by Cinnamon Cooper & Andrew Huff
Please note: Our last trip to NOLA was in June 2015, but there still may have been some changes in the scene since then. It's a good idea to call ahead or check with locals to make sure all's still in order.
Just because she thought it might be more helpful, Cinnamon created a Google map you can look at, too. Not all of this info is on the map, but each of these places has a pin. With color-coding. Yes, Cinnamon is a nerd. ;)
Here are a few that are standouts.
Anything by Emeril Lagasse. He's cheesy, his show is cheesy. But his restaurants and commitment to quality are top-notch and the prices (when compared to Chicago) are lower than you'd expect. NOLA is in the French Quarter and is especially great at lunchtime. Emeril's (his original) and Delmonico are in the Warehouse District, just past the commercial/uber-touristy district from the Quarter. Delmonico is a steakhouse (we've not been but have heard good things), Emeril's has a great mix of entree types. At Emeril's and NOLA, see if you can eat at the kitchen bar, which looks directly into the kitchen, and if you like you'll end up chatting with the staff.
For old, traditional romanticness in the Quarter try Antoine's. If you're in the Garden District, and want real white glove, try Commander's Palace. They're both pricey, and everything is cooked in butter, but they're very good. Commander's Palace's owners (the Brennan family) also have a couple of smaller places and a cocktail bar named Cafe Adelaide. It's a hotel bar, but the drinks are great and it's usually fairly quiet.
For lunch and an afternoon sitdown with some of the city's best cocktails, try Napoleon House. Their muffaletta is not the best (for that see below), but their soups are good, their salads and apps are great. They invented the Pimm's Cup and you can get a phenomenal Mint Julep or Sazerac. They're back to being open in the evening but may close occasionally, so check their website for hours and days closed. It's the oldest continually operating bar in the city and is mostly unchanged. (It's also across the street from NOLA.)
Cafe du Monde's cafe au lait and beignets are a must-have. It's across from Jackson Square on Decatur sort of ground zero for the non-Bourbon Street tourist crowd. We suggest taking them across the street to Jackson Square where you're likely to have a quieter time and fewer pigeons harassing you. Or you can go to the other side of the wall behind the restaurant and sit along the riverbank to watch barges and tugboats.
Near Cafe du Monde on Decatur is the Central Grocery, home to the best muffaletta -- they invented it. Order a half sandwich to split (trust us) and some Zapp's potato chips, and either eat at the counter or take it outside. We usually walk over to the riverfront with ours.
We had lunch at Green Goddess in 2011. Tucked on a pedestrian-only side street in the French Quarter, its very small interior is supplemented by sidewalk cafe tables. The menu changes frequently, and features a fusion of local and global flavors. Be sure to check the daily specials list. UPDATE: The restaurant has changed hands. It's still open but may be different from when we were there.
For the best burger and stronger than Hurricane drinks, try Port of Call on Esplanade near Bourbon. Burgers are frigging huge and come with a gigantic baked potato. But you'll be glad you ate them both if you can finish more than one of their Hurricane-like drinks. Caveat: there's often a long wait, and the clientele can be a bit douchey due to its reputation and listing in lots of tourist guides.
For some good, cheap food in a place that looks like a dive, check out Coop's Place on Decatur. Shockingly good jambalaya, and great fried chicken. (However, it's not worth waiting in line to get in; that's a new phenomenon, thanks to some recent travel media coverage.) Right next to Coop's Place is Cane & Table. They make some tasty small plates but their cocktails are the highlight. "Proto-Tiki" and "Rustic Colonial" are good words to describe their style. You might also pop into Verti Marte on Royale Street; it's a convenience store with a cafeteria-style counter in the back for excellent take-out. Good wine selection if I remember right.
Crawfish season is beginning of January through late-May to early June. If that's your thing, ask some busboys or servers or a cabdriver who has the best at the moment. It's likely to require a cab ride, but it'll be worth it if you can get them. Ideally you grab a bag (or paper boat) of crawfish, a co uple of frosty sodas and then sit on the riverfront and eat them. Get wet naps.
Cochon is a snout-to-tail kinda pork restaurant. It is Cajun, not Creole. There is a difference. We can ‘splain ya if you desire. If you dig the pig, this is a must. I literally cried over their ribs with watermelon pickle appetizer. And the cocktails are phenomenal. It was the only time I've ever paid $8 for a moonshine cocktail and I still think about it. Their short-ribs are phenomenal. Around the corner is Cochon Butcher, which is a butcher shop that serves sandwiches and cocktails. Very casual and much more affordable -- and consequently also quite often packed, especially at lunch. You can get some andouille and other stuff to go if you gotta, and it might even be nice to get a small sampling of a few different things, pick up some beers and some cheese elsewhere and hang out on the riverfront to have lunch.
Lüke is top-notch, with a raw bar up front and Alsatian on the menu. It's owned by John Besh, one of the city's top chefs. He also owns Domenica, which our friend Jenni recommends and w e ate at one of the last times we we re down. It's on the pricier end for NOLA, but comparable to places like Avec or Big Jones in Chicago in both price and quality.
Dooky Chase is a definite cab ride, but so totally worth it for the neighborhood soul food. I've heard that Leah Chase (who is getting older) isn't cooking as much, but she's on site still making sure everything is up to snuff. Still haven't been, but for true soul food NOLA-style, it's a must. T hanks to watching "Treme," Vaughan's Lounge has become popular. Kermit Ruffins no longer does BBQ there, but there should be a good band.
Willie Mae's Scotch House is another (used to be a hole-in-the-wall) smalltime operation that is BIG on flavor. If you like fried chicken, this is quite possibly the best fried chicken. Their hours are few and get there danged early or be prepared for a long wait, especially if you're dining with more than two people. But it is VERY worth the wait. The butter beans side and fried okra will make your meal a gut-buster, but you'll walk it off.
Mona's is a Lebanese/Middle-Eastern chain in the city ; if you like falafel and doulmas and the like, you'll love it. I still think about their sweet cinnamon tea. And even though there are tons of Middle-Eastern places here in Chicago, this one beats them all.
Our friend Scott and his fiancee went to The Three Muses on Frenchmen Street on a recent trip and had a great dinner. We haven't been yet, but hope to check it out soon.
On our latest trip, we had brunch at Slim Goodie's Diner on Magazine Street. Funky decor and a pretty straightforward menu with a few quirkier options, it's a solid option for breakfast.
If it's summer, you must go to Hansen's Sno-Bliz. It's one of the oldest "snowball" stands in the city, open since 1939. The second generation of Hansens now run it, and have added some unusual "gourmet" flavors to the shop's collection of all-housemade syrups. Andrew got half cardamom, half ginger last summer, while Cinnamon got rootbeer. Totally worth the wait in line.
On our 2011 trip, Andrew embarked on a "po'boy a day" marathon. Here are his favorites:
In general, the closer you get to Canal Street in the French Quarter and Warehouse District/CBD, the more touristy the places are. The closer you get to Esplanade in the Quarter, the less touristy it is. It's also true that the farther from Bourbon Street you are, the less touristy it is. Bourbon Street is hard to avoid, though, so it's worth walking down it with a hurricane or hand grenade in your hand just once. That will likely be more than enough. Your reward at the far end, away from Canal, is Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, one of the city's oldest buildings and longest running bars. It's dark and cozy, and many nights you'll find live piano or some other music. If you do feel the need to have a cocktail on Bourbon Street, we suggest you try out Bourbon O. They had very good drinks, the bartenders know their stuff, and the women on stage are belting out classic Jazz tunes. It's also connected to a hotel, so the bathrooms are relatively nice and clean.
Most of the bars we hung out in were on Decatur near Esplanade, where the locals seem to hang out. If you're interested in that, check out the above-mentioned Coop's Place, Cane & Table or Mojo Lounge. We've also stopped in at Cosimo's Bar on Dauphine -- it's a quiet, friendly locals' place. Bar Tonique on Rampart Street is good for cocktails and quiet talks -- it's far enough from Bourbon Street that it doesn't seem to get crazy.
If you continue walking on Decatur past Esplanade it will turn into Frenchmen. There are some great music venues and bars, especially if you like jazz and local music. The bar dba has a great scotch and bourbon setup, plus a good wine and beer list and live music many nights. Snug Harbor and The Spotted Cat are venues with music nearly every night. Some of the other places are far more beerhall kinds of places. We saw Rebirth Brass Band play at Symphony Center. These guys are totally used to playing cramped crowded spaces so I'm sure the stage was intimidating, but they still managed to get Chicagoans on their feet clapping and dancing. They had a standing Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar. Since they've gotten some national awards, they may have changed their schedule. But they're worth looking up.
If you want to see a more free-form, younger, and less established group of brass band, head to Canal and Bourbon where you might hear the To Be Continued Brass Band or a few others who rotate through. Buy a cd, make a donation to the group and you might be lucky enough to see the police on mounted horses dancing along with the crowd.
If you can, see a show at Preservation Hall. It's tight quarters and really hot in summer, but there's virtually no better place to see New Orleans style jazz. There's no flash photography allowed.
There's music all over the place, but it might be hard to find something that's not just a run-of-the-mill trio in a bar. Pick up The Gambit, New Orleans' independent weekly, for a good list of what's happening while you're there. If you happen to see a listing for Ingrid Lucia, go. She's one of our favorites.
We fully expected Mardi Gras World to be a tourist trap, and it sure looks like one when you walk in, and even when you start the tour with a cheesy video -- but wait till you get into the very active workshops and are left to your own devices in the float warehouse, free to wander among the floats. Definitely worth the trip -- and they provide free transportation to and from several of the major hotels.
If you go outside the Quarter you're more likely to be harassed near Canal than near Esplanade. A couple blocks outside of the Quarter, just northwest of Esplanade, is St. Augustine Church. It's the oldest African-American church in the country built by freed blacks in the 1840s. If you're lucky, you might be able to catch a Second Line Parade on Sunday after services. We're not at all religious, but we got to photograph and march in one last time and were so moved by the spirit of the members that we coulda joined up right there. Except we had to catch a plane.
The Algiers Ferry is free, but unless you want to wander Algiers Point, there's not much point to it. Interesting to get out on the river. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is a worthy rival to the Shedd, and it's a great way to get out of the heat for a couple hours. It's on the riverwalk just at the edge of the Quarter.
You may enjoy the National World War II Museum, which is in the Warehouse District. (Its restaurant, The American Sector, is highly regarded. We've never been, but Andrew enjoyed a nice cup of coffee at the museum's cafe.)
If you want to catch some great local shopping, we highly recommend catching the Magazine Street bus at Canal Street and taking that up. It's cheap or free depending on when you ride and there are great boutiques. Trashy Diva is the first place I've found where everything fit curvy gals. Totally'40s/'50's retro-ish, but fantastic handmade clothes. They have a second store in the French Quarter with a lingerie store next to it. There's a place near the Magazine Street boutique called Aiden Gill for Men and it's a barber shop that most guys will love. It's like $20 for a shave if I remember correctly, but you'll never feel his skin so soft. (Andrew adds, it's probably a bit more now; last shave was several years ago.) And they give him a beer while he waits. Totally a spa-for-guys. The woman who worked Andrew over helped him pick out some oils and shave cream that have eliminated his razor rash since then.
If you like fancy cocktails, then you'll also like Cure NOLA. It's very Violet Hour-esque without the velvet curtains. They have great light bar food that is worth eating -- i f they have the El-Vez sa ndwich on the menu, you gotta try it. Phenomenal! It's a short walk from the St. Charles street car line. It's in the Freret neighborhood, where there's also a snoball (aka snow cone) place called Beaucoup that uses real fruit juice instead of syrups. Worth checking out.
In the Quarter, there are a couple shops we like to visit, which may or may not be your cup of tea: Kitchen Witch, a cookbook shop, and Louisiana Loom Works, which makes rag rugs. The latter we stop in at mostly because the owners are wonderfully chatty and gracious, and we commissioned a rug from them, so we like to say hi. You may or may not want to walk into Bourbon French Perfumes, but if you do, get a whiff of their magnolia perfume -- Cinnamon loves it. UPDATE: Kitchen Witch has moved to 1452 N. Broad St., in Bayou St. John just a little off of Esplanade. That's quite a walk from the Quarter, but an easy bike ride.
We used to go to Bicycle Michael's to rent bikes. But the last time they were pretty crappy and our B&B owner said she'd had several people unhappy with bikes that broke while riding them. So this last visit we paid about half what we would have there to rent bikes from A Musing Bicycles. It's mostly a repair shop, but if you walk into the Three Muses coffee shop and ask to rent a bike, the guy will bring them over to you. I think we paid $125 for a week of bike rental time and didn't have to pay extra for helmets, baskets, lights, etc. They were cruiser bikes, too. Which are highly recommended. The roads are so bumpy there you need more cushion for your tushion. No matter where you get it, if you're there for more than two or three days, you need to rent a bike. You'll get a much better sense of what is around you and you'll be able to get out of the French Quarter pretty easily. City Park is likely going to be beautiful while you're there and Audubon Park near the zoo is definitely worth a toodle on a bike.
Have fun. Can't wait to hear how it goes.
Cinnamon & Andrew
Got a suggestion for us? Email Andrew.