He and She Said:
Let’s agree to disagree, shall we?
We’ve done lists and rankings for years here because, as our editors always remind us, readers freaking love the lists. Our editors are a pair of Boston Terriers, but that does not change the truth of this statement.
But this was the toughest, the one whose preparation most frequently produced outbursts of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and ‘you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’ Testing the idea in the standard He Said/She Said focus groups (i.e. cocktail buddies) produced similar heated disagreement. Here’s the premise:
What are the most important restaurants in New Orleans? Not the best (although we think you need to be good to be important) but the most influential. Imagine a friend traveling to NOLA for the first time. Their only goal is get a comprehensive grasp of New Orleans food culture. Money and time are no option, so where would you send them? You should feel like the picture would be incomplete without each place on your list.
Why 12 places? No reason, really. We started with the general idea of a top ten, and bargaining, negotiating and best two out of three lawn darts left us with an even dozen we think have to be included. There were some just-misses that were tough to leave off, and we’ll mention a few of those at the end. If the focus group is any indication, we welcome your passionate disagreements. In alphabetical order, here’s the list:
Brigsten’s: Since 1986, Frank and Myrna Brigsten’s re-purposed cottage has been turning out one great meal after another.
Why it matters: The Beard Award winning Brigsten’s cooking has always been grounded in the flavors of Southeast Louisiana. Consistency and attention to detail elevate comfort food to fine-dining status, and the legendary Shell Beach Diet is one of the best seafood items on any menu town. This is country food came to town.
Cafe du Monde: As famous as it gets. The coffee stand founded in 1862 is on every tourist’s list, and it should be.
Why it matters: Some may argue that coffee and beignets are cliche, and we debated this choice at great length. But in the end, you can’t really say you’ve grasped NOLA food if you haven’t wrapped your face around at least a beignet or two. A nod to our French heritage, and the edible item perhaps most identifiable with New Orleans.
Casamento’s: Already closed for the summer, so you’ll have to wait ’till the fall if you’ve not yet been to this old New Orleans institution.
Why it matters: Casamento’s has been around Magazine and Napoleon since 1919. It goes without saying that seafood needs to be on this list, and certainly more than once. So after savoring Frank Brigsten’s more dressed up interpretations, you need to get here for the quintessential NOLA neighborhood seafood joint. Cold beer, cheap prices, tiled floors, our representative oyster bar, and the justifiably famous Oyster Loaf. It’s where ya mama ‘n dem used to eat.
Cochon: Probably the most nationally fetishized (is that a word?) restaurant operating in New Orleans at the moment, this is Donald Link’s love letter to the cuisine of South Louisiana and all things pork in particular.
Why it matters: South Louisiana is one of the relatively small number of places in the U.S. that sports a true indigenous cuisine (the Low Country food of the Gullahs in South Carolina and the Southwestern idiom of New Mexico are other examples), and we would argue that New Orleans has never had a restaurant that expresses, articulates, and elevates this food better than Cochon. Link’s obsessive faithfulness to his source material yields one of the singular restaurants, not just in NOLA, but in the entire country. The most important restaurant in New Orleans post-Katrina.
Commander’s Palace: The doyenne of the Garden District, and a New Orleans institution. It really is that good.
Why it matters: Cochon is the most important restaurant over the last 5 years; Commander’s is the most important over the last 50. Special event big dining was once a fixture in New Orleans, back in the days when Versailles, Louis XVI, and the Grill Room were in their salad days. The oldest of the old guard are still around, but many of them are, ahem, more style than substance. No so at Commander’s. A launching pad for NOLA chefs, Commander’s still delivers the goods, wrapping patrons in unmistakably NOLA food, charm, and luxury. What it means to dine big in New Orleans.
Crawfish at da House: We’re breaking the rules on this one, but you need to get out of the restaurants for one meal in someone’s backyard with a table full of newspaper and some cold beer.
Why it matters: Crawfish is the unchallenged king of social food in South Louisiana. Nothing says spring like the smell of a pot boiling, and nothing goes better with crawfish than cold beer. And mudbugs have resisted pretty much any attempt to upscale them. No matter what any fancy schmantzy chef tries to do with them for $28 an entrée, they don’t ever get better than they are in your buddy’s back yard.
Emeril’s: The anchor store of the Warehouse District, and the place that put Bam! on the map. Don’t drink the Emeril haterade; this place is really good.
Why it matters: You know how when you go outside to grill in the evening you need to put on celebrity chef repellant to keep them from crawling all over you? Emeril was arguably the first. Some of you no doubt have a special circle of hell assigned to Lagasse for just this reason, but the flagship of the Emeril empire was part of the revitalization of the Warehouse district and spent an extended and well-justified reign as the it-girl of NOLA cuisine. The bridge from the old-line institutions like Commander’s to the new king of the castle we’ll get to in just a bit.
Galatoire’s: The oldest of old school, continuing serenely on as the rest of upper Bourbon decays around her.
Why it matters: Friday lunch. Do you really need more than this? The unapologetic blue-blooded homage to how the other half lives. You need some local joints to get the true NOLA food experience, but you don’t get the full picture without Galatoire’s. The abandonment of hand-shaved ice is a cause celebre, and the termination of a waiter for sexual harassment shakes the halls of power. New Orleans is never bigger and easier than it gets here.
Liuzza’s: Cash only and keeping it real in Mid-City since 1947
Why it matters: Surprised to see this one? Seafood/Italian is a weird New Orleans only genre, and after much back and forth we felt confident it needed to be represented. Mandina’s, Franky and Johnny’s, and R&O’s were other candidates in this category, but Liuzza’s is our pick for the best of them. You won’t find haute cuisine here, but you also won’t wonder whether you’re any place other than New Orleans.
Parkway Bakery: On Hagan and Toulouse right off Bayou Saint John, this po-boy joint draws long lines and fierce devotees.
Why it matters: Are you kidding? You can’t ‘get’ NOLA without getting a po-boy. It is our contribution to the world sandwich canon. But we’re not talking about a one-trick-pony a la Philly Cheese Steak. Po-boys are way more diverse than that. Shrimp and roast beef are the traditional faves, but make room for hot sausage, oyster, meatball, and soft shell crab. The best po-boy joint in town has to be on this list, and Parkway is our pick.
Restaurant August: The luxe flagship on Tchoupitoulas that put John Besh on the map and launched what is now a restaurant mini-empire.
Why it matters: For the last decade, Restaurant August has been arguably the best restaurant in New Orleans, hewing to a local aesthetic that separates it from Stella, its most notable competition for the top of the NOLA food chain. If you come to New Orleans and don’t go to Stella, you likely missed a very good meal; if you come and skip Restaurant August, you missed a lot more. The definitive expression of top shelf dining in New Orleans.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House: The legendary St Ann Street fried chicken joint that defines unassuming.
Why it matters: Soul food belongs on this list, of course. Greens, chicken, field peas, and smothered meats that define African-American country food have percolated into fine dining both here and across the county. You could argue for Dooky Chase here, and we did for a while. In the end, Willie Mae’s story and longevity is just as compelling, and the food is better. A slice of something you cannot get anywhere else.
And that’s it; there’s our list. Admit it: right now you’re steaming over the ridiculous place we included and/or the unappreciated gem we left out. We can’t wait to hear all about it.
Before we close, a final coda on those who just missed:
Dung Phuong: Vietnamese is the ethnic food that almost made the list. There are some good Thai and Middle Eastern restaurants here, but we don’t think that anyone could make a credible argument that you can’t know NOLA cuisine without grabbing a meal at La Thai. But you might be able to make that case with Vietnamese food. The cuisine is robust and distinctive, as is the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. The recent explosion of eateries Uptown is just the latest expression of what has been wowing those in the know on the Westbank and in New Orleans East for years. So if you’d have put Dung Phuong out on Chef in the East on this list (or Nine Roses, or Pho Tau Bay) we’ve got no argument.
Bayona: For years there was a trifecta of fine dining destinations in the Quarter: The Bistro at Maison deVille, Peristyle, and Bayona. Today the restaurant that made Susan Spicer famous is the only one that remains. The cottage on Dauphine is still spectacular, and you know you’re nowhere but NOLA when you’re in the dining room.
Latino Food: We suspect that 20 years from now we’ll still be talking about the great Latino invasion post-K. As ethnic minorities always do, the Latinos who changed the NOLA demographic after the storm brought their food with them, and we are all the better as a result. But we couldn’t find a flagship yet, that inescapable can’t miss place that distills the whole thing. Maybe we missed it and you’ll suggest it, but we have a feeling that if we do this list again in ten years there’ll be a Latino restaurant on it.