Best restaurants in New Orleans
What is it: Saint Lucia-born chef Nina Compton took home the 2018 James Beard award for Best Chef: South for her contemporary take on the food of the Caribbean—which includes New Orleans, both geographically and culturally—at this chic Warehouse District restaurant.
Why go: A personality-filled menu of bright, blissful dishes that manage to nudge the palate ever-so-gently while still offering comforting bursts of familiar flavors. While the ambiance is contemporary and unquestionably cool, there’s a coziness to the place as well: the sort of vibe that lets you feel good about enjoying yourself while immersed in delicious food and company. Joy in food—isn’t that the whole point?
What is it: New Orleans’ upper crust has been dining at this robin’s-egg blue mansion in the Garden District since 1880, and chefs like Emeril Legasse and Paul Prudhomme have made their bones in this kitchen. That same eatery is now helmed by chef Tory McPhail and it has never stopped creating sublime, delicately forward-thinking plates of mostly-traditional Creole-style food.
Why go: The lunch specials are among the world’s best fine dining deals (the accompanying 25-cent martinis certainly help) but, if it’s within your budget, definitely opt for the chef’s tasting menu for dinner (better yet, book the chef’s table in the kitchen): a decadent, inspiring experience. Although it changes nightly, it always includes ingredients like crawfish tails, oysters, foie gras and Angus beef—all prepared using methods that are unexpected but deeply grounded in New Orleans tradition.
What is it: Though it was founded over 35 years ago in New Orleans East, home to the city’s enormous Vietnamese population, most locals first started hearing about this humble bake shop just a few years ago, when word got around that the staff here was baking the city’s best king cakes (a traditional Carnival season treat), beating much older European-style bakeries at the game.
Why go: Straight-up delicious Vietnamese baked goodies, both savory and sweet. As Mardi Gras approaches, Dong Phuong—a good 30-minute drive from the French Quarter—experiences daily lines out the door for their fluffy, feather-light brioche king cakes. But there’s more to their menu than just king cakes, and it’s all just as absurdly good. The hot lunch specials are always great, but the small baked items (mostly priced around a buck or two) will leave you swooning: flaky meat turnovers with pork and mushrooms, charsiu pork pâté chaud, mung bean newtons… try them all.
What is it: Chefs Greg and Mary Sonnier’s Gabrielle was a night-out favorite among locals and in-the-know visitors for years before it was completely destroyed in the post-Katrina flooding. Twelve years later (yes, the city is still recovering), Gabrielle triumphantly reopened in a new location with a menu featuring some of the old favorites (including the much applauded slow-roasted duck with crimini mushrooms and orange-sherry sauce) and lots of new innovations, all inspired by Creole and Cajun traditions. Locals are, obviously, beside themselves with joy.
Why go: If you had been to the original Gabrielle, a visit will be like seeing a beloved old friend after a decade of separation; if you hadn’t, it’ll be like meeting a new one.
What is it: Willa Jean takes Southern cooking and baking traditions and gussies them up, bestowing them with modern twists.
Why go: Although breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served here, it is the venue’s weekend brunch that is the hardest to get a table for. With menu items like sausage, egg and pimento cheese on a fluffy house-made biscuit and a croque madame to die for, it’s not hard to see why. Locals who work in the adjacent Central Business District also love popping in to grab breads, cookies and other treats from the bakery counter.
What is it: Soul food and Creole staples are the name of the game at this Tremé restaurant, helmed by nonagenarian chef Leah Chase, the inspiration behind Disney’s Princess Tiana (really!), star of Beyoncé videos (really, really!) and a local leader of the civil rights movement. The walls are lined with art by African American artists and chef Chase holds court in the dining room more often than not, visiting with friends old and new as they dig into heaping plates of rice and beans and shrimp clemenceau.
Why go: If you don’t have a New Orleans mama to make you gumbo, chef Chase is the culinary foster mother you will certainly adore.
What is it: Following a very public dispute and split with chef John Besh, chef Alon Shaya left the Besh Group restaurant that won him a James Beard award and which still bears his last name and, in May 2018, launched his very own restaurant, the delightful Saba. The menu is modern Israeli, bursting with all of the cultural influences that the cuisine implies, largely focused on Middle Eastern traditions but with lots of North African flavors and a whisper of Eastern Europe as well.
Why go: It’s the pita itself that is at the heart of this meal. The flatbreads are toothsome and pillowy, the perfect foil to a variety of richly-spiced hummus, labneh and dip preparations, as well as a tasty array of fresh salads and entrées served family style.
What is it: A wine and cheese shop with the best backyard in the city, Bacchanal feels less like a restaurant and more like a private party to which you are magically granted entrance.
Why go: This is the backyard picnic of your dreams. The menu is based around small plates prepared with broad Mediterranean influences and local ingredients in mind, and everything on it pairs beautifully with the impeccably curated wine selection. Build your own cheese plate from the coolers inside or order things like bacon-wrapped figs and watermelon gazpacho from the menu. Get comfy with a bottle or three of wine, a live band playing music and any friends you can round up. It sounds like a hell of a night to us.
What is it: In a city of great po’ boys, it’s legitimately hard to choose the best, but the line out the door at lunchtime every day is a fairly good sign that something good is happening here. Yes, the po’ boys are top-notch, but this is also just a fun, borderline-divey, neighborhoody, old-school New Orleans working-class lunch joint.
Why go: Seriously good po’ boys and a great neighborhood vibe. Fried shrimp and roast beef po’ boys are house favorites (combine the two in the surf-and-turf if you can’t decide) and they’re both overstuffed and hilariously sloppy—makes it hard to hold your cheap beer, but that’s half the fun of it.
What is it: Cozy and funky, Elizabeth’s offers a Southern hipster aesthetic without any of the blistering irony—it’s just pure fun in here. The food, like the decor, is fundamentally down-home, but with touches of whimsy. Although lunch and dinner are top notch as well, this might be the best dang breakfast spot in the city.
Why go: The fried green tomatoes are some of the best in the state and this is one of the only restaurants in town that serves callas, a traditional Creole fritter that’s sort of like a rice-based hush puppy. Long ago, and perhaps unfairly, the beignet eclipsed this foodie favorite as the preferred local fried pastry.
What is it: Look lively, carnivores. La Boca is all about the steak, Argentinian-style. Big ol’ hunks of beef are cooked fast on a ripping hot grill to order and served with a trio of sauces and a variety of à la carte sides.
Why go: Meeeeeeeeeat. You can’t go wrong ordering an entraña (skirt steak) smothered in chimichurri, and then sopping up the juicy mess on the plate with an order of fries. More adventurous eaters will appreciate the inclusion of items like morcilla (blood sausage) and mollejas (sweetbreads) on the menu. The wine list is appropriately heavy with South American reds, but the bar also makes the best pisco sour in town.
What is it: Katie’s, a homey neighborhood restaurant in a residential stretch of Mid-City, has a pretty big yet consistently delicious menu that digs into all of the big categories of traditional New Orleans food, from seafood to gumbo to po’ boys to Italian-Creole pastas, as well as burgers and pizza. All of it is a solid couple levels up from your average New Orleans baseline (which is, as we’ve discussed, super-high).
Why go: Downright delicious traditional-ish New Orleans food and a diverse enough menu that everyone in a group, picky or adventurous, will not just be satisfied with, but thrilled about.
What is it: This baby brother of the also-excellent gourmet Cajun sit-down restaurant next door has become the Central Business District’s favorite fast-casual spot and a destination that, for many, has eclipsed its fancier sibling.
Why go: Gourmet twists on Cajun traditions in a fun, industrial-chic setting will keep you coming back for more. Sally up to the counter to order a variety of Cajun-style butcher block options, like boudin (a spicy rice and pork sausage), head cheese and smoked sausage links, as well as creative sandwiches (and some upscale takes on local traditions, including what might just be the best muffuletta in town) and small plates galore. Take some hot sauce home with you.
What is it: New Orleans, despite being definitionally part of Latin America, isn’t as packed with Latin restaurants as foodies might hope, but there are a handful of great options, and Maïs Arepas is the best among them. Expect a warm, inviting space with even more warm, inviting staff (“service” is really upgraded to “hospitality” here) and a menu packed with thoughtful contemporary interpretations of Colombian food.
Why go: The best Colombian food on the Gulf Coast, ultra-friendly and helpful staff, and obscenely delicious margaritas, to boot. As you might expect from the restaurant’s name, arepas—little corn pancakes that are like the blissful marriage of tortillas and biscuits, stuffed with meats and veggies and other fun fillings—are the focal point, and they arrive with a heap of hot, freshly-fried plantains.
What is it: If you’re looking for classic Creole fare in an upscale setting in the French Quarter, you absolutely will not do better than Brennan’s, which is not the oldest of the city’s old-line restaurants, but it is without a doubt one of the best. Most famous for inventing bananas Foster and largely popularizing New Orleans’ decadent, boozy take on brunch, Brennan’s is a torchbearer for the old-world fine dining experience that put the city on the culinary map centuries ago. After closing in 2013, Brennan’s reopened under new ownership a year later with a facelift: a glamorous renovation, a new star chef (Slade Rushing) and a menu that features famous classic dishes and new, seasonally-inspired ones that change regularly.
Why go: Elegant surroundings, flawless service, delicious food and—c’mon, it’s so fun—tableside flambée.
What is it: Scotch is in the name and, yes, you can order a glass of it, but that’s not what people come to this humble, tidy Tremé spot for: it’s the fried chicken that keeps ‘em lining up.
Why go: For the world’s best fried chicken, obviously. You’ll dream about it for days: the thick batter manages to be both light and deeply crunchy, with salty, impossibly juicy meat underneath it. The menu also offers a nice slate of Louisiana-style soul food sides: decadent butter beans, spicy red beans, fried okra, cornbread and a mac and cheese that’ll make you want to jump up and kiss the chef. Willie Mae’s is off the beaten path, but totally worth the trip.
What is it: For a cheese fiend, entering St. James Cheese Company (either the uptown or Warehouse District locations) for the first time means finding your people. They love cheese like you do! They want to talk to you about it for hours! They want to serve it to you in a variety of tasty sandwiches and salads, or just on a cheeseboard, or all of the above! And, if there are things you don’t know about cheese but wish you did, you’ve found your school: the venue hosts regular tastings and classes where connoisseurs teach you everything about the food.
Why go: Cheese. Queso. Fromage. You get the point.
What is it: Cajuns and Creoles have been boiling crawfish in spicy, heavily-seasoned water in and around New Orleans for longer than anyone can remember. If that’s what you’re craving, it is not too hard to find a bar offering a boil in the back courtyard on any given weekend during crawfish season (approximately February through June). But a few years ago, word got out that Vietnamese folks in Houston, many of whom arrived there after Katrina displaced much of New Orleans’ huge, insular Vietnamese community, were doing their own thing with crawfish (and other boil-friendly seafood: shrimp, crab, clams, etc.)—boiling it with slightly different spices then tossing it in a garlicky butter-based sauce — and it was good. The burgeoning trend slipped in via New Orleans’ back door, but with the 2018 opening of the outstanding BOIL Seafood House, it burst out of the shadows. Never ones to resist fun new flavors (or more ways to eat crawfish), locals fell in love quickly.
Why go: You’ve got to taste the crawfish that everybody is talking about. Trust us.
What is it: Casamento’s is the very best kind of relic of New Orleans’ past: a living legend with tiled walls, formica-topped tables, slightly salty (with hearts of gold) waitstaff and the fattest, juiciest oysters in town, hand-shucked to order by masters of the task.
Why go: The fried seafood is delicious and the char-grilled oysters are always a good bet, but it’s the big platters of briny, cold oysters and the proudly old-school vibe that keep generations of locals returning.
What is it: Chef Susan Spicer’s first and best restaurant is tucked into a historic French Quarter cottage, complete with a handsome courtyard where time seems to pass just a bit more slowly than it does in the rest of the world.
Why go: Bayona is a wonderful choice for a romantic dinner (though you may want to hold off on the famous cream of garlic soup for another time) and is also a lovely choice for a leisurely lunch. The menu changes daily (with a few stalwarts, including veal sweetbreads, which you should definitely try) and features whimsical, Mediterranean-style twists on Creole and Southern dishes, with strong nods to the bounty of local farmers and fishermen.