When tucking itself in for the night after offering up another sublime dinnertime experience, the City That Care Forgot always remembers to offer a prayer to the talents who make New Orleans a culinary capital and regularly lug home accolades—more than 20 James Beard Awards and counting. Food is exalted. The city appears to be sustained by heaping portions of jambalaya and gumbo and fueled by its creole sauces and Cajun spices. But there’s more than that on New Orleans’ menu. Here, some suggestions:
The city's Central Business District, which everyone simply calls the CBD, is just upriver from the French Quarter and includes the art-filled Warehouse District. Three of the city’s big museums are here—the National WWII Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art—and a small one: the American Italian Museum (within the American Italian Cultural Center), which relays the story of Italian immigrants in the Southeast. You’ll also find some of New Orleans’ best places to eat downtown.
Classic Bites: The walls of chef Emeril Lagasse’s Emeril’s glow gold, which will warm the palate for a bite of the chef’s classic barbecued shrimp, the truffle fried chicken for two, or homemade boudin and andouille sausage. For the past 26 years, the restaurant has commanded the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Julia Streets—home to a large cluster of contemporary art galleries, as well as the location of the annual August arts event Whitney White Linen Night.
Trendy Bites: New Orleans’ downtown is full of art deco office buildings that became trendy hotels, like the lofts for urban professionals at Ace and Catahoula Hotels. Restaurants followed. Stylish and brooding, Balise offers rarefied southern fare, such as fish stew or braised pork shank with ricotta dumplings and cherry tomatoes; small plates such as fried smoked oysters and mushroom toast grilled octopus with marinated chickpeas, herbs and pimento; and craft cocktails, all in a 19th century Creole townhouse with, if the weather beckons, a wraparound balcony on the second floor. Opened by the husband-and-wife team of chef Justin Devillier and general manager Mia Freiberger-Devillier, the restaurant feels like an antebellum oil painting sprung to life.
Unexpected Bites: Foodies tend to avoid hotel restaurants for their follow-the-crowd staging, but chef Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin (“brother rabbit” in French) just off the lobby in the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery wins a devoted local following for its plates with clever Caribbean twists (crispy banana chips with smoked tuna tartare, curried goat, or hamachi—a fish used in sushi—with pickled mango and trout roe). There’s always great chicken to cluck over too. Brunch? Hop to it with butternut squash fritters or poached eggs with biscuits and gravy and a Bloody Mary.
Just downriver from the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is packed with bodice-rippingly romantic domestic architecture. The bungalows and Creole cottages steal the heart—and these days the pocketbook, as real estate prices climb to match the French Quarter’s. Wandering its streets is like rummaging through the city’s three centuries in sultry subtropical air.
Classic Bites: Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant, with its old-school oval windows, whitewash exterior, and film noir neon, is the quintessential local joint (opened in 1939) that loves visitors too. Open 24/7, Buffa’s usually has a jazz band in the back, especially during its weekend jazz brunch. Just as entertaining: the scene at the bar, especially well into the night. Ty ordering the deep-fried alligator meatballs during the colder months, or boudin balls with spicy crawfish sauce in the spring and summer. Find award-winning bratwurst jambalaya anytime. Wash it down with a Sazerac.
Trendy Bites: Stroll into Paladar 511 and you might be in the San Francisco Mission, given the high ceilings, industrial aesthetic, and beards. The California vibe is deliberate. Food is seasonal and fresh with an emphasis on pizzas, but don’t hesitate to try other dishes like the pork chops or or yellowfin tuna crudo with avocado, pistachio, fennel and cumin-lime vinaigrette. Cheese boards are offered daily, with olives and house-made breads and pasta. The restaurant offers an excellent wine and cocktail list. Try a Montenegro sour or an Overly Aggressive Old Man for starters.
Unexpected Bites: The food hall trend came late to New Orleans, but it’s here now, settling in at the St. Roch Market. Reopened in 2015 in a shuttered city market on the St. Claude corridor, it sits directly across the busy avenue from the New Orleans Healing Center. Grab your gris-gris and head inside to troll the various vendors. You can buy food and sit anywhere. Suggestion: Try the Nola Trio from vendor Fete Au Fete, a sample pack of red beans and rice, shrimp and grits, and crawfish poutine, and eat it with a glass of whatever-they’re-pouring-it’s-good rosé from The Mayhaw Bar down the hall.
BAYOU ST. JOHN
Bayou St. John originally drained the city’s swamps into Lake Pontchartrain. Today it's a watery ribbon curling through a graceful residential neighborhood where you can roll in the clover at City Park (mind the fire ants) and stroll its many paths, or explore St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 with its alabaster angels ascending from pillars and tombs.
Classic Bites: A block from the bayou, the Parkway Bakery and Tavern has made food for the neighborhood for more than a hundred years and was one of the first places to serve the city’s famous po’boy sandwiches. Locals swear by the golden fried-shrimp and fried-oyster versions, just two examples of the more than 20 types they make.
Trendy Bites: On a lively block of bistros and coffee and wine bars, 1000 Figs is infused with Mediterranean atmosphere. There’s house-made pan bread for dips and salads, such as the arugula, strawberry, olive and preserved lemon salad olive, fennel, walnut, and parsley salad and chicken salad. All can be shared, and in the small and intimate space, so is the conversation over free refills of hibiscus iced tea.
Unexpected Bites: For a former colony of the Spanish crown, there’s little to show for it when it comes to a meal. French food abounds in New Orleans, but Lola’s is one of the few Spanish restaurants. Set beneath a canopy of live oaks on Esplanade, the 23-year-old bistro serves paella and fideuà (a noodle dish) accompanied by fresh seafood, meat, or vegetables.
The city’s famous shopping corridor sports numerous family-run stores, local bars, and one-of-a-kind boutiques where the employees dispense all sorts of advice and expound on various topics of conversation, from what gloves to wear to a debutante party to the local weather to gossip about the city’s worst potholes (and there are lots). And like all New Orleanians, they keep a running list on where you should eat. Here are some:
Classic Bites: Parasol’s might be fudging it, being one block south of Magazine, but this corner bar’s time-honored roast beef po’boys (order with gravy fries) and colorfully off-color clientele are worth the few extra steps down Constance Street and into the Irish Channel.
Trendy Bites: New Orleanians smirked when the New York Times said Kenton’s Food and Bourbon was “somewhat remote” and out-of-the way. On the corner of Nashville Avenue and Magazine Street, the bourbon-fueled restaurant helmed by chef Kyle Knall is anything but—being in the heart of establishment Uptown. The fresh Gulf fare, such as shrimp toast with celery and ginger aioli grilled pompano and butter beans or just chilled oysters, is sublime.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Unexpected Bites: Chef Alon Shaya captivated the city with his eponymous Shaya and its homage to Israeli cuisine. His plates of Aleppo peppers; curry-dusted cauliflower; and lamb kebabs with pine nuts, tahini, and cilantro—plus an on-premises pita oven—had Esquire magazine proclaiming it a 2015 “Best New Restaurant” in the country. The hummus is required, but also try the lutenitsa. The Bulgarian dip of roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic, and tomatoes will make footsore shoppers’ toes curl with pleasure.
BIKES AND BITES
Sheltered by the massive gnarled limbs of live oaks and just as twisty family trees, St. Charles Avenue, which turns into Carrollton Avenue at the bend of the Mississippi River, is a canal of grand mansions interspersed with landmarks like the Pontchartrain Hotel (where superstar chef John Besh and chef Chris Lusk are reopening the famed power dining spot, the Caribbean Room), the Garden District, Audubon Park, and Tulane and Loyola Universities. It’s also a great place to bike past some of New Orelans' tastiest restaurants and most impressive architecture.
Classic Bites: New Orleans’ poultry diva, Willie Mae Seaton, opened Willie Mae’s Grocery and Deli, a St. Charles Avenue extension of her Treme restaurant, in 2014 before passing at age 99. Expect crisp and tender fried chicken that you can take out for an impromptu picnic in Audubon Park. Up for more adventure? Pedal farther into the park to the Fly, a grassy lawn bordering the Mississippi located right behind the Audubon Zoo, which is now trumpeting its new elephant enclosure.
Trendy Bites: Boucherie was opened by two friends who moved to New Orleans in the hard years following Hurricane Katrina. Their combination of contemporary southern food and affordable prices soon won them a devoted following and a larger space with outdoor seating on Carrollton Avenue. The always up-and-coming menu changes every two months and currently features such fare as spring onion vichyssoise, shaved tasso and duck rillette charcuterie, and crispy skin jerked redfish with pecan slaw.
Unexpected Bites: In an unexpected place—where the river bends—sits Cowbell: A quick detour off Carrollton and down Oak Street, the college shopping district, ends in an old filling station, where patrons crowd the bar stools and outdoor tables to feast on the figgy toast with braised andouille sausage, sweet-sour figs and blue cheese croutons, fresh grilled fish, and the “locally world-famous” Cowbell hamburger, made from grass-fed beef with a signature ketchup and agogo sauce.