Gumbo, chargrilled oysters, jambalaya, poboys, beignets —do we even need to name this destination? The ever-peckish City of New Orleans is synonymous with food.
In fact, the dishes here are so legendary they practically call for their own lexicon, because not everyone knows that boudin here is a sausage made with rice, or that a poboy is an overstuffed French-bread sandwich. Other terms to research before your next NOLA visit: king cake, muffuletta, go cups, a “dressed” sandwich, and bananas foster.
As a Louisiana native and frequent NOLA visitor, I could spend a lifetime exploring the Crescent City’s eateries (and I plan to). One thing every traveler should know is that restaurants here sometimes serve dishes so good they can you leave you awestruck. That can mean the best version of a favorite Creole or Cajun meal, or an entirely new take on a familiar ingredient. The important part is that the city is rich with inspiration, attracting chefs, and diners, eager to explore endless flavor possibilities.
Here’s a short list of five excellent places to sample NOLA’s unique gastronomy. Plus one key practical tip: many of the best restaurants in town are closed Monday and Tuesday, so plan accordingly.
The second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans opened in 1856 (about 16 years after the oldest, Antoine’s). And though the rich history of the purportedly haunted building of its original corner spot ended in 2019, today visitors can enjoy the Tujague’s dining legacy at its new, three-story location on the other end of Decatur Street. Expect to find attentive service and classic Creole cuisine plus some American standards, along with the Grasshopper and Whiskey Punch, two signature cocktails invented here. Among the must-try appetizers are the baked oysters Bienville topped with truffle oil, turtle soup, and Louisiana crab cake with bourbon corn sauce. Lovers of shrimp and grits will be glad to sample them here, along with the seared maple-leaf duck breast with citrus-sherry sauce. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday brunch is a zesty enterprise too, with choices like the cochon-de-lait biscuit benedict, croque Madame with gruyere, fried-shrimp poboy, and of course, bottomless mimosas. Tujague’s fans will be relieved to know that the restaurant’s iconic red and white neon sign at last made the move to the new location in 2022. 429 Decatur St. tujaguesrestaurant.com
The range of eateries in the French Quarter covers food for every budget, from carts and counter service, to super high-end jacket-required affairs. But Saint John offers something special in the Quarter, thanks to its modern décor, open kitchen, suave style, and self-described “haute Creole” menu. Chef-owner Eric Cook is a NOLA native who puts his own spin on authentic local cuisine, starting with dishes like smoked-boudin dirty rice, and hoppin’ john salad with fried oysters and black eyed peas. Cook prizes sustainable ingredients, so expect dishes of fresh-caught Gulf seafood and lots of locally grown ingredients, showcased beautifully in the River Road shrimp étouffée and the baked deviled crabs entrée. One of my personal favorites here is the chicken Clemenceau, served in a cast-iron skillet over fresh peas, mushrooms, and potatoes with tasso and blackened cornbread. Saint John is just down Decatur Street from Jackson Square, and fills out its long, bright space with a marble-clad front bar and atmospheric rear dining room. Reserve seats along the chef’s counter to watch the crew preparing each dish with gusto. Bonus: You can sample more of Cook’s refined Southern fare at his other NOLA restaurant Gris-Gris in the Lower Garden District, with a lovely balcony overlooking Magazine Street. 1117 Decatur St. saintjohnnola.com
Hop off the St. Charles Streetcar line at Josephine Street, about 15 minutes from the French Quarter, and wind through the lobby of the Pontchartrain Hotel to Jack Rose, one of the most celebratory restaurants in town. Decked out with colorful art, wallpaper, plants, and furnishings in three different rooms, this place will inspire your whimsy. Start with libations that tempt thirsty patrons with ingredients like orange liqueur and cucumber lemon shrub, then dive into a dinner menu of local and seasonal delights. That may include the duck and andouille gumbo, crab and polenta, and Gulf fish amandine; or it may venture into European variations like crispy calamari, pappardelle with lamb bacon, and short rib bourguignon. Because this spot is so Insta-worthy, expect plenty of selfie snapping, especially under the living room’s famous Lil Wayne portrait. With its iconic Mile High Pie dessert, I counted at least five birthday sparklers lit up during my visit; bottom line, the pie is worth it. P.S. Time your Jack Rose dinner to hear live jazz afterwards at the hotel’s Bayou Bar, or to flirt upstairs on the Hot Tin rooftop. Pontchartrain Hotel, 2031 St. Charles Ave. jackroserestaurant.com
The hip hospitality of the Virgin Hotel New Orleans extends well into its bright and tasty restaurant. The Commons Club fills out much of the hotel’s ground floor, where eclectic design touches and tons of natural light draw in patrons hankering for strong cocktails, hearty weekend brunch dishes, and a short-but-mighty dinner menu. Cast iron roasted okra and chilled pea soup stand out among the starters, and both pair well with the White Blossom, the bar’s version of a Cosmopolitan with a hint of honey-lavender syrup. Mains cover local favorites and some unexpected dishes, such as the Gulf fish with fried green tomato and grilled Berkshire pork chop with collard greens and bourbon molasses butter. For brunch you may find the spring vegetable frittata with farmer’s cheese a nice complement to the “build your own mimosa” bottle for the table. Virgin Hotel, 550 Baronne St. virginhotels.com
One measure of an exceptional restaurant is how long after your visit you keep thinking about it. Months later, Mister Mao is still on my mind. The unassuming corner cottage in the Lower Garden District opens first into the cozy bar area, where daring cocktails and mocktails are stirred and shaken with fruity, sweet, and spicy layers. Pass next into the pink and green “tropical roadhouse” dining room, with its tiger mural and hanging plants, to explore a menu that co-owner and Chef Sophina Uong pushes beyond traditional South-Asian flavors into its own Latin-tinted culinary genre. Daring palates will want/need to sample one of everything, so rely on the charming, knowledgeable servers to help you zero in on the day’s top dishes. One absolute must for everyone, however, is the pani puri, a plate of lentil cups filled with turmeric potato masala and a fruit chutney (the latter changes often, during my visit it was tamarind-pomegranate), with a “fiery mint water” poured over just before you pop it in your mouth to release a flavor-texture explosion. So many dishes here leave a delicious imprint yet defy explanation, but that’s OK considering the ever-changing menu. Just come hungry and expect vivid, veggie forward sendups with taste-bud ticklers like yuzu, miso, pepper varietals, tropical fruits, uncommon herbs, chicharrones and coconut crunchies. 4501 Tchoupitoulas St. mistermaonola.com