Delicious New Orleans
A tasty trip to the Big Easy
Tell someone You’re going to New Orleans and you’re guaranteed to be given a restaurant recommendation or asked where you plan to dine. And for good reason! The Big Easy is a culinary treasure, where refined Creole cuisine meets the Cajun cooking of southwestern Louisiana, offering such local specialties as gumbo, jambalaya, po-boys, beignets and pralines.
Wanting to eat as well as possible on my first visit, I sought advice from John Roussos, owner of New Orleans Take Out on Madison’s east side, and Dan Curd, the Madison Magazine food writer for whom NOLA is practically a second home.
Both highly recommended Bon Ton Café. From the brick walls to the red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the historic eatery has a comfortable, homey feel. The menu highlights—crawfish etouffée, bread pudding hailing from the Creole tradition—haven’t changed much since the early 1900s. Nor has the Rum Ramsey; the restaurant’s early owners created the cocktail, and the recipe’s been a closely guarded secret ever since.
While there’s no shortage of bars in New Orleans, especially along wild Bourbon Street, a handful provide an elevated sipping experience. Tucked in the Roosevelt Hotel, the Sazerac Bar is an elegant Art Deco space with wall murals, cozy banquettes and a long, curving walnut bar. Inside Hotel Monteleone is the Carousel Bar, whose decorated chairs revolve around a circular bar, while a whimsical carousel top twinkles above. For a locally minded drink, order a sazerac, Ramos gin fizz, Pimm’s Cup, or even a fruity Hurricane or dizzying absinthe.
You can’t visit New Orleans without a meal at one of its legends: charming Brennan’s or elegant and historic Galatoire’s in the French Quarter, Commander’s Palace for “haute Creole” in the Garden District or one of chef Emeril Lagasse’s three outposts in the city.
Other culinary classics are worth a stop, too. The old-fashioned Central Grocery draws long lines for its muffuletta sandwich. Nearby, just off bustling Jackson Square, the French Market is the country’s oldest public market—six blocks of covered stalls, counters and booths selling food, gifts and souvenirs.
Café Du Monde is famous for its beignets and chicory-tinged café au lait. The iconic coffee stand is open twenty-four hours a day. Is it touristy? Yes. Are the warm, powdered-sugar-covered beignets delicious? Absolutely.
At Dan’s recommendation, I visited Irene’s Cuisine, a slightly under-the-radar restaurant in the French Quarter. A pianist playing jazz in the dimly lit lounge made a long wait for a table enjoyable, and the Italian-Creole dishes, served in intimate rooms with lively diners, didn’t disappoint.
John’s suggestion of Cassamento’s took me on a streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue and a walk to Magazine Street. The small, tile-walled eatery—little changed in its ninety-plus years of existence—is known for oysters. While I sipped a Barq’s and waited for my fish and fries, I watched two young men shuck oysters at a counter, their hands flicking quickly and effortlessly.
A delicious way to end my trip was dinner at Herbsaint, a sleek restaurant in the Central Business District serving French- and Italian-inspired Southern cuisine. While items on the menu—shrimp, crab, gumbo—are mainstays on many NOLA menus, they’re carried out here in an artful, contemporary way.
It turns out that approaching New Orleans through food not only leads to incredible dining; it heightens other sensory experiences as well. I’ll remember the city’s sounds as much as its flavors: the clank of a streetcar, church bells ringing on Jackson Square, music blasting out of Bourbon Street bars, and the happy din of dining rooms.
Katie Vaughn is managing editor of Madison Magazine. Check out her blog Liberal Arts.