New Orleans' dining scene has always had an embarrassment of riches, but now more than ever, the options, especially places opened just this year, are almost overwhelming. If you’re one of those people who is more interested in the James Beard Awards than the Oscars, you probably noticed Shaya, La Petite Grocery’s Justin Devillier, and the legend herself Leah Chase of Dooky’s Chases Restaurant were all recognized at the recent 2016 ceremony.
It’s tempting to crack open that Google spreadsheet and make a minute-by-minute itinerary to pack it all in, and subsequently make your Instagram feed a vehicle of envy—to paraphrase Robin Leach, crawfish wishes and daiquiri dreams. But New Orleans doesn’t want you to do that. She wants you to make time for unplanned discoveries, to order impromptu beignets at midnight. She wants to remind you that it's not a competition.
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My New Orleans strategy? Go with a loose framework; make reservations for ⅓ of your stay, especially if you’re going to a legacy restaurant like Commander’s Palace or Upperline. You don’t want to let time completely get away from you, which is too easy to do. But for the other 2/3, let it go. You never know when a new friend might show you a hidden espresso bar near the 9th ward or if you’ll find room for barbecue at the Mother-in-Law Lounge.
That being said, here’s where I’ve visited on my last three trips to the Crescent City this year, and you should too—a mix of new and new-ish spots with stand-bys I couldn’t pass up. It is by no means even close to comprehensive, but it’s a starting point, which is all you need. As Bob Dylan said: “Everything in New Orleans is a good idea.”
There is no way to make a mistake ordering at this Creole-Cajun-Southeast Asian-Chinese-Japanese mash up unless you leave without trying the crawfish rangoons: fried wonton cootie catchers filled with creamy crawfish sauce levitating on a pool of spicy honey-chile sauce. You would also be remiss not to try the dirty fried rice or one of their daiquiris in flavors found in the natural world instead of a corner liquor store like Lemongrass Pear and Thai Tea. (3048 St Claude Ave; redschinese.com)
Are you taking a special lady/man friend to New Orleans? Congratulations. Take them to Cavan. Located on the super romantic stroll-able Magazine Street, this restaurant was once an 1800s-era mansion that has been preserved in a manner that could be called polished patina. Just visit the upstairs restroom to see one of the original clawfoot bathtubs. Once you get past the stupid gorgeous interiors, try their lighter-style gumbo and the market fish served with giardiniera and lemon. If you’re so lucky as to have Jenelle for your server, do whatever she says too. Finish dinner with a snifter of cognac, whether it makes sense or not. (3607 Magazine St.; cavannola.com)
Speaking of beautiful interiors, Memphis’ dynamic duo Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman recently opened their latest venture, a lush and sophisticated Southern-Italian osteria (the namesake, their toddler daughters), inside New Orleans’ always bumpin’ Ace Hotel. A wall border of ribbon palm fronds encircles a luminous dining room, giant Corinthian columns, and olive green banquettes. But the striking details belie the comforting, approachable menu featuring meatballs inspired by Andy and Michael’s grandmothers’ recipes and their signature handmade pastas. (The Agnolotti equals unicorn emoji.) Had too much to drink the night before brunch? The J.E. Salad and the diner-style John T Burger named after the Southern Foodways Alliance leader will fix everything. (600 Carondelet St.; josephineestelle.com)
Let’s just keep running with the stunning spaces theme. This bistro, in the more residential area of the French Quarter, is like the Meryl Streep of neighborhood restaurants: timeless, yet modern and impossibly good in its role. During my last visit, I found myself staring in barefaced awe at the simple majesty of a halved head of fried cauliflower with tapenade aioli and sheep’s milk cheese. The roasted oysters with herbsaint butter and cornbread crumbs or the local heirloom tomato salad with crispy chicken skins and green goddess dressing produces a similar effect on people. Chef Alex Harrell might be a wizard or conjuring bayou magic, but it’s fine. (1032 Chartres St.; angelinenola.com)
There isn’t much to say of Alon Shaya’s Mid-East marvel that hasn’t already been said so I’ll be brief: I would like to shrink myself and live inside the pita bread. These puffy discs are warm and comforting like fresh-from-the-dryer sheets. But they have to be good. Anything inferior would not be worthy to touch the menu’s myriad takes on hummus, so smooth that it almost resembles oil paint on a palette. Grab a seat in the sunny white-brick courtyard, and you may accidentally stay all day. (4213 Magazine St.; shayarestaurant.com)
Many moons ago, Ernest and Mary Hansen invented the first ice shaving machine in 1939 and started pouring flavored syrups over cups filled with the near-velvety mounds of ice. Now sno-balls and New Orleans are cosmically linked like red beans and rice or Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. When the humidity is roughly 476%, sno-balls save. Try the Cream of Nectar, a hot-pink Louisiana anomaly that tastes vaguely like Nesquik Strawberry Milk but more almond-y, or the Ginger-Cayenne for something less sweet. You can collect their illustrated plastic cups emblazoned with the Hansen’s motto: “There are no shortcuts to quality” – a message I like to remember when reusing them for morning smoothies. (4801 Tchoupitoulas St.; snobliz.com)
You could easily walk past Sylvain if you weren’t looking for it, but behind its small facade is one of my favorite New Orleans courtyards—a secluded hideaway in the bustle of the Quarter. The building was constructed in 1796 and was at one point a Storyville brothel owned by the 6-foot-tall Madame Aunt Rose Arnold, apparently a muse of author William Faulkner. The vibe is very much Pirates of the Caribbean (minus the swords) meets old-world, European elegance. The kitchen, which you can watch through the windows of a semi-disconnected room in the courtyard, is helmed by Chef Martha Wiggins who treats every dish with equal expertise whether it’s the classic pork Milanese with smoked tomato vinaigrette or the more playful Chick-Syl-Vain sandwich, crispy buttermilk fried chicken and house-made pickles. (625 Chartres St.; sylvainnola.com)
Port of Call
I may or may not have made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to New Orleans earlier this year just because all I wanted for my birthday was a cheeseburger with a baked potato and a Monsoon. It may seem silly to go all the way to New Orleans for a cheeseburger, but if you’ve ever had one of these juicy wonders piled high with shredded cheddar, you know that this place means business. Also, where on earth can you get a cheeseburger with a loaded baked potato and not appear to be completely gluttonous? Not Outback Steakhouse, I can assure you. As for the Monsoon, the recipe is said to be based on the drink pirates requested before walking the plank. Whether you want to believe that as you sip on this mega-fruity, maraschino cherry garnished rum punch is up to you, but believe me, you’ll be glad you had that burger and potato beforehand. Pro-tip: This tiny, nautically themed spot is always busy. Put your name on the list, but hawk the far right or left sides of the bar. (838 Esplanade Ave.; portofcallnola.com)
Donald Link and Ryan Prewitt’s wood-fired hearth may more resemble a towering inferno, but what its produces is some of the best seafood dishes in the city. To have the full Peche experience, ordering a whole fish grilled or roasted over the hearth’s flames is mandatory. Whether it’s a red snapper dressed in salsa verde or a flounder with mushroom sauce (that still haunts my very being), the experience will be transcendent. If you’ve come to New Orleans for oysters, step right up to their raw bar where you can order oysters harvested from specific areas of Louisiana and taste the distinct differences between them. (800 Magazine St; pecherestaurant.com)
Come to this bright bakery for the cornbread with Poirier’s cane syrup, the grilled crawfish bread, Creole tomato soup, and sausage biscuit with pimento cheese; stay for the Frosé (rosé in slushie form). Don’t forget to grab a couple of their chocolate chip cookies, unless you prefer to have them in dough form, which in that case, Chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White have you covered. Yes, you can have two actual beaters of chocolate chip cookie dough and a cup of Intelligentsia coffee at the same time in public. Dreams come true in New Orleans, my friends. Bonus! Bring a cooler because there’s a Rouse’s supermarket across the street where you can buy wild-caught Gulf shrimp for roughly $6 a pound, which is horrifyingly cheap if you live inland or in the mountains. (611 O'Keefe Ave; willajean.com)
Killer Poboys, N7, John Besh’s reopening of the Caribbean Room, and Vessel are on the list for next time. Follow me on Instagram @hayeshannah to see what I find.