Here begins our list of the ten most interesting restaurants in the city. “Most interesting” is not the same as “best.” For example, we both agree that Commander’s Palace is a great restaurant, almost certainly among the ten best in the city, but nothing about it makes it among the most interesting.
Some on this list will be high-end; others will be dives. Our criterion was experiences that you could not replicate anywhere else in New Orleans for one reason or another. We’ll count them down, from ten to one, and we’ll give you our take on what makes then so interesting, and why you need to get there if you haven’t already. Let us know if we’ve missed any.
Number 10: Bennachin
The only New Orleans restaurant we’re aware of serving African cuisine. Tucked away in the 1200 block of Royal in the FQ, you’ll feel like you’ve left NOLA, and the entire U.S., behind when you walk through the doors. Inexpensive, BYOB, with many vegetarian and eclectic food options.
Number 9: Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 Saint Ann, off Orleans Avenue. Willie Mae Seaton is a James Beard award-winner, and her tiny restaurant began as simple food served in the back room of a bar, known as the “scotch house.” Reputed to have the best fried chicken in New Orleans, an assessment with which we would agree. Our initial visit, before Katrina, resulted in eventually scoring seating with a complete stranger, waiting 45 minutes before being acknowledged by staff, and waiting another 45 minutes to get our food, which was marvelous. Soul-food ground zero, and a place like no other.
Number 8: Mimi’s in the Marigny
2601 Royal, in the Marigny. Mimi’s is as funky as it gets, buried deep in the hipster Marigny Rectangle. Downstairs is a classic neighborhood dive bar. Upstairs, some of the best tapas in NOLA. Second-hand furniture and an alternative vibe combine with consistently good food (be sure to try the goat cheese coquettes) and nicely-priced bottles of wine to make this an adventure worth experiencing.
Number 7: Rio Mar
800 South Peters, in the Warehouse District. In a city filled with seafood, a seafood restaurant like no other. Rio Mar is a true Spanish seafood restaurant, the only high-end restaurant of it’s kind in New Orleans. Do not walk in expecting deep fried platters with fries and hush-puppies, and forget about fish tacos, or anything else south of the border. Instead, be prepared for a truly Mediterranean menu executed at a level that makes this one of the fifteen or twenty best restaurants in the city.
Number 6: Cochon
Forget about Michaul’s and Mulate’s. Cochon is the best expression of rustic Louisiana cooking in town. Vegetarians beware: as the name suggests, chef Donald Link has created a temple of pork, using every inch of the pig to run the gamut from ham hocks to head cheese. If that’s not enough, they also make their own moonshine. Very cool. Tchoupitoulas in the Warehouse District.
Number 5: Rocky and Carlo’s
613 Saint Bernard Hwy, in da Parish. Chalmette itself is a place like nowhere else, and nothing is more Chalmatian than Rocky and Carlo’s. Since 1965, everybody who’s anybody in the Parish and beyond has paid a visit to Chalmette’s ultimate neighborhood joint. Come for the macaroni and cheese with red or brown gravy. the huge portions, and most of all for the staff, who’s the best part of the adventure. This is a restaurant that could not exist anywhere else on earth.
Number 4: Stella!
His menu is eclectic, his cooking style is risky, and chef Scott Boswell tucks it all into a very traditional venue tucked away on Chartres Street in the Lower Quarter. This might be the best restaurant in town, and it might also be the most expensive; it is certainly one of the most interesting. No one in New Orleans comes close to Boswell’s ability to combine exotic ingredients with flawless execution. When you’re ready to drop $22 for appetizers, this is your place.
We had a great time putting together this list, and it was very tough to select the last few places, therefore leaving some out. Just missing the cut were Irene’s, Jack Dempsey’s, Adolfo’s, Saint James Cheese, and Surrey’s.
What we did find, however, was that our top three were in a class by themselves. The hard part was deciding exactly how to rank them. So here they are, the three most interesting restaurants in New Orleans:
3: Green Goddess.
Earlier this year, Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues, formerly of Delechase and Surry’s, respectively, opened Green Goddess. According to their menu, they are “the kind of place that defies labels. We couldn’t agree more. The Goddess occupies a tiny space at 317 Exchange alley in the Quarter, right across the alley from Pelican Club.
Green Goddess has perhaps the single most eclectic menu in the city. Chris DeBarr is like some mad food scientist, concocting whatever comes into his slightly demented brain. Not only does he try this crazy stuff; he pulls it off. When we dined there last month, among our selections was the “Spooky” Blue Corn Crepes, crepes with rare Aztec corn fungus. Seriously. Ask yourself when’s the last time you saw that on a menu.
Another nice feature of this place is the tables set up in the alley. The alfresco dining feels very much like a cafe in Europe. Overall, Green Goddess feels like a visit to a good friend’s house…a good friend with a courtyard in the French Quarter who happens to be able to acquire and combine the most unusual ingredients you can think of and end up making them feel like comfort food. Don’t miss it.
This is not your father’s wine shop.
Chris Rudge, the former sommelier at Marisol (which itself would have been a contender for this list), runs this “wine shop” in an old building at the corner of Chartres and Poland in Bywater. Sometime after Katrina, Chris got the idea to have guest chefs set up multiple grills and cook out in the courtyard on Sunday nights.
And so it goes. To enter Bacchanal on Sunday nights now is to be confronted with the combination of the hodgepodge mismatched courtyard, great live music, any one of a number of the top chefs in town cooking five or six great items simultaneously on outdoor grills, the stinky cheese cabinet, Bywater people-watching, and a wandering Chris, dispensing passionate suggestions for great vino you’ve never heard of.
There is simply no better way to spend a Sunday evening in NOLA.
Overdone? Cliche? We don’t think so.
There is nothing else in New Orleans like Galatoire’s for lunch, particularly on a Friday. In fact, we would argue that if you were from somewhere else and had only one meal to attempt to experience the essence of New Orleans, Friday lunch at Galatoire’s would be the choice.
The wait outside the doors on Bourbon and the pre-drinks in the upstairs bar before lunch (what a great idea that is) set the stage for the floor show to come. Galatoire’s does not deliver cuisine on the cutting edge; this is no Stella. But what it does, it does very well. What could possibly be more civilized than the four-hour lunch? As the drinks flow and the table-hopping amps up, you’ll find yourself in a room full of your best friends, even if you’ve never met any of them before.
The essential New Orleans dining experience.
So, that’s the list. Where’d we screw up? What did we miss? Let us know.