We recently spent three days in New Orleans–a first visit to the city for both of us–and that lucky thing happened where a weekend can feel like a proper escape, like a proper break. We walked across great swaths of the city, and in between we ate and drank like princes. The Frenchman exhausted his business-accrued hotel points and rented us a room bigger than our Brooklyn apartment; we basked like lizards. One muggy afternoon we traded site-seeing for the hotel pool, and I fulfilled a childhood dream and ordered a strawberry daiquiri from one of the passing waiters. (The daiquiri tasted more like red-flavored corn syrup than actual strawberries, but never mind. Isn’t it glorious to be an adult sometimes?)
I was told, and it’s true: New Orleans is a bit magic. It’s not a tidy city, but then–those massive tufty trees, like something out of a fairy tale, looming and mossy and colorful bead-dappled. And the sound of brass instruments ringing from the insides of one dark bar or another. The intricate, woven iron balconies, festooned with bright and hanging flowers; the promise of so many ghosts. An oppressive heat informs a checkered past–a history that takes in origin, culture, and religion–and gives New Orleans a character all its own. I have never seen a place to match it.
During our sojourn, we saw as much as two people can manage in three days, but I know we left stones unturned. Next time, I’d like to return in the company of friends who know the city well; I have a feeling there are experiences waiting below the tourist surface. New Orleans seems to me a lady with many faces.
Where to Eat:
* I will mention as a disclaimer: I was only in New Orleans for a few days; I’m sure I missed so many gems. I only included the spots I really loved and would recommend without reservation. This is as much a record for myself as it is a guide for others. If you live in New Orleans, I’d love to hear your opinions about my finds (or better yet, what I didn’t find) in the comments. This is where I went and what I saw in May 2014; if you find a broken link to a closed restaurant sometime in the future, I apologize.
Boucherie is located in the small and cozy front rooms of a house, with a few tables out front on the porch. We hadn’t made a lunch reservation, so we took seats at the wide and wooden four-man bar, where we had the opportunity to chat with the friendly, helpful staff. In hot weather, I recommend a Pimm’s cup, or one of the local beers. Two wedges of grit cake were creamy, pudding soft on the inside, and smoky with bacon vinaigrette at the edges; they came topped with a tumble of perfectly cooked, spicy shrimp. House boudin balls are made with long-smoked pork shoulder, rolled with rice, fried, and then dusted with smoky spice and served alongside garlic aioli. We also shared a duck confit po’boy, which was surprisingly light and balanced with roasted garlic, bread and butter pickles, arugula, and creole tomatoes. The meal as a whole was delicious–it honored location, but also respected the season. The service could not have been better. Open for lunch and dinner; reservations recommended.
At Restaurant August, the service was attentive, but spotty. The space is lovely–high ceilings, tall arching windows, and brightly dipping chandeliers. A salad of brûléed goat cheese and peaches was painter’s palette pretty, dusted with pistachios, but tasted rather plain to me. But a tiny dish of agnolotti–filled with slow roasted rabbit, sauced with smoked chiles–was complexly tasty and redeemed the starter course. We ate soft trout, breaded thinly and crispy with a crackling sheet of brioche, served alongside a pile of mousse-y hollandaise, shrimp, blue crab, and wild mushrooms–it was my favorite bite of the evening. For the Frenchman, a perfectly cooked bar of duckling was topped with buttered, roasted radishes, blackened foie gras, and sweet corn soufflé. Dessert was a little rectangle of buttermilk chess pie, adorned with a thin strawberry-rhubarb compote and whipped cream–it was just ok. Dinner; reservations recommended.
Central Grocery Co is charmingly dingy on the inside, full of dusty provisions, both domestic and imported. There is usually a line to the door, but the sandwiches are pre-made, and the service is quick and amiable. We split a muffaletta (they are enormous) and bottles of ice cold Peroni. I thought the bread was just a tad too thick in proportion to the filling, but this is a minor complaint–the sandwich is delicious regardless: a mix of Italian cold cuts, balanced by vinegar-y, housemade olive salad. Lunch or a very early dinner; no reservations necessary.
The inside of the generously proportioned La Petite Grocery reminded me of a cross between a French bistro and a theatre. We started with soft ricotta gnocchi, served in a pool of sweet butter and gemmed with scraps of lobster and fava beans. The soup special that evening was a silky, tomato and corn affair, swirled with crème fraîche and chives. After we tried the pasta special: Saffron fettuccine, simply presented with grana padano, rapini, and shrimp so flavorful the Frenchman wouldn’t stop talking about it. The burger (sort of an odd choice, I know) was juicy and satisfying, dressed with gruyere, roasted onion aioli, arugula, onion marmalade, bread and butter pickles, and a smear of whole grain mustard. We split dessert, a butterscotch pudding wonderfully sweet and creamy in its jar, textured by tiny benne wafers and vanilla bean cream. The food was excellent and the service informed, although I detected a little attitude. Dinner; reservations recommended.
Passing the massive line at Cafe du Monde, I was relieved when Cafe Beignet was recommended as a tastier alternative. There are a few locations scattered around the center of the city, but we went to the one on Bourbon Street, where the shop is tucked into a courtyard and we could listen to live music as we waited. The beignets are made to order and arrive barely crisp around the edges, pillowy soft and steaming hot on the inside, generously dusted with powdered sugar.
We ate our last lunch of the weekend at Cochon Restaurant, modern and airy in blonde wood, with a chef’s counter and wood burning oven to the back. We shared a platter of wood-fired oysters served in their shells, sauced in chili-and-garlic butter that we happily dredged parker rolls through once the oysters were gone. A dish of pork cheeks cooked in a crab broth was supple and fork tender, balanced by a collection of corn, grits, pickled peppers, and watermelon radish. We also tried the boucherie plate–a selection of house-cured pork in various forms, matched with more pickles. A cucumber side dish came barely pickled in sweet, hot vinaigrette, and we ordered a pitcher of Nola blonde to wash it all down. I found the service friendly and well-informed. Lunch or dinner; reservations recommended.
Right next door to the restaurant, Cochon Butcher is just as bustling as its sister establishment. If we weren’t imminently headed for the airport, I might have bought any number of housemade products from the butcher or dessert counter. Considering the circumstances, I ordered based on what travels best: a muffaletta built with house meats and olive salad and the Gambino–more housemade meat, dressed with herb vinaigrette. We also bought a richly chocolate brownie, and some cashew caramel corn with cocoa nib dust to munch on. Lunch or dinner; no reservations necessary.
Didn’t have time to visit, but recommended by locals:
Commander’s Palace for a classic, if a bit touristic, New Orleans meal. Lunch or dinner.
Domenica for John Besh-style Italian. Lunch or dinner.
Domilise Sandwich Shop & Bar for po’boys. Lunch or dinner.
Maurepas Foods for seasonal, farm fresh southern food. Dinner.
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz for snow cones.
Herbsaint for Donald Link-style Southern/Italian/French. Lunch or dinner.
Bacchanal Wine for courtyard food, drinks, and music. Lunch, dinner, or drinks.
The Company Burger for burgers. Lunch or dinner.
Coquette for trendy Southern food and cocktails. Lunch or dinner.
Killer Poboys for po’boys. Lunch or dinner.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House for fried chicken and soul food. Lunch.
Sylvain for a Southern-y gastropub in a carriage house. Dinner.
Dante’s Kitchen for seasonal Southern food in a cottage. Dinner.
Peche Seafood Grill for stylish, local Donald Link seafood. Lunch or dinner.
Casamento’s for oysters. Lunch or dinner, but they are closed all summer.
Lüke for John Besh French/German brasserie. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The Joint for BBQ. Lunch or dinner.
Elizabeth’s Restaurant for breakfast and Bloody Marys. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Cafe Atchafalaya for modern Southern, and shrimp and grits. Brunch and dinner.
Pho Tau Bay Restaurant for Vietnamese. Lunch or dinner.
Parkway Bakery and Tavern for po’boys. Lunch or dinner.
Upper Nine Doughnut Company for doughnuts.
The Three Muses for dinner and live music.
One Eyed Jacks, The Spotted Cat Music Club, DBA, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, or The Maple Leaf for drinks and live music.
The Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel for (fancy) drinks.
Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop for drinks in a possibly haunted house.
The Napoleon House for drinks in a classic New Orleans setting.
Bar Tonique for drinks slightly off the tourist trail.
Arnaud’s French 75 Bar for old school drinks served by tuxedoed gentlemen.
What to do:
Streetcar up and down St. Charles: You’ll be in the company of other tourists, but this really is a charming way to spend a morning. The curving St. Charles Avenue line covers a large portion of the city, and we rode it from one end to the other. Through our open window we spied rambling live oaks adorned with old Mardi Gras beads, decked and colorful mansions in the Garden District, and the green expanse of Audubon Park.
Walk along Magazine Street: We walked the whole length of Magazine Street, from the edge of Audubon Park to where it finishes at Canal St. Along the way, we passed a mish-mash of houses, shops, bars, restaurants, and cafes. Some stretches are more diverting than others, but a long walk is really the antidote to a large lunch. Several bars and restaurants are worth a stop in, and I enjoyed seeing the variety of houses, so different from the architecture anywhere else.
Walk around the French Quarter, Through the Cemeteries, to the Mighty Mississippi: This is a fairly basic tourist requirement, but also not to be missed. I recommend taking a tour if you can stand it, because there is a lot of interesting history here. New Orleans, and particularly the French Quarter, is Spanish, French, and American all at once; both Catholic and Voodoo. This confluence of influences makes for a singular city. (However as you walk, be sure to carry water–you could cut the heat in New Orleans with a butter knife. When I remarked on this to a local tour guide she looked at me sideways, laughed, and said, “Oh honey, this is nothing!“)