Take A Bite Out Of New Orleans
10 MUST-TRY RESTAURANTS (& WHAT TO ORDER)
New Orleans has serious soul. Its rich heritage and distinct culture are discernable with all five senses.
There’s music everywhere! And not just classic New Orleans jazz. Ten-piece brass bands congregate on street corners, and talented, solo rappers spit beats (the city gave us Lil Wayne, after all). I can’t imagine a quiet New Orleans.
There’s a celebration for everything, and the city goes all out. New Orleans remains alive 24 hours a day, partially because the nightlife rolls straight into the morning. Beads aren’t just prominent around Mardi Gras: If you look up, you’ll likely find a few strapped in the trees and balconies year-round.
La Nouvelle, as it once was called, is dressed in history; the diverse architecture reflects the city’s unique past. Its earliest roots were with the French (1718), overlain by the Spanish and personalized by residents from the Caribbean Isles. By the time Americans took over in 1803, each culture had left its distinctive mark. You’ll notice brightly painted Creole cottages in the French Quarter, and the most glamorous, neoclassical plantation homes (err, mansions) in the Garden District.
When it comes to food, the Big Easy doesn’t mess around. The cuisine is heavily influenced by Creole, Cajun and soul food, and New Orleans has given birth to some American favorites – Po’ Boys, Oysters Rockefeller and Bananas Foster, to name a few. Seafood plays a prominent role in this port city, and eating clean (by way of diet and spotlessness) is total nonsense.
Since foodie culture is my favorite aspect of travel, here are 10 not-to-miss restaurants and shops if you get a chance to visit New Orleans. I was able to accomplish all in less than three days (sick, I know).
What to Order: Shrimp Remi Po’ Boy & Onion Rings
Visiting New Orleans and eating a po’ boy are synonymous, and everyone will have a different opinion on where to go; po’ boys are just about everywhere.
If you’re into fresh, local ingredients, a passionate chef with fine dining background, and creative menu options, check out Mahony’s. All po’ boys are served on Leidenheimer French bread, seafood is delivered fresh daily and the roast beef is braised in traditional French style of cooking – beef stock, red wine, garlic and onion.
Stick with the basics (e.g., fried shrimp, crystal marinated and cornmeal crusted; ham, glazed in root beer), or opt for one of Chef Wick’s innovative creations. For the latter, my favorite off-beat menu items are: “Chicken Livers & Slaw” (lightly floured and fried chicken livers, Creole coleslaw, coleslaw vinaigrette), the “Peacemaker” (P&J oysters, cheddar cheese, bacon, dressed) & “Shrimp Remi” (fried jumbo gulf shrimp, fried green tomatoes, remoulade dressing, lettuce).
Since you’re clearly not eating healthy here, tack on onion rings while you’re at it, dubbed some of the best in the country. They’re less ring-like and more spaghetti-like in shape. Give the perfectly battered strings a twirl on your fork, dip in remoulade and don’t share unless necessary.
What to Order: Collard Green Melt
About two days before setting out to New Orleans, my September 2017 “Bon Appetit” magazine arrived in the mail, touting “Best New Restaurants in America” on the cover. Fortunately, I didn’t procrastinate this read, as Turkey & the Wolf, a sandwich shop located outside of the French Quarter was named the number one best new restaurant in America. I immediately dug deeper, and the first line I read post-Google search was, “Ph.D-level stoner food.” Sold.
I can’t possibly top Bon Appetit’s feature review, so do yourself a favor and give it a read here to get a clearer picture of 31-year-old Mason Hereford and his quirky restaurant space. Hereford’s concept exercises nonconformity and idiosyncratic creativity at its best, putting a personalized spin on classic sandwiches, sometimes based on his experiences.
Let’s take his signature “Fried Bologna” sandwich, for example. Hereford grew up with Oscar Mayer cold cuts between Wonder Bread, slathered with French’s yellow mustard (SAME SAME). His new version is a 2.0, improved nod to the childhood staple: Thick-cut white bread from Weiss Guys Bakery; sweet-hot mustard; house-made potato chips, soaked in white vinegar and fried; three slices of smoked bologna, grilled; two slices of Golden Harvest American cheese; a generous fistful of shredded lettuce (“shrettuce”); and Duke’s Mayonnaise.
My favorite, however, is the “Collard Green Melt,” as I really haven’t seen anything like it before: slow-cooked collards, swiss cheese, pickled cherry pepper dressing and coleslaw, piled onto rye bread.
Too good to even stop and take pictures.
What to Order: Beignets & Coffee
A New Orleans staple, open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It ONLY closes on Christmas Day and if the occasional hurricane comes through. The always-busy green-and-white establishment was created in 1862 as a traditional coffee shop, simply serving coffee, milk, juices and beignets. Not much has changed since.
For beginners, these are square, French-style doughnuts (that is, fried fritters), generously covered with powdered sugar. They come three to an order at Café du Monde and are inevitably messy, yet utterly addicting.
The coffee is also great; you’ll notice the Café du Monde brand served at establishments throughout the city. Order either black or au lait if you prefer your coffee sweeter (mixed half and half).
Here’s the look of satisfaction at first bite.
What to Order: Turtle Soup, Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé & 25-Cent Martinis
Venture out to the majestic Garden District and dine at the legendary Commander’s Palace. A six-time James Beard Award-winning restaurant from 1893, Commander’s Palace serves “Haute Creole cuisine and whimsical Louisiana charm.” You really can’t miss the bright “Commander’s blue” Victorian-era mansion, sitting along a tree-lined street and across from the oldest New Orleans cemetery.
Chef Tory McPhail holds a “dirt to plate within 100 miles” policy, meaning he strives for 90 percent of ingredients to come from within 100 miles of Commander’s back door. The menu boasts Creole and Louisiana cuisine, with rich, unique dishes, including “Turtle Soup” topped with sherry and “Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé,” finished tableside with whiskey cream sauce.
There are two key weekly events you won’t want to miss. First, Commander’s Palace invented the “Jazz Brunch,” so I highly recommend you prioritize attending the original offering. Brunch takes place every Saturday and Sunday, with a special menu and Live New Orleans Jazz by the Joe Simon’s Jazz Trio. Secondly (and most importantly), on weekdays, Commander’s Palace offers 25-cent martinis. Yes, you read that right; albeit, limit three. For whatever occasion you choose to attend, make reservations and mind the strict dress code.
Oh, and if possible, watch the “Miss Ella” documentary on Netflix in advance of your visit to gain some fascinating background on the influential restaurant pioneer, Ella Brennan. After your visit, take some take to explore the cemetery and Garden District mansions. Steven led us on a highly entertaining and insightful walking tour.
What to Order: One of Each Donut
By fate, we stumbled upon this gem post-Commander’s Palace (as if we needed more to eat). I’m honestly not even the biggest donut fan, but these fluffy, yeast-raised delicacies – the size of my head – turned me to the dark side.
Flavors, which rotate daily, range from classic (Cinnamon Sugar, Chocolate Glazed, Glazed) and seasonal (Pumpkin Cheesecake, Lemon Blueberry, Pomegranate Cranberry) to innovative (“Cookie Butter Brudder,” “Fluffer Nutter,” “Maple Bacon”). Daily flavors are typically shown on Instagram; real talk, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.
What to Order: A “Sazerac”
Nestled within Hotel Monteleone is New Orleans’ only revolving bar, and you must see it to believe it. The 25-seat, ornately clad Merry-Go-Round was built in 1949 and rotates one revolution every 15 minutes. Vogue Living once named the bar a Top 20 Bar in the World, so I was pretty set on taking a quick look.
I went solely to check out the scene, but I’m sure the cocktails are as fabulous as the setting (if fancy drinks are your thing). If you luck out with a seat, I hear the Sazerac is worthwhile (Sazerac Rye, Herbsaint, Peychaud’s Bitters Simple Syrup); the Louisiana Legislature named this the official cocktail of New Orleans in 2008.
What to Order: Barbequed Shrimp
Across the street from Carousel Bar is French Quarter fixture Mr. B’s Bistro, offering Creole and Cajun food served with warm hospitality. Staff are dressed to the nines, and the dimly lit, comfortable atmosphere makes you feel at home. I’d expect nothing less than perfect from a Brennan-owned restaurant in New Orleans.
The restaurant offers signature items like “Gumbo Ya Ya” (a rich, country-style gumbo made with spicy chicken and andouille sausage) and “Bacon Wrapped Shrimp with Stone Ground Grits,” but the star of the venue, by far, is “Mr. B’s Barbecue Shrimp” – Gulf shrimp barbequed New Orleans style, served in the shells with a Worcestershire-spiked, peppery butter sauce. Bibs are unquestionably necessary, as are at least three thick napkins. This is a messy, labor-intensive meal, but with a very strong return on investment.
What to Order: Pecan Tortues & Peanut Butter Cups
Shout out to mom for discovering this addicting chocolate shop many years back, serving fresh, authentic and handmade New Orleans candy since 1992. “Bon Appetit” magazine once named Southern Candymakers’ Original Pralines “Best of the USA,” but the incredible options don’t end there.
My mom’s top recommendation is the shop’s award-winning Dark Chocolate Pecan Tortues (French word for turtle). Creamy-soft caramel made daily from scratch, dolloped onto a bed of crunchy Louisiana pecan pieces, form the body of the turtle; each patty is then hand-swirled with dark chocolate, to create the turtle’s shell. To accompany your Tortues (plural, because you better get more than one), order Peanut Butter Cups – think double-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter, with fresher, richer ingredients.
If you travel with some home, just be mindful of the melting chocolate in New Orleans’ heat.
What to Order: Oysters Rockefeller, 25-Cent Cocktails
Antoine’s, the oldest French-Creole fine dining restaurant in New Orleans, is a family affair. The 176-year-old establishment, born in 1840, is still owned and operated by fifth-generation relatives of the original founder; this also makes Antoine’s the country’s oldest family-run restaurant.
But, its rich history isn’t the only appeal: The restaurant, nestled within the French Quarter, has 15 distinct dining rooms, with varying sizes and themes. The Mystery Room, for instance, nestled at the end of a corridor, received its name due to Prohibition (1919-1933). Visitors would enter through a door in the ladies’ restroom to a secret room, and exit with a coffee cup full of booze. When asked where it came from, one would say, “It’s a mystery to me!”
Most fascinating, Antoine’s narrow Wine Cellar features a 25,000 bottle capacity, measuring 165-feet-long and seven-feet-wide. Check out the small viewing window on Royal Street.
And of course, there’s the food. Antoine’s is credited with inventing several iconic dishes, including the notable Oysters Rockefeller – Louisiana Gulf oysters baked on the half shell, topped with a proprietary butter sauce and bread crumbs. It was initially created during an escargot shortage, but the “substitution” has most certainly endured and thrived.
Two friendly tips if you choose to go: First, if your itinerary allows, check out Antoine’s for lunch Monday through Saturday. The restaurant offers a three-course lunch menu for $20.17 and 25-cent daily featured cocktails (limit three). Secondly, after you complete your meal, request a complimentary private tour of the 15 dining rooms!
10) GW FINS
What to Order: Anything Seafood (Too Many Great Options)
At last, I close with the best (really, read the reviews) eatery in New Orleans right now: GW Fins. The French Quarter’s fine dining restaurant, in which “nature writes the menu,” features seasonal ingredients, subtle culinary techniques and the highest quality fish served at its peak. I mean, the fish is so fresh that menus are finalized last-minute based on the catch of the day and printed on-site!
GW Fins also uses bycatch from fishing boats, and other underutilized and abundant species. This all makes complete sense if you’re familiar with the passionate Chef/Owner Tenney Flynn, an avid diver, and Chairman of the Chef’s Council for the Audubon Institute G.U.L.F. Program, a nationally recognized sustainability program.
GW Fins’ ever-changing menu consistently features innovative flavor combinations, creative preparations and overall unique offerings; this gave me extreme anxiety, as I craved one of everything on the menu. Plus, to make the decision harder (well, also more exciting) our waiter positively acknowledged my favorite seasonal item at the outset: “The soft shell crabs are huge tonight!”
Of the seven dishes our table ordered, the frontrunners were:
- “Tempura Fin Wings” in a Korean glaze, served with crispy noodle salad
- “Scalibut,” or halibut coated with sea scallops, alongside lobster risotto, snow peas and pea shoot butter
- “Wasabi Crusted Gulf Wahoo” seared rare, served with sticky rice, pickled ginger slaw and sweet soy butter
- “Crispy Soft Shell Crab” with blue crab maque choux, spoon bread, Country ham and roasted corn butter
Alas, this was one of those meals I never wanted to end. Please take my word and plan in advance for this spot: Reservations are necessary, and dress code is strictly enforced.
This list is by no means comprehensive: The food scene in New Orleans is widespread and ever-growing, and the options are absolutely endless. With an extra day, I likely would have prioritized a Vietnamese meal and perhaps frequented another Brennan-owned restaurant.
Have you tried any of the above? What are your favorite spots?