Newcomer's Guide to New Orleans

New Orleans is a food lover's paradise, but trying to decide where to eat (and once there, what to eat) can be overwhelming. Here’s a first-timer's guide to some of the best places and dishes to eat in NOLA.

Welcome to New Orleans

Dressed in pomp and thrumming with jazz, licked with deep, buttery sauces, blackened with 16 spices, arguing over the elegance of Creole vs. the boldness of Cajun — New Orleans wants us to eat it up. And we can. Though only a short flight from almost anywhere in the U.S., it’s like another world — a paradise of culture and cuisine and fun. But if you’re anything like us, trying to decide where to eat (and once there, what to eat) is pretty overwhelming. Here’s a first-timer's guide to some of the best places to eat in NOLA, with the one dish you must eat while you’re there as well as a surprise you’ll want to try.

Mr. B's Bistro

201 Royal St.

One word: classy. This French Quarter staple, owned by the well-pedigreed Cindy Brennan, is as justly famous for its wait staff and cooks as its finely tuned Creole classic dishes and its cool, casual atmosphere.

Must-Try Dishes at Mr. B's

The must-eat? Barbecued Shrimp. Erase whatever that name conjures. This is an only-in-NOLA dish of shrimp sauteed with garlic, Worcestershire, Creole seasoning and butter, lots of it. The soft slices of French bread are for sopping up the delicious sauce. Don’t be afraid to ask for more bread. The surprise is Chicken Pontalba, which is only available at brunch. Created by the venerable Paul Blange, the former chef of Brennan’s, it’s one of the older classics of the New Orleans pantheon, though increasingly hard to find. The rich recipe consists of seared chicken served over diced potatoes, ham and mushrooms. A luxurious bearnaise sauce coats the whole thing.

Commander’s Palace

1403 Washington Ave.

From Paul Prudhomme to Emeril Lagasse and now Tory McPhail, what famous New Orleans chef hasn’t worked here? Located in the lush Garden District across from moss-draped trees and an ancient, above-ground cemetery, this 100-year-old restaurant is truly family owned — Ella Brennan, the proprietress and grande dame of New Orleans, lives next door. A meal here is a major treat from beginning to end. A team of waiters winds you through room after room — on a parade of coolness paramount to Ray Liotta walking through the kitchen of Copacabana in the movie Goodfellas. As you approach your table, the waiters pull out your chair — a waiter for every chair!

Must-Try Dishes at Commander's

The food here is classic, rich and unforgettable. The must-eat is the Shrimp & Tasso Henican, a staff and customer favorite. Shrimp are stuffed with strips of tasso ham, coated with a luscious hot-sauce-laced butter sauce and served over a 5-pepper jelly with spears of tart, pickled okra. The surprise is a Lacquered Quail, which changes according to seasonal availability. Usually found on a special section of the menu called Chef Tory's Playground, it's always sweetly glazed and magnificent.

Galatoire's

209 Bourbon St.

Every day at Galatoire’s is a special event, but the Friday lunch is legendary: Many customers take their table at lunch and totter away long after dinner. The waiters are as good as the food; some of them have been working there since the 1960s, serving three to four generations of many local families.

Must-Try Dishes at Galatoire's

The must-eat is Poisson Meuniere Amandine, sauteed fish coated with brown butter and toasted almonds. There are many ins and outs of the menu (some of the waiters won’t let you order from it, in fact), but for us the surprise a rich, buttery Lobster Thermidor next door at their newly opened steakhouse (connected in the back by a conjoining door). Have a Sazerac while you’re at it.

High Hat Cafe

4500 Freret St.

A newcomer on a street that has taken off in recent years — from the cocktail haven Cure to The Company Burger — this neighborhood haunt is the type of place we could eat at every night. Adolfo Garcia, one of the owners, is an affable fellow who executes down-home dishes perfectly in a vein he terms “the Delta meets the Bayou.”

Must-Try Dishes at High Hat Cafe

The Fried Catfish platter with creamy coleslaw, tender hushpuppies and homemade pickles is the must-eat. The surprise on the menu is Garcia’s Shrimp Remoulade Wedge Salad, a sort of deconstruction of the traditional preparation: Instead of mayo, a vinaigrette-style remoulade sauce dresses these barely poached shrimp, a crisp wedge of iceberg lettuce and a couple of deviled eggs complete the dish.

Tableau

616 St. Peter St.

Dickie Brennan has many restaurants in town, but this one — his newest (and dearest) — celebrates old New Orleans in a way that’s nostalgic and tasty at the same time. Nestled in the same building as the Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre (the oldest community theater in the country), Tableau has all the trappings of a new classic establishment: a formal staff, romantic courtyard lighting and a menu chock-full of spins on traditional fare.

Must-Try Dishes at Tableau

The must-eat dish here is the Eggs Hussarde — for dinner. "A local person often has eggs for dinner — off the menu — at an old guard restaurant," says Dickie. "So I thought I’d put them on ours." The BBQ Shrimp and Grits is the surprise, as it’s a dish that is more Southern than strictly New Orleans. Tableau’s version includes Abita beer in the sauce — a local touch. "I grew up in a town where restaurants become institutions," says Dickie. "Our dream is that Tableau will become one too."

Redfish Grill

115 Bourbon St.

You can’t walk down Bourbon Street without noticing this rollicking bastion of seafood. Despite its sprawling size and bustling demeanor, it’s a populist restaurant that does everything right.

Must-Try Dishes at Redfish Grill

The must-eat here is the gargantuan Double Chocolate Bread Pudding, which the whole restaurant stops and watches as it comes out of the kitchen. The Hickory Grilled Redfish here is the surprise, but not ordered straight from the menu. Ask for it blackened — as it was the day the restaurant first opened — and the kitchen will gladly comply with a screamingly flavorful spice-crusted fish on a bed of potatoes and peas.

Arnaud's

813 Rue Bienville

This old French Quarter lady was rescued and renovated by the Casbarian family in the late 1970s. Arnaud’s is everything a New Orleans restaurant should be: mysterious, inviting and delicious. (Check out the Mardi Gras museum on the second floor.)

Must-Try Dishes at Arnaud's

The must-eat here is the Shrimp Arnaud (shrimp remoulade). “It’s pretty much the yardstick for everyone’s version in town,” says Chef Tommy DiGiovanni. “And I’m not just saying that.” It is fantastic. The secret? Is it the mustard? “I hate to be cliche, but I won’t say,” Tommy smiles. Smoked Pompano Bourgeois is the surprise. A modern, soulful plate that surprisingly is not replicated anywhere else in the city. Dressed with hard–boiled egg, sour cream and capers, the firm applewood-smoked fish is the perfect appetizer.

Restaurant R’evolution

777 Rue Bienville

The brainchild of Louisiana’s chef-in-chief John Folse and Chicago’s Rick Tramonto, this elegant French Quarter restaurant evokes the spirit of the city in a series of finely crafted renditions of old-style dishes.

Must-Try Dishes at Restaurant R'evolution

Death by Gumbo is absolutely the must-eat dish here. Purportedly created by Chef Folse for the gourmand writer Craig Claiborne, the dish comes to the table with an oyster-and-andouille-sausage-stuffed quail at the center of a bowl, at which point the waiter (with some flair) pours a heady gumbo-like gravy over the top. The menu offers many twists and turns, but the surprise is the Crawfish-Stuffed Flounder Napoleon, a delicate layering of fish and shellfish teetering in an artichoke and oyster stew.

Toups' Meatery

845 N. Carrollton Ave.

Despite the cuisine’s widespread popularity, Cajun restaurants are few and far between in New Orleans. Hence, Chef Isaac and Amanda Toups' decision to open Toups' Meatery, which is nothing short of a new Cajun masterpiece. Isaac is from Rayne, La., (in the heart of Cajun country) and cooks a lot of the food here just as he learned from his family.

Must-Try Dishes at Toup's Meatery

The Meatery Board — a collection of pates, pork rinds, sausages and galantines — is the must-eat. The surprise is the Lamb Neck with black-eyed peas and mint chow chow. Cooked for hours until nearly falling apart, the braising liquid is reduced to a rich, glossy glaze.

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