As far as I can guess, this was my tenth trip to New Orleans. My office is headquartered there and given time and money, it’s my favorite city to visit. For once, I had some vacation time saved and headed down last weekend with The Lady, BC, and his gent for five glorious days of debauchery. The weather could have cooperated a tiny bit more, but we still enjoyed highs in the 60’s for most of our visit and very few scattered thunderstorms.
Since I’ve made my rounds in the French Quarter (and outside, guided by locals), here are my recommendations if you get a chance to head down to Louisiana for a getaway of your own.
New Orleans is as much about food as it is about drinking all night and flashing your boobs at strangers. Everyone goes down expecting to find “where the locals eat” and fill up on gumbo and jambalaya. A little secret- the locals aren’t doing much eating in the French Quarter. Also, you’re not going to “discover” a restaurant there- it is the tourist district and everything is located there specifically so that tourists can find it. Get out of your need to be original and enjoy it anyway. Almost every restaurant in the Quarter serves a version of red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, oysters, po boys, and the like. And having eaten in almost all of them, they are all just fine. Don’t worry that you’re missing a mouth miracle if that’s what you want to eat- just pick one and sit down.
That being said, I usually make time to stop at Le Bayou on Bourbon that first night when I arrive and am too tired to make decisions. They can usually seat you quickly, bring you a giant Abita beer, and serve my favorite po boy in town- fried shrimp and fried green tomatoes with remoulade. If you want something slightly more upscale, Desire: An Oyster Bar, also on Bourbon and connected to the Royal Sonesta Hotel, is the way to go. Their Oysters Desire, with cheese and butter are delicious, even if you don’t like oysters. The shrimp & grits is a favorite, the servings are sizable, and they bring you as much fresh-baked bread as your table can consume (we had four loaves). They also know how to make a great cocktail- I love their Sazeracs. The servers treat you like royalty, which is rare in a restaurant that doesn’t mind if you wear jeans.
If you want to just put a sandwich in your face, Felix’s is a good choice, just off the main drag on Iberville Street. The line for the oyster bar here gets long, but at the tables, you can get a great crawfish po boy and a fried alligator appetizer. It looks like a greasy spoon, but the food (especially the fried stuff) is good eats. If you like your sandwiches with flair, you cannot go wrong at the Royal Street Deli. I had this monster. Twice.
That’s ham, Brie, apples, mustard (and the second time, golden raisins) on a fluffy roll of bread. It is a sandwich that takes two hands to eat. It also comes with a side of sweet potato salad, which I liked- and I hate potato salad. The servers are friendly and we never waited for a seat.
So, now that your tourist food needs in the French Quarter have been met, where should you go if you want to do some exploring?
If you can take just a few steps outside the French Quarter into the Marigny neighborhood, you can eat a platter that will make your face explode at The Praline Connection. Their “Taste of Soul” platter includes gumbo, red beans & rice, jambalaya, greens, fried chicken, fried catfish, ribs and bread pudding. BC and his Gent shared one and had enough to share the wealth with us. The barbecue sauce on the ribs is the best that I’ve ever tasted and the bread pudding smelled like my first cocktail of the day, in a good way. Gent also ordered their etouffee and oh.my.word. It was the best etouffee I’ve had at any restaurant in New Orleans. Ever. Next time I go back, I’ll order a giant bowl to hoard all to myself. They also have pralines in many flavors to taste (and of course, buy).
If you need a hamburger, the only way to go is to swing by Port of Call on Esplanade. It’s a dark, crowded little spot that smells like hamburger grease, but that’s because hamburgers and steaks are their only menu. That and giant loaded baked potatoes that will rock your world- they do not skimp on the toppings. I was five bites into my potato before I found an actual bite of potato under the cheese and bacon and sour cream and bacon and chives and butter. The burgers are incredible, but if you don’t like it pink, order it medium well or well. My “medium” was way over on the rare side- I didn’t mind, but if a little blood scares you, better safe than sorry. Your other mission while you are here is to order the Monsoon, their insane rum and fruit punch house drink. I am a lady who can hold my liquor, but every time I have one of these, I end up boozed up before I leave their door, with just one. I weave down sidewalks. I end up having to throw away part of it. It’s a strong one. Then again, being hammered might not be your idea of a good time. More for me.
Everyone talks about Antoine’s and Galatoire’s but if I had my choice, my last meal would be at Irene’s Cuisine. This is your “dress up” meal- get out of your tourist jeans and be ready to wait. They almost never take reservations. Brad Pitt would have to wait at this tiny place. Irene herself will greet you at the door many nights- and ask you to wait. But, it will be worth it. For $60- $80, you will eat food that you never thought possible. I had a steak that melted in my mouth and a potato side of thinly sliced, perfectly cooked au gratin that nearly brought me to tears. The story is that Irene and her husband Tommy co-owned the joint until an ugly divorce. She got to keep the restaurant, so out of spite, he opened Tommy’s Cuisine just across town. Tommy’s is bigger, the food is fine, and they take reservations. But it’s nowhere as good as Irene’s. Stick to the original.
Another first come, first served restaurant that is worth every minute waiting is the Green Goddess. This place will ruin other food for you forever. You will dream about soup that you ate there one night.
If you are a travel or food columnist and want to write about the cheese and wine lists here, you will have a winner on your hands. If you are me and show up in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and your beat-up old Converse to sit at a lovely table in the alley courtyard, you will still be greeted by the friendly chef who checks in often to be sure you are still swooning as each course arrives. The Pear 75, with champagne and pear brandy was perfection. Don’t kid yourself and just order an entrée. Go here and order the tasting menu (which changes based on the season). Every single bite that you put in your mouth will be divine. If it happens to be a warm breezy evening and you are full of this food, found tucked away in an alley that you almost didn’t find, you will rate this night one of the best of your life.
Other gems to check out, if you haven’t ruptured something yet: Liborio’s Cuban Restaurant makes a phenomenal flank steak; Zea’s (a local chain) will fill you up with rotisserie and southern style veggies and is a great excuse to hop on the St. Charles streetcar for $1.25. If you need some gelato like nobody’s business, hop on over to La Divina Gelateria- I had Creole cream cheese flavor and lapped it up after a big lunch- it was too good to waste. You have to go to Cafe’ du Monde, because it’s some kind of tourist law, but if you care more about coffee than beignets, I choose Community Coffee. I used to order 5 lbs. of their coffee and chicory shipped to my house every month or so when my budget allowed- it’s the only coffee I’d have mailed to me. If you live in the South, you are lucky and can buy their chicory coffee right on your grocery store shelves. I pick it up when I head back to visit the family.
So, what have I missed? Any New Orleans favorite dining spots that you can’t wait to get back to?