People ask me at least once a week what they should put on their NOLA bucket list. It makes me immeasurably happy when people come to town, and even happier when they take their dining itineraries so seriously, so I’ve compiled my list of favorites below.
Po-boys! You can’t come to this city without getting one. Parkway Bakery (Mid-City) is my favorite for surf n’ turf — heaps of fried shrimp with roast beef “debris” (all the tender drippings and gravy). Domilise’s (Uptown), Crabby Jack’s (Jefferson), Parasol’s (Irish Channel), and Guy’s (Uptown) are all good spots for an old-school sandwich; Killer Po-Boys (French Quarter) has some funkier, more unorthodox options.
Rules of physics state that po-boys cannot be consumed without Barq’s in a glass bottle.
Cajun and Creole: People ask a lot about where to get “typical” New Orleans food — red beans, jambalaya, gumbo, etc. Katie’s (Mid-City) is fantastic, with a wide range of whatever foods are on your NOLA must-eat list, and definitely trumps Mandina’s (around the corner and much more hyped). Café Reconcile (Central City) only serves lunch, but the soul food is some of the best around, with incredible prices and a great mission. There’s a trio of Tremé stalwarts — Dooky Chase, Li’l Dizzy’s, and Willie Mae’s Scotch House — that you’ve no doubt already heard about. Dooky Chase has a killer lunch buffet and Willie Mae’s fried chicken has a spicy, thick crust that’s almost toffee-like, earning it a cult following. I really like High Hat Café (Freret) too, though it’s really more “Deep South” than “NOLA Creole” — good fried catfish, soul food-ified vegetables, and pimento that makes an appearance in both grits and mac and cheese.
Seafood: Casamento’s (Uptown) is a super old-school mainstay with a raw oyster bar up front. In keeping with the months-ending-in-R rule, they’re only open for part of the year, so check before you go. Superior Seafood (Uptown) is on St. Charles, so you can take the streetcar there, and they’ve got an excellent happy hour with cheap oysters and frozen slushy mojitos and French 75. (I don’t really bother going unless it’s happy hour.)
Peche (Warehouse District), a Donald Link outpost, is beautiful, a place where you can get a massive roasted tuna collar with salsa verde, fish sticks, and fried bread under the same roof. Pascal’s Manale (Uptown) is home to the best barbecue shrimp, which are not truly barbecued according to any Yankee definition of it but are bathing in tons of butter and spices and wonderfulness that you later sop up with crusty bread. Drago’s is home to charbroiled oysters, smoky and melty and laden with browned Parmesan. R&O’s (Lakefront) is out of the way, but if you’re looking for a divey seafood shack, it’s well worth your trek.
For crawfish, you want to aim for a generous 4-5 pounds per person; they will all get eaten, and nobody wants to be competing with their tablemates for a puny mud-dwelling crustacean, so be generous. Go-to spots: Clesi’s (Mid-City), Bevi Seafood Co. (Mid-City; Kenner), the aforementioned Superior Seafood, and The Blue Crab (Lakefront), which is RIGHT on the water. Mid-City Yacht Club (Mid-City) and Maple Street Bar (Uptown), and Bayou Beer Garden (Mid-City) — all bars — have crawfish boils on weekends.
Vietnamese: There’s a huge Vietnamese population in NOLA, and my favorite bowl of pho is at Lilly’s (Lower Garden District). The beef broth tastes like a grandmother made it, but the chicken pho is really where it’s at, with fried shallots aplenty. Magasin (Uptown) is a fantastic standby if that’s your neck of the woods, and Namese (Mid-City) is my casual go-to; they offer a combo with banh mi and small pho so you don’t have to choose! Mopho (Mid-City) is on the funkier end of the spectrum; don’t miss the sticky wings, which are the kind of delicious that you get all over your face in your urgency to devour it, or the Saturday pig roasts. If you’re in the market for a long trek, Dong Phuong Bakery (New Orleans East) really carries the torch with their banh mi sandwiches, which are something like $2 or $3 and on pistolettes that they bake themselves. (In a strange reverse cultural diffusion of sorts, some po-boy shops in NOLA buy the French bread from here.) Get the chargrilled pork and don’t be shy with the mayo.
Beignets deserve their own paragraph. Café du Monde (French Quarter) is in the middle of everything, right on Jackson Square, open 24/7; it’s very good whether you’re going for breakfast or late-night snacks. You probably already knew all this. If you’re there, head to the take-out counter in the back to place your order, since that’s where they’re freshest. But my favorite place is Morning Call (Mid-City), which occupies a beautiful old building right in the middle of City Park. Their beignets are more tender and delicately golden (and usually more fresh), and you eat them among beautiful old oaks. Eat with café au lait and smother with powdered sugar.
Phenomenal sandwiches can be found at Turkey and the Wolf (Irish Channel), with obscene but just-right items like a fried bologna sandwich piled high with potato chips or a collard green melt (complete with pickled cherry peppers and a super-soaker slice in the middle of the sandwich). St. James Cheese Company (Uptown), along with big, lovely salads, ploughman’s lunches, and cheese boards. The owners used to purvey cheese to the Queen of England before they realized NOLA is the best place in the world. I always want to order everything on the menu and get FOMO when I go. Stein’s (Garden District) is our resident Jewish deli, with killer rye, pastrami, and bagels and a beer nerd-level beer selection. Wayfare (Freret) kills the sandwich game, too, with souped-up, tricked-out, amply condimented options and a good enough drink menu that you can make a night of it.
You might’ve heard of Cochon, a James Beard-winning restaurant with Cajun food on white tableclothed-tables. I prefer Cochon Butcher (Warehouse District), which is just around the corner. Same team, same kind of food, but to the tune of $10 sandwiches — buckboard bacon melts with cheese and stewed collards, Cubanos, and otherworldly peanut butter pie.
Muffalettas are GIGANTIC sandwiches indigenous to New Orleans, many thanks to the Sicilian population. Layers of mortadella, salami, ham, provolone, mozzarella, and olive salad (imagine chopped good olives with crunchy veg in an herb-y vinaigrette) on a sesame loaf. Get yours at Verti Marte or Central Grocery (both French Quarter). Once, in a drunken haze, I went to Verti Marte and the muffalettas were sold out, so I pinch-hit with Ernie’s Power Play, which features pulled pork, shrimp, olive salad, and melty pepper Jack; I did not regret a thing.
A couple other miscellaneous sandwich-like things: Company Burger (Freret) is my favorite burger in the world, with the greasiness and humbleness of a Shake Shack or In ‘n’ Out Burger but the attention to ingredients (the meat is excellent, and they only offer tomato slices in season) of a cheffier joint. I’m not saying that I’ve asked for my ashes to be sprinkled there when I die, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, either. Pro tip: It is also THE BEST spot for a first date, which might surprise you at first, but I am happy to discuss this with you after class; you will soon see the light.
Dat Dog is a hot dog joint (locations in Marigny, Garden District, Freret) where you pick your sausage — from the likes of alligator, crawfish, turducken, or the more standard pork options — and then your toppings. I let them take the wheel on toppings. They get creative and will pile on anything from crawfish étouffée to guacamole as they see fit.
Sugar: I have a sweet tooth! It’s true. Sometimes you just need a little sugar to balance out all the good dinners you’re having. If you are in NOLA during snowball season and don’t go to Hansen’s (Uptown), you are not allowed to talk to me seriously about your NOLA eating adventures. Their snowballs — like shaved ice/snowcones, but with actually good, non-saccharin, from-scratch flavors like satsuma, ginger, and nectar cream — are made from a patented machine that makes ice as fluffy as fresh snow. Uptown, people like Plum Street Snoballs, particularly the orchid cream flavor, which sounds weird, but … trust me.
My favorite bakery in town is Gracious (Mid-City); I can’t walk out without a stockpile of treats like salted caramel croissants, oozy chocolate tarts, and flourless chocolate raspberry cake, and their iced coffee is one of my favorites in town. Willa Jean (Warehouse District) is a close second, with chocolate-espresso cookies, gorgeous layer cakes you could drown in, and all manner of croissants.
Coffee: You can find sweet, sweet caffeine at the following places; no coincidence that they’re also good spots for hipster-watching: Hivolt (Lower Garden District), Church Alley Coffee Bar (Central City), Revelator (Warehouse District), Pulp and Grind (Warehouse District), The Orange Couch (Marigny), Spitfire (French Quarter), and Cherry Espresso Bar (Uptown). One of my absolute favorites, if you’re up for a Bywater excursion, is Sólo Espresso, which is super-affordable, particularly in light of the quality, and often features weekend pop-ups with croissants and biscuits. And French Truck (Lower Garden District) isn’t so hipster-y but has the best NOLA-style iced coffee on the planet, perfect for sticking in your bike’s cup holder and taking on a joyride.
Brunch. OK. You’re hungover. You want something tasty to bring you back to life. I’m very very very into Pagoda Café (Mid-City), which slings delicious caffeinated things as well as delightful breakfast tacos, non-sad salads, kale and feta turnovers, and such. Patois (Uptown) has fried rabbit and gumbo. Elizabeth’s (Bywater) has praline bacon and other good NOLA staples like grillades and grits, bananas Foster french toast, and Bloody Mary. The aforementioned Willa Jean has buttery biscuits, fantastic coffee, avocado toast, eggs in purgatory … just call ahead and try to make a reservation since they get slammed. Dante’s Kitchen (Uptown) has some of the best grits with red-eye gravy to cure what ails you. All these recommendations aside, my two absolute favorite places to go for breakfast are more casual and not as definitively, decadently NOLA: Satsuma (Bywater, Uptown) has good juices and a Green Eggs & Ham sandwich that I can’t get enough of. And Toast (Uptown or Mid-City, though I find the latter is consistently better) has gigantic crepes, tartines (smoked salmon, cream cheese, and scrambled egg! ratatouille and a sunny egg!), and the like.
Splashing out: If you’re looking for a nicer sit-down restaurant, a few personal favorites — check out their menus and just see what calls to you — are Compère Lapin (Central Business District), Peche (Warehouse District), Coquette (Garden District), Patois (Uptown), Kenton’s (Uptown), Mariza (Bywater), Lilette (Uptown), and Gautreau’s (Uptown). At Cavan (Uptown), you can string together a really fabulous meal from their toasts, small plates, and sides for a totally reasonable price; whatever you do, DO NOT MISS the hush puppies with whipped honey lardo. Saba (Uptown) is Alon Shaya’s new spot, due to open later this spring, and will have thoughtful, innovative Israeli food. As was the case at his prior restaurants, you will love every bite, and you will never want the piping-hot pita to stop coming until you need to be rolled out of there. The absolute best value white-tablecloth dinner you’ll find is at Boucherie (Uptown) — the food has global influences but is executed in a very Southern way, and none of the (large, fabulous) entrées exceeds $18 or so. Brown Butter (Mid-City) is similar, more casual.
You didn’t come to this city for pizza, but a craving’s a craving, and there’s SO MUCH fabulous pizza to be had here. My picks: Ancora (Uptown) has sublime Neapolitan pizza, plus meatballs, crispy-chewy arancini, and silky gnocchi with butter and crabmeat. My favorite part? Pizza happy hour every night from 9-10pm, when several kinds of pies are half off. Echo’s (Mid-City) has similar wood-fired pies with thoughtful toppings and other appetizers that spotlight good local produce. And if you’re in the Bywater, Pizza Delicious makes more casual, thin-crust NY-style slices; something about the counter service makes it a pleasant surprise when you find that the pizza itself is just, objectively, some of the best you’ve ever had.
A couple other spots that don’t really have categories but merit a mention in case they’re up your alley:
- Mais Arepas (Central City): One of my favorite places to be, with fresh fruit mojitos and margs, unbelievable Colombian arepas piled high with every topping you can imagine, and charred grilled corn on the cob with this buttery mayo-y sauce that you will GUARANTEED try to eat with a spoon when the corn is gone.
- The Joint (Bywater) and Central City BBQ (Central City): My favorite barbecue places. CCBBQ’s burnt ends are some of my favorite things to eat, ever. The Joint makes a can’t-miss peanut butter pie.
- Red’s Chinese (Bywater): Weird hipster Asian “fusion” (but that’s a dirty word so don’t breathe it aloud on the premises). It’s served family-style, so don’t go with vegetarians.
- 1000 Figs (Mid-City): A charming, hole-in-the-wall spot with the best falafel you will ever have. So good I want to use a gigantic one as a sleeping bag.
Nightlife: I probably don’t need to tell you that much about drinks but I’ll do it anyway to make sure you don’t spend all your nights on Bourbon Street. Go to Bourbon if you must cross it off your bucket list—I’m not one to judge; like Times Square, everyone should see it once (and then never, ever go back)—but then walk down to Frenchmen Street (Marigny; a street, not an actual bar), which has better music, better bars, and less puke on the street. It’s still pretty much a tourist scene, but an enjoyable one. Not too far from that is an intersection on St. Claude Avenue (Marigny) with a handful of dive bars (Hi-Ho, AllWays, Siberia, Kajun’s) — investigate for live music, comedy, karaoke, and such. Just up the street is New Movement, a comedy theater that’s one of my favorite places to spend a weekend evening. It is consistently just a very, very fun time.
Drinks for Grown-Ups: Bacchanal (Bywater) is, atmospherically, maybe the best place to have a drink — you buy your wine in the store up front, then take it to the big, lazy backyard with you and listen to live music among the fairy lights. They also have really good food, if hunger hits. N7 (St. Roch) is a romantic little wine bar with great snacks, tucked behind a tall wooden fence so it feels like you’re hidden away from the world. I’m wild about Barrel Proof (Lower Garden District) and Bar Tonique (French Quarter) for drinks made by people who know their shit but aren’t making a huge deal about it. Go to the former for whiskey and the latter for old-school cocktails and speakeasy vibes ($5 Moscow Mules on Wednesdays!). The Columns (Uptown) is a big old mansion on St. Charles; you can have your drink on the front porch, people-watch, and bask in the Southernness of it all, especially during debutante/Mardi Gras season, when tuxedoed and evening gowned folks roll in post-ball. Delachaise (Uptown) is just down the street and ideal for Dark and Stormy since they make their own ginger beer; get the goose-fat fries while you’re at it.
Chill Neighborhood Bars: Bayou Beer Garden (Mid-City) and sister spot Bayou Wine Garden next door, which have phenomenal selection, excellent food, reasonable prices, and TONS of back patio space to kick back; I’m lucky to call them my neighbor. Also: Twelve Mile Limit (Mid-City), get a Baudin; Mid-City Yacht Club (Mid-City), which is neither a club nor anywhere near water/yachts and has a big backyard where you can post up; Finn McCool’s (Mid-City), a textbook Irish pub with everything you’d want from said genre and a great late-night scene; St. Joe’s (Uptown), which has a cozy little back patio; Other Bar (Uptown), with a sweet line-up of boilermakers and solid, affordable cocktails, plus free skeeball. NOLA Brewery (Irish Channel) has a casual downstairs, a big second floor that can be open air when the weather’s nice, and they serve McClure’s Barbecue, some of the best in the city.
History and Culture: If you like pretty things, you’re in luck because New Orleans is a spectacular city. City Park Sculpture Garden (Mid-City) is free, lovely, with big ol’ oak trees scattered amongst the actual art; it’s near the New Orleans Museum of Art, which is not free but still great. Check out fabulous Southern installations at the Ogden Museum (Warehouse District) and then walk over to the National World War II Museum (Warehouse District). If you’re a history buff, the Confederate Civil War Museum (Warehouse District) does a good job of equanimously sharing the South’s undeniable past without defending it — though I believe it would be better if it were more progressive and principled, à la D.C.’s Holocaust Museum. Finally, The Cabildo (French Quarter) houses all kinds of artifacts from New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s history.
Nature: If you’re jonesing for an outdoorsy jaunt, Bayou St. John (Mid-City) is still in the city proper, and you can kayak/canoe!; Jean Lafitte National Park is more out of the way, but it has swamps, Spanish moss, cypress trees with knobby knees, etc. etc. Actually, the whole of City Park (Mid-City) and Audubon Park (Uptown) are both really nice places to explore, lie in the grass, ogle trees, go for a run, picnic, daydrink, whatever it is you’re looking to do al fresco. For a tiny adventure, take a ferry to Algiers Point (West Bank); there’s live music on the point every Wednesday night during the warmer months. And speaking of live music, Lafayette Square (Downtown) also has it (Google “Wednesdays at the Square”).
Also? Do not pay for a cemetery tour. Just don’t. There are plenty of places with scenic, Instagram-friendly above-ground tombs that you can explore without paying to be surrounded by dead people.