So I may have started with drink recommendations, but every good drink deserves a bite. And New Orleans has so many wonderful dining options that it is overwhelming. For the purposes of this list, I am focusing on my recommendations for a first-time visitor with an emphasis on establishments that I believe offer a unique New Orleans experience in an affordable price range.
In a recent article, Smithsonian Magazine named their the top food destinations across America. They determined this list less by the food quality and more by the history and unique offerings in each foodie scene. In New Orleans, they selected Cafe du Monde. And while I do not disagree with that choice, it did get me thinking about other options in this unique and historical city. However, I also think that food needs to be considered too – not just the kitsch factor. I think visitors should enjoy the ambiance, as well as dine on delectable eats.
So, if someone were to ask me what are the top places that I would recommend for a New Orleans vibe, then it would be this list.
Please keep in mind that in our travels we prefer business casual eateries that are in the $$ price range, rather than places where men have to wear jackets. That makes us uncomfortable. It is too formal to our travel style, which includes a lot of walking. We do not really dress up to dine, instead we crawl across the city stopping at many locations and spend most of our day away from our hotel. So splurge destinations like Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s and Restaurant August are not really activewear friendly. If you have the means, then $$$ and $$$$ options are available that might warrant your attention. Try this list from Food and Wine Magazine for a broader list.
Postcard Plans Favorite New Orleans Food Destinations:
CAFE DU MONDE
I think Smithsonian Magazine got it right, this is an iconic food destination that visitors should check off their New Orleans ticket. World famous for its cafe’ au lait, beignets, and the opportunity to people watch, it is great for families and couples too, as well as offers that perfect photo opportunity that needs no explanation. Get there early to watch the sun rise and avoid the crowds.
While this restaurant might not be an historical establishment, the opening of Cochon was still significant. Originally slated to open in 2005, Hurricane Katrina delayed construction. Cochon was the first restaurant that opened after the natural disaster. Serving traditional Cajun Southern dishes, the restaurant serves locally sourced pork, fresh produce and seafood, focusing on traditional methods, creating authentic flavors of Cajun country. The restaurant is in a rustic, yet contemporary interior of a renovated New Orleans warehouse. Make your reservations in advance for this popular eatery that everyone flocks to for the swanky farmhouse feel and cooking like no other.
Part of the experience at Jacque-Imo’s is the wait for a table. They do not accept reservations and so most nights you will be waiting outside with a drink among locals and tourists alike. From the start, you feel like a part of the community, and then as you enter the restaurant through the kitchen it’s almost as if you have been trusted with their cooking secrets. From the creative menu items to the funky decor to the lively atmosphere, Jacques-Imo’s is a quintessential New Orleans dining experience. Patrons of all ages will appreciate the heaping Southern-style portions and the endless list of mouth-watering menu options available at this Oak Street restaurant.
It is a new joint as well, and it is a trendy scene, but when there is live music playing and wine flowing it almost feels like a big backyard party. I also really like the unique Bywater area, which most tourists do not venture out toward, possibly because a taxi ride would be needed. It is a bit of a transitional area, so be aware of your surroundings. But once you step inside, you feel like you are in a secret society of cool kids. Try to find a seat outside if you are lucky and use the bug spray. Then figure out your food. Unfortunately I have to keep my dairy intake down so I did not partake of the cheese and we did not have cash for the downstairs kitchen (cash only), but you can select a full bottle of wine and cheese plate downstairs at the cash register. While there were no spots outside, we were lucky to find an upstairs window spot and ordered drinks at the bar there. I think this place really captures the spirit of New Orleans and has an authentic vibe for out-of-towners.
Located near the French Quarter, this romantic site is a popular spot for its brunch. Reservations are definitely recommended, especially if the weather is nice and you want to sit in the patio area. Known for its shrimp and grits, Café Amelie is located away from the hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street and features comfortable, quiet, and romantic seating either inside the historic (and air-conditioned) Carriage House or outside within the lush 150-year-old Princess of Monaco Courtyard.
EL GATO NEGRO
It seems that every city we visit, my husband seeks out Mexican food. He loves Mexican food, especially the chips and salsa. And having lived in both California and Texas, his standards are very high. I still tease him about a chips and salsa hunt in Park City, Utah. We tried and left three Mexican restaurants after he tried their chips and salsa. It sets the standard for his meal. To be honest, I cannot remember the chips and salsa at El Gato Negro, but I do know that we did not leave. What I do remember is the margaritas. Oh yeah, they are good – fresh squeezed juice good. Now that I am limiting my gluten intake and seek healthier options, this is a great stop in New Orleans for me. Healthy and delicious? It is possible in New Orleans (read my blog here). And while the ambiance is casual and not memorable, their location is in close proximity to the French Market which has a special charm. We like to do a stroll through the market each visit and have purchased hats and jewelry from local vendors as well.
Future contenders to visit:
Driving through New Orleans’ Bywater area you will pass a lot of neglected buildings, but when you see the house with brightly colored signs boasting “praline bacon,” you put it on a list for a future visit. I read once that each slice of bacon takes away a few minutes of your life, which is unfortunate because I love bacon. And praline bacon might deserve a little gluttony. Described as having quintessential funky New Orleans food and atmosphere, it really is “Naturally Nawlins”.
OK this one has been on my list for some time, but we never seem to make it. This is partly because we are usually without a car and because it is just so far from our other plans. But the Bywater area is popping these days, so it remains on my list. While it has a cool, funky vibe that is organic to the city, you go here for the meat. I like meat, especially dry rubbed and smoked. Being from Texas, I know good meat and the best recipes I know rely more on the seasoning and smoking process than on a sauce. Based on reviews and images, I think The Joint is definitely a contender.
WILLIE MAE’S SCOTCH HOUSE
Have you seen the photos of the fried chicken? This place is so old-school that they do not even have a website but thanks to the wonders of the internet and food channels, you can easily get the low-down and Instagrams to help lead the way to this golden goodness. Once again, not having a car will likely be an issue for us as it is located in the Treme area. But we will find a way. Just look at that pretty batter and read their story.