From Dives to Haute Creole Palaces
In the Crescent City, food is a religion, a place where the funkiest neighborhood spot is as much worth visiting as the grandest haute traditional restaurant. Emeril Lagasse (a transplanted Massachusetts man who’s now über-Louisianan) may have pumped up the city’s food-media image in recent years, but he hardly started from scratch.
New Orleans has always been up there with New York and San Francisco on the list of American foodie-traveler hot spots.
In the city where jazz was born, the Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace is a weekend tradition cherished by New Orleanians as well as tourists. Housed in a frothy blue-and-white Victorian mansion in the fabled Garden District, Commander’s is the very embodiment of New Orleans graciousness, with cuisine that’s decidedly Creole.
Whether you’re in the Garden Room favored by the locals or in the shade of the open courtyard’s massive oak tree, order the signature turtle soup au sherry, the crispy pecan-crusted gulf fish, and the famous bread pudding soufflé wading in bourbon cream sauce that evaporates as it hits the tongue.
In the French Quarter, dining at Galatoire’s has been a New Orleans tradition for the better part of a century, even though its egalitarian no-reservations policy (for the main dining room only) means that celebrities, visitors, and local patrons alike sometimes have to line up along Bourbon Street, the men dressed in jackets to conform to the restaurant’s vintage dress code, no matter what the temperature.
Inside, the timeless decor of brass fixtures, gleaming mirrors, polished wood, black, white, and green tiled floors, and a dozen ceiling fans hasn’t changed much over the years, nor has the menu. Tuxedoed waiters bear appetizers of Shrimp Remoulade or Oysters Rockefeller, and entrées such as Galatoire’s famous Lamb Chops Béarnaise, Trout Marguery, or grilled Pompano straight from the Gulf waters.
The food is surpassed only by the floor show, which peaks on Fridays at lunchtime: Everyone is drinking, table-hopping, and recounting loud stories; the chatter crescendos, corks pop, “Happy Birthday” is sung at least once. Even newcomers soon get into the spirit of camaraderie and genteel long-lunch decadence.
Sometimes you just want to avoid white-linen locales, and when that urge strikes, nothing will do but to head for the Acme Oyster House, the town’s most venerated dive since its founding in 1910. Down-home, unpretentious, forever full and jumping, it promises a Big Easy evening of elbow-to-elbow bonhomie with locals, luminaries, and Joe and Jane from Chicago, all of whom come for the reliably excellent food, washed down by the local Dixie or Abita beer, served ice-cold. In addition to its award-winning fresh and salty raw oysters and fried-oyster-filled po’boys (sandwiches made with crusty French bread), there is also a full menu of local delicacies prepared to perfection: gumbo poopa, creole jambalaya, and the seasonal crawfish étouffée. The enormous mirror behind the marble-topped raw bar reflects the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-wolf-down-those-oysters action, with a team of five shuckers bantering nonstop while opening about 5,000 oysters a day.
Other holy highlights for food-worshippers include Uglesich’s, where one bite of the fried seafood po’boy will explain why the line often stretches out the door and around the corner. (The fact that there’s only a few seats at the tiny zinc counter could have something to do with it, too.) The weathered and funky Napoleon House is another winner, serving a muffuletta sandwich that’s said to be the best in town.
The fame of their Pimm’s cup is not to be ignored either. A few other contenders: Emeril’s own bastion at Nola; the high-altar haute of tradition-bound Antoine’s; the more contemporary globe-hopping menu at Bayona; and the working-class po’boy haven of Mother’s, on the Quarter’s edge.