The Big Easy. NOLA. The Crescent City. New Orleans’ multiple nicknames reflect its many cultural and historical dimensions. Too often tested by Mother Nature, New Orleans refuses to give up and in the 10 years since its most devastating trial, Hurricane Katrina, this storied city is flourishing once again. Evidence of its rejuvenation is readily noticeable in NOLA’s restaurant scene, whose offerings encompass not only the Creole and Southern cuisine for which this region is famous but also a wide spectrum of ethnic fare.
As the birthplace of such iconic cocktails as the Sazerac, Hurricane, and French 75, New Orleans also holds many opportunities for liquid lunches and dinners. Tip: pace yourself and wear stretchy pants to maximize pleasurable consumption.
Arise early at your accommodation of choice (The Royal Sonesta in the French Quarter is highly recommended) to start the day with New Orleans’ signature pastry, the beignet. For more than 150 years, Cafe du Monde has been vending these luscious, deep-fried pillows of dough doused in powdered sugar as well as terrific coffee. Looking for heartier options?
Check out Biscuits and Buns on Banks for Southern specialties such as chicken and waffles, over-sized biscuits with honey butter or pimento cheese, and sausage hash.
Fancier matutinal fare in the form can be found at Toast, whose aebleskivers (Swedish puff pancakes) and savory crepes (try the prosciutto and cheese) have made it a favorite among local business people.
After a morning of perusing the work of local artists in and around Jackson Square, your appetite will surely return. The ‘po-boy’ is one of two official sandwiches of New Orleans (more on #2 to come), and Johnny’s has been serving them stuffed with various fillings such as fried shrimp, roast beef, catfish, soft-shell crab for more than 50 years. If they ask if you want yours ‘dressed’ (local lingo for with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade) the only correct answer is ‘yes.’
Favored purveyor (and some claim, the inventor) of NOLA’s other official sandwich, Central Market attracts long lines of residents as well as tourists eager to try a muffuletta. With thick layers of mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, provolone, and olive salad on supple sesame bread, one muffuletta is enough to feed two if not three people. Central Market also sells Portuguese and Italian specialty foods (cheese, sausage, marinades, etc.) that make great fixings for a picnic.
For sit-down, non-sandwich lunch experiences, try The Store, which offers daily plate specials of comfort food (red beans and rice, shrimp and grits) plus a wide assortment of salads, sandwiches and burgers with a Cajun twist.
Slightly farther afield but definitely worth the UBER ride is the iconic Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a former speakeasy that now serves what many have called the best fried chicken in America plus home-style sides such as corn muffins, stewed greens and bread pudding.
Dinner in New Orleans can be quite the event and reservations are highly suggested. For service and repast you will remember for the rest of your life, head to the Garden District to visit Commander’s Palace. This six-time James Beard award-winning restaurant established and run by restaurant royalty the Brennan family is known for its turtle soup and haute spins on Gulf Coast seafood (blue crab and caviar, chilli and plum prawns).
Those feeling flush and indecisive should take advantage of the tasting menu, a sumptuous multi-course feast featuring dishes curated by the chef himself.
A casual but equally compelling supper can be had at Desire Oyster Bar, whose black-and-white tile interior with red accents feels wonderfully chic as well as welcoming. You won’t be disappointed with a dozen of their hand-shucked oysters; even more impressive, however, are Desire’s creative appetizers and entrees, such as crawfish cheesecake and alligator meatballs.
There’s also relative newcomer Cavan, located in a charming, refurbished Victorian mansion, which has already made a name for itself via inventive standouts like grilled octopus salad with mint and crab deviled eggs.
Finally, trendy Restaurant August, led by celebrity chef John Besh is praise-worthy for its seasonal menu featuring only local ingredients and well-rounded wine list.
Save room at supper if you have a sweet tooth because New Orleans is known for its buttery, nutty praline candies made fresh almost continuously at Southern Candymakers.
Cocoa fanatics will love the cookies & cream and chocolate & walnut fudge at The Fudgery, and for cool dairy treats trek to the Creole Creamery, where house-made ice creams and sherbet and monstrous decadent sundaes, shakes, and malts await.
With hundreds of bars, saloons, and cocktail lounges, not to mention Bourbon Street, it’s hard to stay thirsty in New Orleans. Pat O’Brien’s provides jocular dueling pianos and is home to the renowned “hurricane” served in a souvenir glass.
Then, cast your anchor at LaFitte’s Blacksmith Barber Shop, a laid-back pub that boasts very pours and some interesting nautical decor.
Bibliophiles and cocktail connoisseurs will get a huge kick out Carousel Bar. Located in the luxurious Hotel Monteleone (frequented by Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and other authors), the Carousel Bar has antique merry-go-round seating that actually rotates while you sip one of the bar’s signature libations such as The Aviator or Vieux Carré cocktails.
Finish off your drinking tour at sleek, elegant Bar R’Evolution, and ask bartender Brian to make you his twist on a Sazerac.
I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, grew up in central Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and now call Houston, Texas home. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in English, I earned a PhD in Victorian literature from Rice University. I currently serve as a culinary consultant, food historian, and travel/food critic for various print and online outlets. My exploits can be found at www.brideyoleary.com.