In a town synonymous with eating, it’s hard to know where to begin. T+L serves up the Crescent City’s best.
Nothing, but nothing, has the power to spoil New Orleans’s appetite. The people of this city love to eat, and they eat it all—from simply fried oysters and perfectly dressed po’ boys to cutting-edge dishes served Cajun style. Here, a meal-by-meal primer of the Big Easy from a lucky visitor who came to eat and stayed to listen.
When local business owners pulled together in move-on mode and reopened faster than seemed possible after Hurricane Katrina, natives dubbed Magazine Street, a six-mile ribbon of shops and restaurants, the “aisle of denial.” Only a few blocks away, on the edge of the Central Business District, Mother’s reopened with Vice Admiral Thad Allen, head of the disaster relief effort, as its first customer. Regulars and tourists alike line up to order at the counter, cafeteria-style, but dishes such as grits and debris (roast-beef edges in gravy) or red-bean omelets with baked ham and biscuits are delivered to your Formica-topped table by old-time waitresses who may well call you darlin’.
Don’t leave the neighborhood without swinging by homey corner restaurant Elizabeth’s for fried chicken livers with pepper jelly or lacquered praline bacon, baked in brown sugar with crumbled pecans and tasting—if you can imagine it—like pig candy. The hand-lettered sign, swaying when the breeze blows off the river, promises real food done real good. For weekend brunch, order “red neck eggs” (poached and served over fried green tomatoes with grits) and sweet rice fritters called calas, a nearly extinct regional specialty.
Founded in 1919 by Italian immigrants, Casamento’s takes pride in its oyster loaf: a sandwich of fried oysters layered between two slices of house-made buttery white bread (rather than a French-style po’ boy roll). But check the calendar, because the tiny Garden District oyster house is only open in the cooler “r” months. If the time is right, plunk those freshly shucked oversize warm-water oysters onto some saltines and wash them down with the coldest local Abita Golden beer in town.
During the summer “r-less” months, there’s always La Petite Grocery, a cozy neighborhood bistro nearby. Chef Justin Devillier’s top-notch half-pound burger comes with his house-made pickles and sweet Vidalia-onion marmalade.
There’s only one way to end the debate over where to find the best po’ boy in town: head for the Parkway Bakery & Tavern. Whether you go for the roast beef with gravy or golden fried shrimp, the basic anatomy of Parkway’s perfect rendition is always the same: “dressed” (lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and pickles) on distinctive New Orleans–style French bread (lightly crisped crust, interior as airy as cotton candy) from the celebrated Leidenheimer Bakery. Nothing better, nowhere else.
A grande dame of French Creole cooking since 1905, and still family-owned, the clubby Galatoire’s has long earned its place in the social scene. If you sit in the mirrored ground-floor dining room (not the second floor) and order without studying the menu, you might—just might—pass for an upper-crust regular. Cheat sheet: Get the “grand goute,” a seafood appetizer trio featuring the restaurant’s signature shrimp rémoulade.
Under sparkling chandeliers in a renovated four-story French-Creole warehouse, James Beard Award–winning chef John Besh, whose August empire has doubled in size post-Katrina, celebrates regional ingredients in French style. A devoted Louisiana resident, Besh is involved with artisanal producers and longtime area farmers, which means you might find a salad of heirloom beets with Allen Benton’s cherrywood bacon, mustard greens, quail eggs, and black-eyed pea croutons, or a sugar-and-spice duckling with Anson Mills heirloom Carolina corn grits, roasted duck foie gras, and quince.
Don’t let the phrase “contemporary Cajun” scare you; there’s no trickery about the food at Cochon. Devoted to protecting old-style traditions, chef/co-owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski turn out splendid boudin, andouille, and smoked bacon, which you can also buy at the newly opened Butcher, located in the same building. Order absolutely anything: wood-fired oyster roast, ham hock with lima bean hopping John, catfish court bouillon. And whatever you do, don’t leave without trying the fresh chunk-pineapple and cornmeal upside-down cake, slightly sticky with caramel sauce. The last bite will haunt you for days.
Beignetrhymes with cliché for a reason: everybody hits Café Du Monde, a cornerstone of the historic French Market since 1862, sometime. Despite the crowds, it’s hard to find fault with the hot little pillows of sweet fried dough, served 24 hours a day, seven days a week (except Christmas Day).
Paris, Milan, New Orleans?It seems likely at ultrasleek patisserie Sucré, where you can rev up with a plate of delicate macarons or a chicory coffee–gelato shake. The NOLA Chocolate Collection includes evocative local flavors such as the Meuniere, brown butter and white chocolate ganache coated in dark chocolate; and the Magnolia, dark chocolate with pecan ganache, topped with a pecan half.
After Hours, Big Easy Style
Traces of voodoo have long seeped into New Orleans’s everyday life. So settle in at the International House hotel’s candlelit bar Loa and toast the divine spirits with a champagne-and–pear brandy Laveau 347, a cocktail honoring Marie Laveau, New Orleans’s legendary voodooienne, who’s buried in Tomb 347 in St. Louis Cemetery No.1, on the edge of the French Quarter.
The Columns Hotel, founded in 1883, is on the National Register of Historic Places and feels as haunted as hell. The creaky floorboards and dark corners of the Victorian Lounge give off a catacomb-like vibe. But meeting for a Sazerac, the city’s official cocktail as declared by the state legislature, on the mansion’s wide wooden porch facing the prettiest boulevard in the Garden District, is the perfect way to ease into—or out of—a long evening.
Francine Maroukian is a T+L contributing editor.