The South's Best Food Towns
New Orleans, Louisiana: Weekend Dining Guide
Eating and drinking your way through the Crescent City
Photo: Peter Frank Edwards
New Orleans is one of The South’s Best Food Towns, selected by the editors of Garden & Gun. See all of the cities here. Do you agree with our picks? Disagree? Have your say on Facebook orTwitter. #SouthernFoodTowns
There’s a Galápagos quality to New Orleans dining, the sense that what’s on the plate has evolved with a fierce independence from the rest of the world. The same could be said of its venerable restaurants—Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, Antoine’s—some of the oldest in America yet still singular experiences. These days, however, global influences have asserted new energy to praiseworthy effect: The eatery of the moment, Shaya, features Israeli fare; MoPho and Maypop each fold a little Louisiana into their interpretations of the Far East (well beyond Chalmette); and taquerias and taco trucks add their own spice. The intrusions are welcome—not because they offer a detour from well-worn routes, but because they have historically served as precursors. All the great native fare—gumbo, étouffée, red beans and rice—involved a slow collision of cultures. Today’s outsider cuisine may just be tomorrow’s classic. It’s as it was, and always will be.
Sinking your teeth into a beignet is a worthy way to start your morning, and it’s better still with a side of modest exploit. Rent a bike and head up Esplanade, or hop the Canal streetcar (City Park/Museum line) and ride until the end. Make your way to Morning Call, just past the neoclassical New Orleans Museum of Art, for the pillowy pastries. Café du Monde in the French Quarter has the crowds. Let them queue. Morning Call feels more like Brigadoon, except set amid live oaks and Spanish moss near a lazy lagoon.
Stretch your legs in the five-acre NOMA sculpture garden, then make your way to Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Tremé neighborhood. Sometimes there’s a long line to get in, and sometimes…well, there’s always a line. Budget the time to wait. (Once, after I’d stood in line an hour, someone drove up and offered those toward the front a hundred dollars to give up a space. No one would.) But oh what chicken awaits—fried, spiced, certainly among the best you’ll ever taste. As for sides, just say, “butter beans.” (“Mac and cheese” is an acceptable alternative if you flub your line.)
Classic New Orleans joints are often dark and intimate, as if light from windows would cause the fare to spoil. That’s not the case at your dinner destination: Compère Lapin, a bright, lively Central Business District spot inspired by the sunny Caribbean. Chef-owner Nina Compton, a St. Lucia native, first came to the city to compete on Bravo’s Top Chef, then decided to stay. Compton brings the West Indian flavors often hidden in New Orleans cuisine front and center with stunning dishes such as the seafood pepper pot, and the curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi.
Grab a lovely nightcap at Arnaud’s French 75, just a half block off Bourbon Street, yet a world apart. The bar staff wears white tuxedo jackets; the sound track is French chanteuse. Order a cognac-based Roffignac, named after an 1820s mayor—a drink more or less lost before it was revived by head barman (and James Beard Award winner) Chris Hannah. But don’t head home yet. Catch a streetcar to the more loose-tied Revel Cafe & Bar, in Mid-City. Master cocktail historian Chris McMillian is widely famed
for his juleps—often served with a splash of local lore.
Daybreak begins with a challenge: avoiding the pastry case at Willa Jean. It’s right there as you walk into the heralded Central Business District bakery and restaurant, part of the John Besh universe. The case exerts a powerful gravitational force, drawing customers with croissants and biscuits overseen by the talented chef Kelly Fields. But resist (for now), grab a seat, and get the savory crawfish grits with shrimp, topped with poached eggs.
A calorie-burning walk will be in order. Take a constitutional in Crescent Park—this new, modern green space follows the Mississippi River for nearly a mile and a half. Afterward: time for a po’boy, one of New Orleans’ great contributions to humanity. The new-wave Killer Poboys fills crispy-crusty French bread with the likes of pork belly glazed with rum and lime slaw, or beef debris simmered in beer and slathered with horseradish sauce. You have two French Quarter options: Big Killer on Dauphine Street offers a wider selection and more of a diner feel. Little Killer’s take-out window can be found in the back of the Erin Rose bar on Conti Street. Both are great, but you can only order a frozen Irish coffee at the latter.
Gulf fish are culinary royalty in New Orleans, and Donald Link’s James Beard Award–winning Pêche provides a throne come nightfall, much as his meat-centric Cochon does with pork. The chef Ryan Prewitt stakes out a middle ground with the sustainably harvested catch: not too simple, not too fancy. Classics such as smoked tuna dip and whole grilled redfish garner the respect they deserve (order both if available).While you’re at it, throw in the hulking fish sticks (yes, fish sticks), made with catfish and a local-beer batter.
On to after-dinner drinks. Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 makes for a pleasing holiday from your holiday with its tiki cocktails—the Nui Nui puts the right amount of wind in your sails. And not too far from Pêche awaits Bakery Bar, where mixologist Jeff Schwartz compounds drinks such as the rye-laced La Louisiane. Finish out the night with a slice of cake there from Debbie Does Doberge. Is the almond wedding variety available? If the answer is yes, you know what to do.
You may be in the mood to finish off your stay with a more low-key meal—rejuvenate in the lower French Quarter at Croissant d’Or, where the Gallic offerings will satisfy whether you’re in search of savory (quiche Lorraine) or sweet (fresh fruit tartlet). Head to a table in the courtyard—with its lambent light and vestigial fountain, it’s like the whole of New Orleans writ small.
Following a final stroll around the Quarter, tank up before departing. Turkey and the Wolf explores the outer limits of roadside eats. Potato-chips-and-fried-bologna sandwich? Yes, please. The shop also serves one of the best vegetarian items in the city: a spectacular collard greens sandwich, with Swiss cheese and pepper dressing. After wiping the last bit of spicy mayo from your lips, you may think: Well, we don’t normally eat like this. Which provides a fine question to ponder on your way home: Why not?