New Orleans, Louisiana, or NOLA, is one of our favorite places to visit. It’s colorful, magical, dirty, dingy, and about a million other adjectives that could possibly describe a vibrant city steeped in culture that is centuries old. We first traveled to New Orleans in 2002 for me (Louellen) to run my first marathon, the Mardi Gras Marathon. Not only did I fall in love with endurance sports on that trip, bit we also fell in love with city and the people. A love that led us to name our Bengal kitty NOLA.
We try to get to the Big Easy for a weekend at least once a year, if not more. While there are numerous reasons New Orleans is one of our much-loved places to visit, food is usually at the top of the list. New Orleans is one of those places where you have to work hard to get a bad meal. It can be done, but for the most part, you’ll have a great meal in any place you stumble into. But if you’re not into stumbling around in search of good food, here are seven of our favorites in no particular order.
Let’s start with the “newcomers.”
Drago’s Seafood Restaurant
Drago’s, home of the original charbroiled oysters has three locations, but we have only eaten at the one at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside located at 2 Poydras Street. This location is often one of the first places we hit because they have the best charbroiled oysters we’ve had anywhere. We typically stay in a hotel nearby, so it’s a great way to get a nice cold beer and a light meal before heading to the French Quarter.
They do have a full menu, but we’ve found the main menu items aren’t quite as exciting as the charbroiled oysters, so we start with that and mosey on with our day. We have heard, however, that the main menu items are outstanding at the Metairie location. Their third location is in Jackson, MS. Drago’s does not take reservations at any of its location. The charbroiled oysters are served at the bar, so it’s a bit easier/quicker to get this yummy snack.
Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar
Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar is my favorite brunch place in New Orleans. This eatery offers two eclectic and funky cafes located on historic Magazine Street. Even though there are two locations from which to choose, you’re likely to find yourself waiting for a table at either one. Don’t let that scare you away, though.
Of the two locations Surrey’s Uptown, located at 4807 Magazine Street is my favorite. It was the first of the locations I visited and I was lucky enough to stumble in on a day that they were serving a special of Chicken & Waffles that was so good that it it brings me back every visit to the Big Easy. Chicken & Waffles not your thing? You won’t go wrong with their Shrimp and Grits, Crab Meat Omelette, or Bananas Foster French Toast. Want something lighter, try their fresh organic juices. In our experience, the wait seems to be a little longer at this location. We usually step into the local dive bar next door, Le Bon Temps Roulé, for a nice Bloody Mary (or two) while we wait.
If you don’t have the time to wait at the uptown location head down Magazine Stweet to 1408 and check out their second location. This one is in a row house, so the tables are close and crowded in a cozy kind of way. The kitchen is set up differently so you won’t have the option of fried specials that are available at the uptown location, but you definitely won’t go hungry. The tables seem to turn a little faster here.
The walls of both location are covered with eclectic local art available for purchase, so you can even get some souvenir shopping done while you’re drinking your morning cuppa. They don’t take reservations at either location, but it’s well worth the wait. We keep expecting Surrey’s to not live up to our memories, but it seems to get better with each visit. Both locations are open 7 days a week and serve breakfast and lunch from open at 8 am until close at 3 pm.
We actually ended up at Cochon Butcher for lunch the first time kind of by default. We had heard great things about Donald Link’s fine dining establishment, Cochon, but couldn’t get a table. So we wandered around the corner of the building to grab a sandwich out of the butcher shop that sells house-made charcuterie out the back of the restaurant.
And, boy, are we glad we did! We fell in love with the food, the tiny, busy eclecticness of the place, and the staff at Cochon Butcher. Apparently we aren’t alone. On our last visit, the tiny little back room had more than doubled in size and still the place was packed!
We’ve never had a bad meal and have been known to swing by in the cab on the way to the airport to have one last sampling of their tasty fare! The fresh and made to order sandwiches are simply fantastic. They’re fresh, tasty, and filling. I do recommend going with someone so you can each order something different and share. And while the sandwiches are great, the macaroni and cheese is, truly, the best I’ve had (including my own, and that’s saying something!). It’s got the perfect creamy goodness that is unforgettable! It’s something that you’ll have a hard time deciding if you want to eat it quickly because it’s so good or if you want to eat it slowly becuase it’s so good and you want to savor it.
The greatness of Cochon Butcher doesn’t stop at the macaroni and cheese. It extends to specialty cocktails, charcuterie plates, and even the two varieties of hot sauce on the table. (They’re available for online purchase.) I’ve had something different with each visit and it’s been fantastic every single time. And the desserts. You can’t go wrong with them. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when the king cakes are ready and/or in stock. They’re small king cakes in various flavors. Small, but large enough to share or to save some for a treat later.
Cochon Butcher, located at 930 Tchoupitoulas Street in the warehouse district, is the type of place that you will instantly find yourself very envious of the locals because you could easily eat here every day and not grow tired of it. It’s crowded, hopping, and delicious; definitely worth vulturing for a table or taking your meal away.
Port of Call
On the far side of the French Quarter on the border of Marigny, you’ll find what is arguably the best burger in New Orleans. Port of Call, located at 838 Esplanade Avenue, looks like a dive from the outside. On your first visit, you’ll wonder if the burger is really worth waiting for. It is. You’ll question the burgers again when walk into the dark and crowded bar and find mismatched chairs much too close together. Don’t worry, despite the close, and often loud, quarters, once your order of a burger and baked potato arrives, you’ll know you made the right decision.
Port of Call opened as a neighborhood steakhouse in 1963. And while you can still get a good steak, their burger what most folks order when they visit. You’ll want to order one of their yummy cocktails to drink while you’re looking over the menu options and discussing the fact that the burgers come with a baked potato instead of fries. Go ahead and order it. The baked potato definitely works with burger and is so perfectly cooked it might be the best baked potato you’ve ever had as well.
Port of Call is open daily for lunch and dinner. It’s an extremely casual restaurant and they don’t accept reservations. You’ll likely have a wait, but it’s well worth it. You’ll enjoy good food, good drink, and definitely good times. I don’t think I’ve ever visited without laughing so hard that my sides ached. The place’s atmosphere and the great wait staff are conducive to a fun dining experience.
Enough about the new kids on the block, let’s talk about some quintessential places.
Cafe du Monde
You simply cannot visit New Orleans or the French Quarter without a trip to the Original Cafe du Monde located at 800 Decatur Street. Cafe du Monde has been serving coffee and beignets in the New Orleans French Market since 1862. Closing only for Christmas and the occasional hurricane that passes through the area. With every visit, no matter the time of day, expect to wait in line for the perfect pick-me-up ever. Also, expect to be finding remnants of powdered sugar on your person for hours after.
I typically like my coffee black, but there’s something about Cafe du Monde’s Au Lait paired with perfectly cooked beignets buried under a mountain of powdered sugar that has no comparison. Nobody does it like Cafe du Monde, nobody. It’s perfect in the morning, the afternoon, or the wee hours of the night. It’s the perfect place to rest a bit and people watch. Or, get your order to-go and wander down the riverfront.
Go there and enjoy.
Mother’s Restaurant, located at 401 Poydras Street, is about as New Orleans as you can get. A casual, inexpensive, cafeteria-style establishment that first opened its doors in 1938 has earned its spot on pretty much every New Orleans Must-Do, -See, -Eat list that you’ll ever read. It is that good in a down-to-earth, feed-your-soul kind of way. Don’t go there if you expect or require glitz, glam, or impeccable table service. If you do, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
With all the hubbub of the city, it can be easy to miss this icon. Well, except for the queue of people along the sidewalk, that is. The line moves very quickly and menus are passed back, so you can pretend to figure out what you’re going to order once you get inside. Don’t worry, once you get to the food counter and see all the options, you’ll change your mind umpteen times. Whether you’re getting breakfast (served all day), a po’ boy, a plate with two delectable sides, gumbo, the world’s best baked ham, debris, or some other Cajun delicacy, you simply won’t go wrong. You’ll have a great meal and a sated appetite.
The only way you could possibly go wrong at Mother’s is to do one of two things. The first is to hold a spot in line for a large group of people. The closer you get to the door, the crankier your fellow patrons will be when latecoming friends jump the line. Once you reach the handrail, your friends simply need keep walking to the end of the line. And if you don’t suggest it, the folks behind you certainly will. The other wrong thing you can do is to stand in front of the elevator or the exit of the kitchen as you wait to place your order. I know you’re thinking, “Well, duh!” But trust me, the very busy (and friendly in a charmingly grumpy kind of way) wait staff will let you know the second so much as even a shoelace gets in their way as they carry handfuls of decades old white cafeteria plates filled with tempting fare.
Mother’s is open from 7 am until 10 pm every day except holidays. We’ve been there at all different times and it’s been perfect. There’s just something about this place with basic and sometimes ancient decor, hardworking staff, and food that is just plain good that screams New Orleans while feeding both your stomach and your soul.
Commander’s Palace is another very well-known spot in New Orleans that lives up its reputation. It’s quality exceeds its price. This fine dining establishments is a favorite of New Orleans natives and visitors alike. First opened in 1893 in the Garden District, Commander’s Palace has been run by a member of the Brennan family since 1974. Their commitment to perfection and the skills of renowned chefs over the years such as Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jamie Shannon, and now Tory McPhail have brought out the best of the city with its leading-edge Haute Creole cuisine. Commander’s Palace has won prestigious awards for both its food and wine selection for years and years and years.
This is the place you want to go to for an elegant, glamorous night out with impeccable service. Your sensibilities and tastebuds will thank you.
Sadly, we visited New Orleans for many years before we finally chose Commander’s Palace from the many stellar options for our “nice” night out. We’ve been kicking ourselves ever since for not going sooner. The atmosphere, the service, and the food are world-class. This place is in the top five of our dining experiences of all our travels and we come back every opportunity we have.
While there are many delicious things to choose from on the menu, we have always opted for The Chef’s Playground menu with the wine pairing. We enjoy the chef’s tasting menu (here and elsewhere) when we travel as we often get a bit of the best or well-known dishes of the restaurant along with seasonal specialties from the chef. We like it because the chef is able to take us on the journey that he or she wants with the freshest ingredients.
Excutive Chef Tory McPhail and Wine Guy Dan Davis will take you on a journey like no other while the unobtrusive and attentive wait staff will make you feel like New Orleans gentility. The food and wine are paired perfectly and each course moves you through the dining experience much like your favorite author moves you through a novel or composer moves you through a symphony. Just as you will read your favorite novel or listen to your favorite symphony again and “feel” something different with each reading or listen, you’ll have a similar experience with the Chef’s Playground; each time the nuances will be different.
If your budget can swing the tasting menu, I recommend going for it. The food, the wine, and the experience are on par with (and at times exceeds) what you’ll get with a comparative menu at top restaurants the world over at a fraction of the price. Even if you don’t get the tasting menu, I am confident anything you order will be delicious and, when coupled with the courteous staff, your dining experience will be memorable.
There you have it, the seven places that we ALWAYS at least consider eating on every trip to New Orleans. Do you have any favorites not on this list? Let us know in the comments. We strive to try at least one new place on each trip and look forward to finding new favorites.