My husband Tim and I are from Alabama. We met in Alabama and we always go down for the Sugar Bowl, the biggest football event of the South, and so we'll often drive the 2 hours from Alabama to New Orleans for the good eating. The food in NOLA is the type of stuff that’s nostalgic, like somebody’s childhood memories.
I love Southern traditions. The Sugar Bowl is played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, and it's the biggest football event of the year in the South. And we Southerners take tailgating very seriously…that is, with beautiful chandeliers inside of the tents, real silverware, flowers: that is what a proper tailgate looks like in South.
When you're not tailgating though, here's are my top spots for celebrating, eating and imbibing in NOLA:
Drinking In New Orleans
New Orleans is famous for their cocktails, e.g. Hurricanes and Bloody Marys. A few years ago we went down to the National Championship Game (Alabama won!) right after New Years Eve. We stayed at the Hotel Monteleone and had brunch. Mardi Gras was already going down—some years, it’s earlier because it’s based on the calendar of when Easter falls. We ordered Bloody Marys. To me, a good Bloody Mary has to have a lot of accoutrements…a bunch of stuff on it! I don’t want just one olive and one slice of lime; I’m talking pickled okra and all the works! It was super crowded. I then realized that the bartender had given me $12 change for the $20 that I had handed him—could it be true? Two whole drinks for $8? This huge Bloody Mary would cost $25 per drink in Manhattan! Drinks are super cheap here compared to the rest of the United States. So drink up.
Restaurants You Cannot Miss
The most famous restaurant in NOLA. The Brennans are an old restaurant family—it's like they own the majority of restaurants in New Orleans. It's got a ton of history. You may remember Ella Brennan starred in the first American Express commercial featuring a restaurant and she’s still at CP most nights. Emeril Lagasse was the chef there at one time. Jamie Shannon was another excellent chef there; sadly, he passed away from cancer 15 years ago.
Do lunch there. You do have to take a cab to get there. It’s not downtown but farther away in the Garden District where all the beautiful houses are. Drinks are really good and pretty and upscale. It is beautiful here. You should get a drink first because to get to the bar you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the bar; some people dine there and don’t know that.
This is my favorite restaurant in NOLA. I’m sure a lot of people have told you about it. Best food in New Orleans. Everything is tasty. They had some apple pie moonshine; it tasted exactly like you were eating apple pie.
Famous for having the best Bloody Mary in NOLA, and I agree. They’ve also got the best barbecued shrimp, which is not what you think it is—it’s not cooked on a grill or anything. It’s a spicy sauce and with a brown roux and lemon juice and white wine and stock reduced down with onions and lots of spices like rosemary and chili peppers—then poached butter is whipped into it—and you eat it over over rice. Chef Paul Prudhomme has the most famous recipe for it.
An aside about how I found out about Drago's: One time I needed a passport at the last-minute, and only certain cities in the United States have a last-minute one-day passport agency; the nearest place to Alabama was New Orleans, so that’s where I headed. Another great thing about New Orleans is that it’s got a fabulous Saks Fifth Ave, which is right next door to the passport agency; even people from NYC say, “This is the best Saks I’ve ever been to.”
When I travel, I love to ask regular people—that is, people who truly live in a place—where is good to eat. And they all told me Drago’s in the Hilton Hotel. But I’m thinking, “Ooh, am I really gonna dine at a Hiton Hotel?” Everyone from the woman who helped me to pick out a dress at Saks to a bartender to my passport agency agent said “Drago’s!”
They told me to order the charbroiled oysters, and they were, indeed, da bomb! In fact, they were so good I ordered another dozen. Don’t bother with the other food and drink on the menu. Just get a beer and get the charbroiled oysters.
So trust me, even though you’d never expect it! It’s like a yucky looking typical restaurant in a hotel that caters to tourists. When my husband Tim and I decided to drive down to NOLA for dinner from our beach house in Alabama, I dragged him to Drago’s and he was like, “I’m not eating at a Hilton Hotel.” ...But then he ended up agreeing with me about the chargrilled oysters. And then I took a food writer friend, and she was like, “What? Why are we eating here.” We ended up having about 6 dozen oysters.
John Besh is a CIA (The Culinary Institute of America) grad! Say hello for me. His restaurants are pretty and have excellent service, and he’s a lovely man. I enjoy August, good drinks and go with their shellfish selection. By the way, most Southerners are very superstitious about eating shellfish—more specifically bivalves like oysters in months that don’t an ‘r’!
I absolutely love Susan Spicer. She’s a great chef and her restaurant Bayona is great. Everything she makes is really high quality.
Old-school hotspot in the French Quarter. Get a reservation there upstairs on a Friday around 3 o’clock. Everybody’s ended their workweek and are celebrating the weekend already. This place is less about the food and more a well-known tradition; everybody who’s anybody, all the well-to-do society people, will be here. They make old-fashioned souffléd potatoes...a dish that The Rainbow Room in NYC was very famous for as well. They’re cut a special way very thin, dropped in the oil, and come out with a hollow middle. They’re also famous for their shrimp remoulade. People dress up to go there; men wear suits and bowties and women wear cute sexy dresses.
Order the smallest thing you can of beignets because they’re wads of fat completely covered with powdered sugar. And be sure to pair it with their famous chicory coffee—you’re supposed to drink the hot coffee with the beignets, and they’ll bring over warmed-up milk, too.
Casual sandwich spot by chef-owner Scott Boswell who had served on the Bocuse D’Or board used to have his fine dining restaurant called Stella!, which closed summer of 2014. Its closing raised concern for the state of fine dining in NOLA.
I hear from friends it's excellent, and it's next on my list to try.
Typical Foods And Where To Eat Them
In the French Quarter, come here for the greatest, most classic muffaletta, which is a sandwich with olive relish and different kinds of meat.
Famous for their oyster po’boys, a New Orleans classic.
Quite A Few Good Bars
This is one of the oldest hotels in New Orleans. They have a carousel bar; it actually revolves like carousel horses, and yes, you’re on the part that’s moving.
The most famous drink to have in NOLA is a Hurricane here.
Where the Grasshopper was invented.
Also one of the oldest bars in NOLA. Everybody from Mark Twain to P.T. Barnum to Oscar Wilde drank there. Get a Ramos Gin Fizz or a Brandy Milk Punch.
Some Notes On Southern Cuisine
People like to eat all the parts of stuff there. Offal may be cool now, but for years people in the South have been eating everything.
"The Meat and Three:" This is a typical Southern meal. You get one meat with three sides, including some kind of vegetables like collard or turnip greens, fresh peas or black eyed peas or cornbread.
Lagniappe: a little dessert you get at a lot of places, a pecan brown sugar type thing for after dinner. It means “a little bit” in French, as in a little something extra or a small gift.
Seafood: Yes, and lots of it! The Gulf Coast is famous for its seafood.
Creole vs. Cajun: What you’re eating is Creole or Cajun but usually not mixed between the two. It’s like the difference between going to a burger place or a place with fancier food. Creole is more upscale, refined. Cajun is more country.
About Lynne Ryan
Lynne is a chef, restaurant advisor, the first lady of The Culinary Institute of America. A foremost expert in the tradition of tailgating, she founded Tailgate Buzz and has a cookbook in the works.
Ilya Grigorik (Flickr)
Commander's Palace: @leitihsu (Instagram), eater.com
Cochon: walkingontravels.com, eater.com
Mr. B's Bistro: mrbsbistro.com
Saks: patricksmercy (Flickr)
Cafe du Monde: @leitihsu (Instagram)
Restaurant Stanley: heneedsfood.com
Beachbum Berry's: Houston Chronicle
Central Grocery: seriouseats.com
Felix's: @brentmbailey (Instagram)
Hotel Monteleone: atravelerslibrary.com
Pat O' Brien's: neworleanseasytravelguide.com
Tujague's: Cheryl Gerber for NYTimes
Old Absinthe House: atlasobscura.com