Where oh where to start? Is there any other American city so revered, so identified with the glory of gluttony and the joy of the juice than New Orleans? Perhaps, but none with a truly indigenous cuisine (or two), none that lay claim (rightly or not) to inventing the cocktail, and surely none that goes about it with such unbridled gusto. As the oft-repeated homily goes: In most places, people eat to live; in New Orleans, people live to eat. Seriously, you’re only visiting, so convince your tortured psyche that you can resume a sensible diet when you get home and immerse yourself in the local culture. In other words, indulge. It’s so very worth it. A very strident vegan friend gave it up for a few days while here (yes, really), though most chefs, and certainly those in the better restaurants, are adept at adapting to any specified “isms” or dietary restriction. The single most important thing to know? Make reservations.
New Orleans restaurant matriarch Miss Ella Brennan says that whereas in other places, one eats to live, “In New Orleans, we live to eat.” It’s hard to spoil such a big appetite.
Here, we don’t call a friend and ask, “How are you?” Instead, it’s either the colloquial “Where y’at?” or, more often, “What’re you eatin’?” Here, cuisine is community, cuisine is culture, cuisine is practically church (literally and figuratively— except for the fact that Church is church). Food forms the crucial threads of the city’s multicolored fabric: It weaves through the people, the music, the history, the parties, the traditions. A style of gumbo can define a neighborhood. A roux technique can unite (or divide) generations of families.
At last count New Orleans had more than 1,400 restaurants, so there’s goodness in every direction and on every level: in centuries-old grande-dame restaurants and the corner po’ boy shops; in a gas station with shockingly good steam-table food; and in the sleek bistro of a brash, upstart culinary-school grad fusing Grandma’s recipes with unpronounceable techniques and ingredients. And that’s not even counting the many bars and nightclubs serving seriously stellar snacks.
There are culinary training grounds like the recently renovated Café Reconcile (1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.; www.cafereconcile.org; tel. 504/568-1157) and Liberty’s Kitchen (422 1/2 S. Broad St.; www.libertyskitchen.org; tel. 504/822-4011), serving sturdy meals while training young men and women for careers in food service. And there are fourth-generation chefs working backstreet dives whose menus and ingredients haven’t varied since, well, forever.
You are going to want to eat a lot here. And you are going to want to eat here, a lot. And then you are going to talk about it. You’ll probably adopt the local custom of talking about dinner while you’re at lunch (and lunch while you’re breakfasting). The food here is utterly, unashamedly regional, which isn’t to say that (in some cases) it’s not also utterly of the moment and sophisticated. But it’s ingredient- and chef-driven, which makes it uniquely New Orleanean: It will never be Copenhagen or Bilbao, or New York for that matter, nor does it want (or need) to.
In many restaurants, certainly in the more traditional ones, dishes are based largely on variations of Creole recipes. Others, the innovators, take Creole as a cue and go wildly afield. Creole food was originally based on recipes brought by the French settlers, the herbs and filé (ground sassafras leaves) used by the Native Americans, and saffron and peppers introduced by the Spanish. From the West Indies came new vegetables, spices, and sugar cane, and when slave boats arrived, an African influence was added. Today, the Italian influence runs deep, and even Vietnamese has found its way onto the plate, brought by a newer wave of immigrants. And while nearly all restaurateurs source fresh ingredients from local purveyors, the ban on butter never took hold here (thankfully). Flavor comes first.
So indulge and enjoy. It’s what you do here. Try some of everything. We’re particularly big on lunching, since many of the best restaurants have terrific prix-fixe lunch deals that include dishes that’d cost twice as much during dinner. Then start planning the next trip, so you can do it again.
Please keep in mind that all prices, hours, and menu items in the following listings are subject to change according to season, availability, or whim. You should call in advance to ensure the accuracy of anything of import to you.
Make sure to check out our “Best of” recommendations.
Of Beignets, Boudin & Dirty Rice
Many of the foods in New Orleans are unique to the region and consequently may be unfamiliar. This list that will help you navigate local menus:
Andouille (ahn-doo-we) -- A spicy Cajun sausage made with pork.
bananas Foster -- Bananas sautéed in liqueur, brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter, drenched in rum, set ablaze, served over vanilla ice cream.
barbequed shrimp -- Not actually grilled or BBQ-sauced, but a butter-soaked, garlicky, pepper-shot peel-and-eat Gulf specialty.
beignet (bin-yay) -- A big, puffy, deep-fried, hole-free doughnut, liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar—the more sugar, the better.
boudin (boo-dan) -- Cajun liver-and-rice sausage of varying spice levels.
café brûlot (cah-fay brew-low) -- Coffee, spices, and liqueurs, served flaming.
crawfish -- A tiny, lobsterlike creature common locally and eaten in every conceivable way, including boiled whole with spices and peeled by hand.
debris -- The rich, juicy bits of meat that fall off during roasting and carving.
dressed -- A “dressed” po’ boy comes with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and sometimes pickles.
étouffée (ay-too-fay) -- A Cajun stew (usually containing crawfish or shrimp) served with rice.
filé (fee-lay) -- Ground sassafras leaves, frequently used to thicken gumbo.
gumbo -- A thick, spicy soup of poultry, seafood, and/or sausage, with okra in a roux base, served with rice. Gumbo z’herbes, a Good Friday tradition, eschews meat for greens.
holy trinity -- Onions, bell peppers, and celery: the base of much Creole and Cajun cooking.
Hurricane -- A local drink of rum and passion-fruit punch.
jambalaya (jum-ba-lie-ya) -- A stew of yellow rice, sausage, seafood, poultry, vegetables, and spices.
lagniappe (lan-yap) -- A little something extra: a bonus freebie.
mirliton (mur-li-tone) -- A pear-shaped squash also called chayote.
muffuletta (moo-foo-let-ta or moo-fuh-lot-ta) -- A mountainous sandwich made with Italian deli meats, cheese, and olive salad, piled onto a specially made round bread.
oysters Rockefeller -- Oysters on the half shell in a creamy spinach sauce, so called because Rockefeller was the only name rich enough to match the taste.
po’ boy, po-boy, poor boy -- A sandwich on long French bread, similar to submarines and grinders. Often filled with fried seafood or roast beef, or famously with French fries and gravy, they can include most anything. Originally, free sustenance for striking transit workers, those “poor boys.”
pralines (praw-leens) -- A sweet confection of brown sugar and pecans.
rémoulade -- A spicy sauce, usually over shrimp, concocted of mayonnaise, boiled egg yolks, horseradish, Creole mustard, and lemon juice.
roux -- A mixture of flour and fat that’s slowly cooked over low heat, used to thicken stews, soups, and sauces.
Sazerac -- The official cocktail of New Orleans, consisting of rye whiskey (or sometimes cognac) with sugar and bitters.
shrimp Creole -- Shrimp in a tomato sauce seasoned with what’s known around town as the “holy trinity:” onions, bell peppers, and celery.
In America, there might be better gastronomic destinations than New Orleans, but there is no place more uniquely wonderful . . . It’s a must city because there’s no explaining it, no describing it. You can’t compare it to anything. —Anthony Bourdain
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.