“Do you want that in a to go cup?”
I tried to shake the confusion out of my head and, like I’m sure most tourists do, I replied, “Um what?!”
Before this moment I had never been in a bar that offered to go cups. Welcome to New Orleans and laissez les bon temps rouler!
In all my travels we have yet to find a location that rivals food and alcohol in NOLA. It is safe to say that we broke one of the seven deadly sins during our five day jaunt to the “Big Easy”. Hello gluttony, I am looking at you! In all honesty I am not the least bit apologetic about it. Is that another sin? Both the gluttony and snugger fitting pants were one hundred percent worth every delectable morsel I shoveled into my mouth. But truth be told, I don’t think there is any way to avoid it when traveling to New Orleans. If there was, my attempt was feeble at best, but really I just pleaded with my liver to hang tight for the duration of our visit and I would reward it with nothing but clean eating and water when we returned home. I’m unapologetic about that too.
There was no shortage of good food and cocktails in NOLA. Looking through my guidebook (you can find it here) when we returned home only proved to me how many places we missed during our time there. But really, there was only so much food our stomachs could accommodate so we did the best we could. Bummer! I guess that means we need a return trip to do some more eating! Maybe on our next trip I will say a few preemptive hail Marys. I am completely confident I will throw all caution to the wind and break that deadly sin again with wild abandon. This is a list of our favorite dining experiences. I say experiences because really, food in New Orleans is an experience. In each forkful you are sampling both the culture and history of this famed city.
Napoleon House (French Quarter):
Sadly we only had time for drinks here at this restaurant which exudes old world charm and dates back to 1815. I loved everything about this place and wished we had been able to return for a meal. This was also where I was introduced to the New Orleans specialty, Pimm’s cup. One sip of this cocktail and I was sold. Crisp, not too sweet, and pleasantly refreshing, it instantly became the beverage of choice during our stay. The ambiance of Napoleon House had me giddy the moment I crossed the threshold. The rich, chippy and textured patina of the walls, rustic elegance that is normally found in the European countryside, the eclectic array of artwork and thousands of signatures displayed on the walls, and attention to detail all left me begging to stay. It was an impeccable introduction to this legendary city. Our first stop and we were already in love.
Ye Olde College Inn (Mid City):
The benefit of knowing a local is that you get to, well, dinelike a local. We tossed the guidebook aside in favor of our friend, Monica, and her vast knowledge of where to find a legit meal. She took us to Ye Olde College Inn for a dinner we won’t soon forget. This place is favored by families and I have a feeling doesn’t see many tourists which was exactly what we all wanted. It also celebrates the farm to table concept by sourcing their produce from their own garden in the neighboring lot. We are from a very agriculturally driven state and Ye Olde College Inn was the only restaurant that came close to home when it came to the freshness and variety of produce.
After being seated at our table we were greeted by our server, Jimmie. Here’s the thing about Jimmie, he didn’t hurriedly list menu’s highlights or that night’s specials. He enchanted us with a delectable and vivid story about them. By the time he was finished our mouths were watering and we wanted to order each item he reviewed. I have never in my life had a server like Jimmie. He was truly a rare and precious gem. No detail in his woven descriptions was an exaggeration. The food was thatgood and we might as well head to church the next morning for yet again breaking that cardinal sin of gluttony. Oue favorite item (if we were limited to only one) was the bread pudding, and we don’t even likebread pudding!
The Joint (Bywater):
Our trip to the south required some good ol’ fashioned barbecue. When we travel we strive to keep our palettes happy by asking locals, “What’s your favorite place to eat?” In NOLA every person we asked, including countless Uber drivers, sang the praises of The Joint. Apparently there was something completely legit about this place and we needed to try it. This no frills restaurant lived up to the hype and packed a powerful punch to our taste buds. On a side note, when dining at any restaurant that solely serves barbeque I prefer simplicity over fancy. I want the focus to be on the sauces and the smokey perfection of the meat, not the ambiance. We don’t have anything that rivals this where we live. In fact I think we Californians have it all wrong when it comes to barbecue. I’m not sure what they do differently here, maybe it’s the Southern charm. It was just some good down home cooking that created a medley of harmonious flavors. The burnt ends and grits were truly an out of body experience. All the meat is smoked (even the salad dressing) and if you wish to brave the heat you can watch them working their magic out on the back patio. The heat from the smoker was intense and brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “the meat sweats”. The Joint also garnered itself some notoriety when it was featured on Guy Fieri’s show “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” as well as being featured in both Zagat and Bon Appetit’s top ten BBQ lists.
Pizza Domenica (Uptown):
Sweet baby Jesus and all that is holy! This may have been what I blurted out after my first bite of the garlic knots and cheese sauce. They were, in the simplest terms, a religious experience. I had never had a garlic knot and the ones I have sampled since have paled in comparison. The cheese sauce looks like a bowl whipped butter. It is actually a transcendent mixture of cheeses, butter and who knows what else. Heaven, absolute heaven I tell you. We also had the pizza, which, while absolutely fabulous, was not the garlic knots. But save that cheese sauce because you can dip your pizza in it and double your gluttonous cheese consumption. The restaurant has an open kitchen which we enjoyed because it gave us the opportunity to be entertained bywatch the pizza dough being tossed in the air. It does not take much to amuse me apparently.
This place was packed (we visited on a Friday after Jazz Fest), the dining space was limited, and there was a considerable wait. Don’t arrive starving because you may be waiting a while. The other caveat to Pizza Domenica is that their recent reviews on Yelp have been mediocre as of late. So I am not sure if they are working out some kinks, having issues since we dined there several months ago, or what. But I feel it is important to be honest that while our experience was lovely, others have not felt the same these last few months. So my suggestion is to go for at least cocktail and garlic knots. It is worth it to do a happy hour because, well, garlic knots and cheese sauce. Then if your experience is as good as ours stay for dinner. In closing all I can say is garlic knots for liiiiiife yo!
Antoine’s (French Quarter):
Initially I had read about Antoine’s on TripAdvisor and in my guidebook. During a stroll through the French Quarter we paused to peek at the menu. Chris was at the door and received us with a warm southern greeting. We were given a tour of the restaurant’s 15 rooms. No that was not a typo, 15 rooms! There was a considerable amount of Mardi Gras memorabilia with two rooms solely dedicated to this classic New Orleans celebration (the Rex Room and the Proteus Room). The wine cellar was nothing short of remarkable. What I thought was a mirror at the end of the far reaching walkway was actually the next city block. In terms of statistics the wine cellar is half a football field long and can hold up to 25,000 bottles. Not sure that’s the room I would like to be tasked with dusting, but I would happily spend some time there tasting. After our tour we were compelled to make reservations and stop by the bar for a little refresher before walking back to our hotel. Our bartender was a California transplant and we were eager to hear her experiences of how life was different for her compared to our shared home state. (Side note: her biggest shock was the lack of recycling and the produce.)
If you want a historic treasure trove of New Orleans artifacts and fine dining, you need to go here. In fact, it is the nation’s oldest family run restaurant dating back to 1840. This homage to the city’s history is pure old school southern charm. Where the Napoleon House embraced old world charm, Antoine’s is full of old world elegance. Their formal service, linens, and discreet service were all telltale signs that were about to have a truly fine dining experience. From what I hear this is where monied families come for Sunday brunch and family celebrations. Loyal clients have their “family server” who can be passed down from generation to generation. Ian McNulty’s article in the The New Orleans Advocatesupported this stating, “Some waiters in this town have followings that span generations, and they can forge connections between people, place and food that go way beyond getting a meal to the table.” So much effort goes into building a relationship between servers and their clients that it becomes almost a familial relationship at Antoine’s. This distinctly stood out to us because we never see it in California or any other place we have traveled. I feel it is a tradition we see less and less of it in a world that values profit and speed over customer service and appreciation. Another unique aspect of the waitstaff at Antoine’s that we also seldom see these days was the pride people took in their job and the ability to earn a livable wage. Our server, Charles, was a third generation Antoine’s server. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, working his way through an apprenticeship before becoming a waiter. The average wait staff apprenticeship is five to ten years. To me this demonstrated the pride and value in the profession which was a stark contrast to where we live. I was awestruck and full of questions I never took the opportunity to ask.
Our dinner, while not my absolute favorite NOLA meal (that honor goes to those insane garlic knots and a restaurant that is no longer in business), was richly divine. We laughed hysterically, shared life stories over sazerac, and as natives would say we “pass a good time”. The service was impeccable and Charles was flawless. It was a night of sampling new dishes and savoring every bite of cream and roux laden food. There were Huîtres à la Foch (oysters foch), Potage Alligator au Sherry (alligator bisque), Epinards Sauce Crème (spinach in a cream sauce), two types of beef (the Filet de Boeuf Nature and Boeuf en Brochette Marchand de Vin), and for dessert their specialty, Omelette Alaska Antoine (baked Alaska). Up until this point I never liked oysters, but these won me over. Antoine’s may not be the quintessential meal of your life, but it is the quintessential meal of New Orleans and for that reason alone it is simply a restaurant you have to visit.
Trust me when I say this is not only a music festival. Food and art are celebrated as much as the jazz. We can safely say we ate (and drank) our way through Jazz Fest. There was the Po Boys, the soft shell crab, the beans and rice, jambalaya, muffulettas, gumbo, daiquiris, and everything in between. Each of us ordered something different and we shared, sampling all the quintessential Jazz Fest meals. I wish I could tell you what vendors we chose, but it gradually became a blur because there was that much alcoholfood.
Pat O’Briens (French Quarter):
OK, if you visit NOLA this a stop you haveto make, or so we had been told. As a result we decided to visit for one hurricane. In truth it’s (in our opinions) a tourist trap. Todd and I only needed what amounted to half a hurricane for a really good buzz. Between the red food dye, the sugar, and the alcohol I can’t imagine the hangover more than one hurricane would reap. Everyone there seemed to be having a lively time, but for us it was just meh. This was the tail end of our trip and I felt we had visited so many more authentic places that a bar packed with tourists drinking crappy sugary drinks was overrated. So we embraced the to go cup and headed back to our quaint hotel.
Cafe du Monde (French Quarter):
Before this trip the closest I had ever come to a beignet was in Disneyland. While Disneyland was good, I had an inkling it would not hold a candle to the real thing in Louisiana. I was right. A beignet is a square French doughnut that is liberally doused in powdered sugar. The “liberally doused” is an understatement. If you don’t want to look like a cocaine addict all day I suggest not wearing black clothing as you dive head first into a plate of these heavenly little pastries.
It seems there is an ongoing debate over which establishment has better beignets: Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet. We felt compelled to go all tourist and visit Cafe du Monde. While I have nothing to compare it to besides Disneyland, I can assure you these were divine. They are sweet, fresh, and fried to airy perfection. Cafe du Monde has their process down to an skilled science. In stark contrast to Antoine’s, this place is not about creating a singularly memorable dining experience. They are all about getting you seated, feeding you and getting you back out the door. Efficiency is key and when you see the line extending far beyond the entrance you appreciate it. The menu was simple which contributed to fast turn around. Beignets were the only food option and the beverages were limited to coffee (plain or au lait), milk (white or chocolate), orange juice, and soda. It’s simple, but that can be a glorious thing if you are nursing a hangover from one of Pat O’Brien’s hurricanes or one too many sazeracs.
The bottom line is, if you have an open mind and are willing to not only try, but embrace new things, New Orleans will have a profound impact on you. This trip was proved to forever change my palette between the bread pudding, the oysters, the soft shell crab, and Pimm’s cup. It also proved a beignet at Disneyland will never compare to the real thing while dining under the green and white Cafe du Monde canopy in the French Quarter. Sorry Mickey, but you have nothing on the Big Easy.