Some say the only reason to visit New Orleans is to eat. That’s not entirely true—the city’s rhythms bounce around history, culture, music and so much more—but the food is a celebration here. Anchoring the Gulf of Mexico, the Crescent City has been a cornerstone of global trade for more than 300 years, absorbing cultural flavor after waves and waves of immigrants from Italy, France, Africa, and the Caribbean made their way to its streets. This cultural stew is what makes the city so wonderful, the culinary history thickened by roux and spiced from ships that sailed the world.
In addition to famous dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, muffaletta and po’ boy sandwiches, shrimp etouffee, barbecued oysters and crawfish boils, it’s the birthplace of the modern cocktail (the Sazerac circa 1800). You can learn everything you need to know about the city just by eating your way through it. At some point, take a break and absorb some history at The Southern Food & Beverage Museum, which is dedicated to understanding the food and drink of the South, everything from absinthe to andouille sausage. Walk around the French Quarter—or even better, go outside of it—to get a taste of what makes New Orleans so great. Should you be there during Mardi Gras, let the rhythm take you.
In some ways, you have to start with the basics to get what this city is all about on a culinary level. But there are showstoppers opening every day worth adding to the very long list of where to eat around New Orleans. Here’s a quick primer on where to go when you’re visiting the Big Easy. Remember: So much of the food here is filled with gusto, and that’s how it should be consumed. Laissez Les Bon temps rouler!
For a city that celebrates its long and colorful past, it’s not unusual to find restaurants open since the 19th century. Open since 1840, Antoine’s is not only the oldest here, but it’s also one of America’s five oldest restaurants. It’s especially good for a plate of oysters Rockefeller, seeing as it’s where the dish was born. Rounding out some of the oldest and must-visit restaurants: Commander’s Palace, with its white tablecloths and famed turtle soup, opened in 1893; Galatoire’s, as raucous as it is refined, debuted in 1903 and is still one of the most difficult places to get a lunch table in town (jackets required after 5 p.m., gentlemen); since 1918, Arnaud’s has been a grande dame of Haute Creole cuisine (the French 75 bar was an actual speakeasy during Prohibition); and the Chanteclair Room at Brennan’s, open since 1946, is swoon-worthy, as is the contemporary Creole fare.
As one of the hottest dining scenes in the country, many contemporary New Orleans chefs serve menus rooted in tradition but updated for today’s more globally attuned palates. James Beard Award winners include Donald Link, whose Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher should be at the top of any foodie list; Nina Compton’s and her Caribbean-inspired cuisine at Compère Lapin; and Sue Zemanick, an award winner for her tenure at the venerable Gautreau’s, who debuted the highly anticipated Zasu this year. A James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America, Susan Spicer has long been considered one of the city’s culinary stars since opening Bayona in 1990. A new generation of chefs blends bold flavors of home and the world at places like Shaya, an oasis of Mediterranean flavors and New Orleans style (think cinnamon babka King Cake), and Turkey and the Wolf, which has turned sandwiches, a staple of NOLA cuisine, on their head.
Ask any New Orlean who makes the best gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, muffulettas, crawfish, po’ boys and beignets (other than their own mama in most instances), and you’ll learn that everyone has a different answer. For every iconic spot like Central Grocery, home of the original muffuletta, there’s a more modern version like Cochon Butcher. For fried chicken—this is the birthplace of the Popeye’s chain, after all—it’s a toss-up between Dooky Chase, whose matriarch chef, Leah Chase, has been cooking the best soul food since 1946, and Willie Mae’s Scotch House, another sexagenarian. You can’t go wrong with oysters at Casamento’s, an institution since 1919 known for long lines, hard-to-track hours and oyster loaf (a fried oyster sandwich). Po’ boys, the huge sandwiches stuffed with miscellany, including roast beef and fried shrimp, can be found in every corner of the city, but Parkway Tavern and newcomers like Killer Poboys should be on the list. Of course, even die-hard locals who hate the tourist traps of the French Quarter can’t deny that the hot, powdered-sugar-coated beignets at Cafe du Monde are irresistible.