New Orleans isn't a hotbed of Cajun cuisine - you need to head out of the city into the towns of Southwestern Louisiana for that, places like Bayou Lafourche, Lafayette, New Iberia, Lake Charles and Thibodeaux. But there are some really good chefs with Cajun roots here in town, as well as fried food emporiums where you can find boudin balls and alligator sausage.
If you're confused about the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine, for which New Orleans is world famous, think country, rustic fare vs. citified French-inspired gastronomy. "Cajun cuisine is rustic French country cooking, while Creole food boasts an air of sophistication, ever-evolving and heavily influenced by European cultures,” explained Tommy DiGiovanni, executive chef at Arnaud’s Restaurant, a bastion of Creole tradition. Chef Emeril Lagasse put it this way, "Cajuns use ingredients from the land, including fish, shellfish, ducks, frogs and nutria. But of course, there's crossover, mostly seen in dishes with rice such as gumbo and jambalaya."
At the restaurants on this list, you can savor modern Cajun fare as well as housemade sausages and pickles, fried rabbit and chicken and dishes like chicken and andouille gumbo, Cajun jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, blackened Louisiana drum and frogs legs treated to Buffalo-style basting.
Located in a historic 19th-century building, this restaurant's interior features exposed brick walls, checkered tablecloths, wrought iron fixtures, the epitome of old New Orleans. Feeding New Orleanians for more than a century, the Bon Ton specializes in traditional Cajun cooking, highlighted by specialties such as chicken fried steak, crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, catfish, turtle soup and soft-shell crab. Any food goes well with their refreshing house drink, the Rum Ramsey. The service hearkens back to a warmer, softer time when dining was unhurried and gracious. Lunch is always a fine idea, but you'll need to reserve in advance for dinner.
Before there was Emeril, there was Paul Prudhomme, who is credited with introducing the world to Louisiana's Cajun flavors in the 1980s. His 200-seat restaurant (named for his wife, K) has three kitchens and a bakery that serves as a testament to his popularity, and it remains a gold standard for Creole-style cooking. The dinner menu changes daily based on the availability of ingredients, but you might find turtle soup, shrimp and corn maque choux, crawfish etoufee, blackened Louisiana drum and of course bread pudding for dessert. Don't be put off by all the tourists - this is good food at a reasonable price in the heart of the French Quarter.
Nestled in the Warehouse District, chef/owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski pay homage to all things swine at this inspired and authentic Cajun restaurant. Link mines his German-Acadian roots with dishes such as fried boudin with pickled peppers, pork-and-black-eyed-pea gumbo and delectable fried chicken livers with pepper-jelly toast. Reservations are recommended as this place gets packed. Or choose to dine at the same location at the more casual and newly expanded Cochon Butcher, same great charcuterie dished out of a sandwich counter and wine bar that will remind you of an old world meat market. Here's a tip: get the muffuletta, some locals say its better than Central Grocery's. And here's another tip: the grilled oysters may just be the best in town.
Located close to the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk and the Convention Center along the Mississippi River, Mulate's is the New Orleans version of the original restaurant (now closed) in Breaux Bridge not far from Lafayette. A stage, dance floor, colorful murals and a giant paper mache accordion flank this lively venue. Start off the night with a cold beer and the likes of grilled alligator, fried crawfish tails, stuffed mushrooms, or Zydeco meat pies. For dinner, Catfish Mulate's is served with jambalaya, coleslaw and a twice-baked potato. There's a giant Cajun sampler that can easily be shared with a crowd. Live music is featured nightly so wear your dancing shoes.
Compact and crowded, Coop's probably isn't on most travelers' agendas which is a crying shame. Located right on Decatur not far from the French Market, Coop's remains a locals' haunt, with its well-worn surfaces and gritty elan. Unpolished, seductive, and even a touch dingy, Coop's is the real deal. Staples like shrimp Creole, Cajun-fried chicken, fried oysters and rabbit and sausage jambalaya are always good bets for lunch or order the tasting plate, which features the items above along with scrumptious portions of seafood gumbo and red beans and rice with sausage. This place serves food late if you need to circle back at the end of a night on Frenchmen Street.
Restaurant R'evolution, situated in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, channels the creative powers of two chefs, James Beard-winner Rick Tramonto from Chicago, and John Folse, a local chef-personality from Donaldsonville. With competent Chef de cuisine Jana Billiot responsible for fomenting this dual vision, the menu here is imaginative and showy, with a price tag to match. Modern takes on Cajun/Creole dishes include Crawfish Stuffed Flounder Napoleon and the Gulf Shrimp and Grits. Can't decide what to eat? Like most powerhouse New Orleans Restaurants, R'evolution offers a tasting menu where you can sample a bit of this and that. The bar is known for handcrafting a great Sazerac.
This is Cajun meets Creole cooking at its best. Brigtsen's chef/owner Frank Brigtsen is legendary in the region and his culinary prowess superb. Trained with chef Paul Prudhomme. for seven years, chef Brigtsen sources many of his ingredients locally, with daily menu specials that are always a good idea. You won't be disappointed by the roast duck or blackened tuna, but don't miss the rabbit and Andouille gumbo, shrimp and grits and pulled pork with pepper jelly glaze. Brigtsen's is a quick streetcar ride uptown from the French Quarter. Chef Brigtsen has garnered many awards including Best Chef Southeast from the James Beard Foundation.
Jacques-Imo's is a Cajun/Creole mecca notable for its truck-turned table for two beckoning the Oak Street pedestrian crowd. The shrimp etouffee and Smothered Chicken highlight a menu of favorites that deliver huge portions at reasonable prices - all entrees include salad and two sides. Locals love the fried chicken - although that argument will never be settled in New Orleans, this version is right up there. The paneed rabbit with tasso pasta is another winner, and for dessert, what else but the alligator cheesecake? Jacques Leonardi, the chef and mastermind of this venue, is usually on hand to chat up guests and talk food.
Chef Ricky Cheramie brings his twist on traditional homestyle Cajun dishes to the table at this breezy, newish spot steps from the Convention Center. His menu features swamp favorites such as alligator, crawfish, and raw oysters; from the flatlands, there are tastes of wild boar sausage, duck, Cajun marinated prime rib and boudin-stuffed free-range Statler chicken breast with a side of field pea fricassee. There's a swell local beer list along with a fine array of wines to stand up to the chef's cuisine.
Toups', as the name implies, isn't geared to vegetarians. But if you're a serious meat eater and housemade charcuterie gets your pulse racing, then run don't walk to this Mid-City eatery, where reservations are a must. Owned by chef Isaac Toups and his wife Amanda, Toups' serves contemporary Cajun cuisine, dishes like Gulf shrimp stew, double cut pork chops with dirty rice, boudin balls and cracklins'. The chef, who worked for Emeril for a decade before opening Toups' in 2012, describes his menu as what happens when a Cajun boy spends 10 years in fine dining. Toups comes by his Cajun flare honestly - he hails from Rayne, Louisiana, "the frog capital of the world." The chef branched out with Toups South, his ode to Southern cuisine adjacent to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.