Any food-lover worth their salt is well aware of the celebrated New Orleans culinary scene. Home to one of the most historic and vital ports in the country, the city's fresh seafood haul is regular and wide-ranging. Additionally, the region's mix of French, Creole, and Cajun cultures brings with it a myriad of flavors and styles. With fewer than 400,000 residents hosting 10 million visitors per year, the city's food and beverage industry is one of the top sources of income, which lends itself to some of the best service in the country.
Recently, local chefs have been branching out and trying their hands at newer cuisines like Caribbean and Mediterranean, and getting creative with modern food pairings. Though it's almost impossible to pick just five (narrowing down your options alone can be a full-time job), below is a nice mix of places to start with — aside from the classic Commander's Palace and Café du Monde — when dining in The Big Easy.
You won't get far into New Orleans without hearing the name John Besh. Other than Emeril, he is probably the best-known chef in the city (and beyond). But Besh has thought well outside of the box compared to a typical celebrity chef (i.e. slapping their name on restaurant after restaurant only to end up with a watered down brand). Instead, he promotes from within by supporting and partnering with his stable of chefs as they launch their own restaurants. Once open, the Besh Group stamp of approval is ever-present.
Willa Jean is just one of those situations. A partnership between Besh and two talented pastry chefs, Kelly Fields and Lisa White, this restaurant-meets-bakery is located in the Central Business District. Yes, the city is known for its delicious beignets, but when you're seeking a breakfast or brunch consisting of a bit more than fried dough, Willa Jean will likely be one of the best meals you eat in the city.
The menu here aptly delivers on salty, sweet, and savory tastes; both within each dish and among the selection of dishes overall. The cornbread, served as an entire loaf, with maple syrup is a must, and the fried oyster eggs Benedict is an example of a new spin on the mollusk that’ll have you coming back for it all week. The menu continues with fried chicken biscuits that make the South proud; a surprisingly hearty and filling avocado toast; and a Bakers Basket that has every kind of pastry you'd ever want plus toppings like cranberry spread and butter cheese. The pièce de résistance, though, has to be the "milk and cookies" dessert. A plate of gooey and warm chocolate chip cookies is accompanied by milk that tastes so fresh you'll think a cow is hanging out in the kitchen. The final touch is the small whisk covered in — wait for it — real cookie dough. Make your reservations now.
(Correction: The partnership was really between John Besh and Kelly Fields - Lisa White helped to open Willa Jean and is now helming pastry at the group's newest openings in the Thompson Nashville Hotel.)
When Nina Compton came in second place on Top Chef: New Orleans in 2013, she returned home with much more than a trophy. She fell in love with the city she had competed in and decided to set up her first restaurant there. In 2015, Compère Lapin was born in the hipster Warehouse Arts District. Since then, Compton has delivered her trademark blend of Caribbean, French, and Italian fare with skill and ingenuity. She gained fame as the executive chef at Scott Conant's Scarpetta in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Dishes like conch croquettes with pickled pineapple tartar sauce, cold smoked tuna tartare with avocado and crispy bananas, black drum with squash, beurre blanc, and caviar, and curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi and cashews show off Compton's abilities while highlighting local flavors. Drinks from cocktail maven perfectly pair with the cool vibe of the restaurant, located in the Old. No 77 Hotel. The Wry Smile — made from rye whiskey, grand poppy, rhubarb, a sweet vermouth, and East India sherry — has a kick but goes down easy. The Inspi(RED) Tea with vodka, hibiscus, plum, and ginger beer is particularly refreshing.
A must-do in New Orleans is strolling down a portion (or all) of the six-mile span of Magazine Street. Magazine is littered with shops, cafés, and restaurants nestled between stretches of residential houses. (One favorite boutique is Grandma's Buttons, should you be seeking unique jewelry and cute clothing.) Magazine weaves through different neighborhoods, but one of the most lively and charming sections is in the Garden District. Here, you will find Coquette, a modern American bistro from James Beard-nominated chef Michael Stoltzfus. Based around seasonal and local foods with Southern influence (and not just because of the current trend, Stolzfus has followed this philosophy since opening in 2008), Coquette offers a well-edited, changing menu of hit after hit accompanied by an international wine list and a twist on New Orleans cocktails. The black drum fish dish, which you'll see on many NOLA menus, was the best I had in the entire city. The smell of lavender hits your senses just before you dig into the perfectly seasoned ciabatta and rosemary breadcrumb topping. The desserts were also spot on — particularly the peanut butter pudding. If one is feeling adventurous, the blind tasting involves the chef delivering to the entire table whatever he deems best in the moment.
Dick & Jenny's on the River
Often, the goal of a traveler is to tap into the local haunts. Dick & Jenny's, an adorable, waterfront tavern in the somewhat gritty river area, is just one of those places. While the 15-year-old restaurant changed hands a few years ago and took on an Italian spin, the mainstay doesn't appear to have lost any of its original charm. With a lively crowd yet an immensely homey feeling, the funky cottage serves delectable food and pleasurable vibes to its diverse audience. The chargrilled oysters with roasted red pepper and garlic are briny and smoky perfection, while the Bouillabaisse with crab, shrimp, gulf fish, mussels, tomatoes, steamed rice, and saffron-fennel broth will reappear in your dreams.
The cocktails are also winners. As with many NOLA spots, they've mastered the art of garnishes, such as the perfect piece of candied ginger on their Ginger Minxginger (infused vodka, grapefruit, cointreau, honey, angostura). When you're done eating, hop over to Tipitina’s — one of the most famous and celebrated music clubs in the city. When we went, we just happened upon a Maceo Parker performance!
Shaya is a James Beard Award winner for Best New Restaurant in 2015 (among other awards). You won't taste anything else like it in the city. Alon Shaya — another Besh protégé — was formerly at Besh Steak, then opened Domenica and Pizza Domenica as a partner, and is now a partner and chef at Shaya. Alon, who grew up in Israel, always wanted to bring his country's food to New Orleans, but the time was never right — until now. The restaurant mixes Israel's modern food revolution with classic New Orleans ingredients. The dip selection “for the table” goes well beyond the classic hummus. Other delights such as Ikra (a labneh-like paddlefish caviar spread with shallots), lutenitsa (a Bulgarian purée of roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato), and curried fried cauliflower hummus with caramelized onions and cilantro. A "bread boy" mans the unbelievably flavorful and perfectly dense pita bread, which comes out of a beautiful wood-burning oven. The restaurant's shining star, though, is most certainly the lamb, which likely won Shaya the James Beard Award. Slow-cooked and served with whipped feta, walnut, and satsuma tabouleh, this dish was enough to make a certain "usually vegetarian" girl rethink her choices.
BONUS Cocktail Stop: Hot Tin at the The Pontchartrain Hotel
The landmark Pontchartrain, which was recently reopened after a multi-year closure, is full of history, beauty, and well-known anecdotes. (The deal for the New Orleans Saints was signed here in 1969, and Tennessee Williams lived on site while writing A Streetcar Named Desire.) The hotel's famous restaurant, The Caribbean Room, is the kind of place every New Orleans local has a story about (just ask the GM… he took his prom date there). Now beautifully redesigned with rattan furniture, a plant-filled sunroof, and the original Charles Reinike murals; the restaurant and hotel are catering to a new kind of crowd (Jay Z and Beyoncé recently stopped by). Head upstairs to Hot Tin, the rooftop bar, for some of the best views and cocktails in the city. The indoor area is decorated with vintage antiques from across the country and populated by a local, post-work happy hour crowd. Later at night, it turns into more of a club scene with lines out the door. Order a classic Sazerac cocktail — a New Orleans signature. It's not always on the menu, but they'll proudly mix one up, and then you can say you tried one!