piano bar for well-shaken cocktails while you wait for a table - limited reservations are taken, but in general it's first come, first served. Eventually you'll be show through the charming warren of dining rooms to your table, and then the fun begins. Settle in for a treat, from house made pasta topped with soft shell crab in a divine cream sauce to an assertive osso buco and the wonderful duck St. Phillip lacquered with a raspberry-pancetta demi-glace. Service is exceptional, as is the bread pudding du jour and the ricotta cheesecake. (504-529-8811)
Compere Lapin (pronounced kom-pare la-pan) means "brother rabbit," a reference to a mischievous rabbit featured in the Caribbean folk tales chef Nina Compton read as a kid. Drawing on the story's themes of exploration and play, Compton designed a restaurant that features a mix of inventive flavors drawn from the New Orleans table, Compton's Caribbean roots, her French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine.
After even just a few bites, it's not hard to conjure Compere Lapin's island roots. Small plates, which pair insanely well with the bold drinks program designed by beverage director Ricky Gomez, include the likes of conch croquettes with pickled pineapple tartar sauce and roasted jerk corn with a citrus aioli. Flavors are exotic, tropical and tinged with just the right amount of heat. ((504) 599-2119)
Emeril created quite a splash when he took over this longstanding institution, poured millions into a sophisticated renovation and transformed a tired space into one of the city's swankiest eateries. Portions are mammoth – try the 20-ounce Delmonico, the sauteed rainbow trout with rock shrimp and ultra-rich crab meat imperial. Delmonico's white-table cloth elegance provides the perfect backdrop to the Creole-accented steakhouse menu. The restaurant offers a fantastic wine program and one of the best martinis in town. Ride the St. Charles Streetcar to dinner for an even more memorable experience. Once here, it is an easy walk to the French Quarter. (504-525-4937)
Swine is fine at Cochon, where chef Stephen Stryjewski (partnered here with chef Donald Link) pays homage to the old style Cajun Boucherie with the hand crafting of boudin, andouille, smoked bacon, and head cheese. Working with locally sourced pork, fresh produce and seafood, COchon focuses on the authentic flavors of Cajun country.
Set in the rustic, yet contemporary interior of a renovated New Orleans warehouse, Cochon is the place to sip a flight of Moonshine, then tuck into a succulent crawfish pie and roasted gulf fish "fisherman" style, along with comfort foods including spoon bread with okra and tomatoes, roasted oysters and suckling pig. Try the chocolate peanut butter pie for dessert. (504-588-2123)
Peche Seafood Grill
The giant fish hanging in Donald Link's new industrial-chic Warehouse District eatery says it all. This place is all about local and line-caught seafood, most of it cooked on an epic wood fire grill. Chef/partner Ryan Prewitt (last of HerbSaint) delivers intriguing dishes like spicy Asian-flavored capellini with crab and chilies, beer battered fish sticks and one of the best grilled whole redfish you'll ever eat in your life, a beauty flavored with a lemony, herbaceous salsa verde. Whole fish is a specialty, and you can't go wrong with whatever is the special catch of the day. Reserve early and often, this place is hot. (504-522-1744)
Who would have thunk it? The hottest table in New Orleans isn't at one of the storied Creole palaces, traditional havens of buttery trout amandine and oysters served every which way. Instead, the toughest reservation to snag – hint hint make that call early - is at Shaya, a modern Israeli eatery where hummas reigns supreme and avocado toast keeps company with smoky whitefish and zippy bits of pink peppercorns.
Shaya, uptown on Magazine in what used to Dominique's, is a personal Valentine to the Israeli table from Alon Shaya, whose accolades include Best Chef South by the James Beard Foundation in 2015. The chef, a longtime chef/partner to local celebrity chef John Besh, brought a similarly fresh perspective to Italian cuisine to restaurants Domenica and Pizza Domenica. At Shaya, he casts a flavorful gaze to his native Israel, creating umami combinations with the likes of pureed chickpeas, tahini, Aleppo pepper and fragrant olive oil.
The uptown restaurant is austere in its design, a bit of a disconnect from the earthiness of the dishes, but stylish nonetheless. On the beverage side, there's a fine list of interesting cocktails and offbeat wines by the glass.
A few noteworthy nibbles include the fried cauliflower, crispy and dusted with curry, the ground lamb ragu peppered with pine nuts and any of the mezze tapas-style dishes from the chef's homeland. Try not to fill up on the pillowy rounds of fresh-baked pita that arrive hot out of the oven, but beware, it will be almost impossible, the bread is that good. If you want to try something different, sample the kibbeh, a mix of spiced beef and lamb tartare served with a crusty flatbread for dipping. And for dessert, something simply exotic, the malabi, an ethereal vanilla custard that tastes like a walk through a tropical garden. (504-891-4213)
About Beth D'Addono
Beth D'Addono is a food and travel writer obsessed with flavor, exploring cultures, street music and the city of New Orleans.
After spending years flying in regularly to research stories, attend festivals and eat the city's amazing cuisine, this New Orleanian at heart moved to the Crescent City full time in 2012.
Beth writes about New Orleans and other destinations for outlets including USAToday, AAA Traveler, Wells Fargo Conversations, Philadelphia Daily News, Taste, Fodor's and others.
Her new book The Hunt New Orleans is a carefully curated insider's guide to indie shops and restaurants around town.
Read more about Beth D'Addono here.
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