From Southern stone-ground grits to chargrilled oysters, New Orleans is a city made for downright gluttony
Words and Photography Oisin Lunny
“New Orleans is a gem of a city,” explains Drew Young, Director of Culture at Sazerac, New Orleans’ official cocktail. “But man, if you just hang out on Bourbon Street you miss out on so much of the great culture that this city has to offer!” Like most residents, Drew holds New Orleans’ most famous street in some distain, simply because visitors who get stuck there miss the best of the rest. “On Frenchman Street there are at least 40 world class music establishments where you’ll experience the authentic New Orleans on any day of the week!” Drew should know, he has worked in the cultural industries all his life, and has lived in New Orleans for over 20 years. “I thought of leaving, but where would I go, there is nowhere else like New Orleans on the planet. When you think you’ve seen it all you turn a corner and – bam! – the city has another surprise for you. The Big Easy takes its own time to unfold, and there is always something new.”
New Orleans in the state of Louisiana, or NoLa for short, is indeed like nowhere else you will ever experience. But as our local friend sagely observes, getting stuck in the tourist traps is a road to hell, and rather defeats the point of visiting in the first place. One UK visitor accurately described Bourbon St as like “Magaluf strip, lads in matching t-shirts drooling over shots girls, a shitty Disneyland for the 18-25s”. So, have a look if you want, but get out quickly.
Elsewhere, New Orleans is a city absolutely steeped in history, and a great way to get your bearings is a bus tour for a few hours. I took a VIP City Tours bus (504 329-2489) hosted by “Kris (with a K)” who was equal parts chilled and entertaining. As we passed through the French, Spanish and American quarters, Kris told us about the city’s diverse roots and clashing cultures. We learned how the Native Americans disguised runaway slaves to protect them, which today is commemorated by the Mardi Gras Indians. At an area called the “Irish Channel” we learned how Irish immigrants dug the swamps to reclaim the land, but the vast majority of these workers died from malarial disease, their average life expectancy was 33. A Celtic Cross on a small patch of grass commemorates the 8,000 who died building the city. We stopped in the 9th Ward to remember a more recent tragedy, where in 2005 Hurricane Katrina flooded the area with between 8 and 22 feet of water. We saw the rust marks high on the lampposts, and the homes whose doors still carried the painted tally of how many bodies, human and animal, were found inside. Kris was characteristically sanguine: “The city gives us everything, and we just roll with it”.
Indeed, despite recent and historic ordeals, the New Orleans residents are nothing if not bon viveurs. Their joy of living each moment to the full is nowhere more apparent than the vast selection of dining and drinking options to cater for the 391,000 residents and 10 million annual visitors. New Orleanians will debate the right place to visit at the perfect time of day, to guarantee the best possible experience. Insider brunch recommendations are swapped like hot tips for the Grand National, and the best dive bars are well-kept secrets shared by word of mouth. With that in mind, I’m indebted to Drew and his group of friends who took the time to show me some of the best places to eat, drink and be merry in the Big Easy.
The mission statement “you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning” is hard to argue with. It’s one that winks at you from the menu of the Ruby Slipper Café in several locations across New Orleans. Book in advance to enjoy one or indeed several of their award-winning Bloody Marys, served with southern breakfast staples (think stone-ground grits and applewood-smoked bacon), brunch classics and fresh lunch dishes. At the Kingfisher cocktail bar in the French Quarter your brunch can include bottomless mimosas and rose, but I recommend their astounding Bloody Marys, wickedly spicy and dangerously moreish. Their food ranges from chicken and andouille sausage gumbo to dinosaur kale salad and kingfish charcuterie. For a lower key experience, try the Freret Beer Room, who offer brunch classics together with Cajun elements such as crispy boudin balls and braised collard greens. Needless to say, their beers are exceptional. Another regular venue for locals to brunch is Atchafalaya, go for the fried oyster po-boy, eggs Louisianne and etouffee omelette with crawfish.
As mentioned earlier, New Orleanians will argue over dining venues with a passion reserved for football teams in the rest of the country. This extends down to individual dishes, such as where to get the best chargrilled oysters, which by popular consensus would be the Superior Seafood & Oyster Bar. The venue prides itself on its ever-changing offerings of traditional, Louisiana cuisine. In addition to the aforementioned oysters, locals rave about their seafood gumbo, a deliciously earthy Cajun soup based on a dark roux. Another New Orleans institution, established in 1893, is the serial award-winning Commanders Palace, their definitive menu offers a Jazz Brunch (with award-winning Bloody Marys, of course), a waitline-busting classic creole luncheon and a stunning à la carte dinner. Dishes include the Commander’s turtle soup, sugarcane lacquered south Texas quail, and a duck & Wagyu beef “quack mac” burger. Again, book a table in advance to avoid disappointment.
It’s important to book in advance at the hot new restaurants as well, as word spreads like wildfire amongst the resident foodies, filling the schedule for weeks. One such place is Shaya – a relatively new restaurant which marries Israeli staples with Southern flavours and modern techniques. The food strikes a balance between innovation and tradition, and is a huge hit with the locals. Shaya approaches Israeli cuisine “as a grand mosaic”, drawing influence and inspiration from North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece. Their menu highlights seasonal, responsibly and locally-sourced ingredients, and their shakshouka, made with chermoula, sunchokes, spicy chillies, tomato, and egg, is life-changing.
With many NoLa establishments, vegetarian and vegan options can be light on the ground, but they can be found on most menus. There are also a growing number of eateries which specifically offer vegan and celiac-friendly options, including Seed, the Good Karma Café, and Meals From The Heart Café. If you’re a pizza lover, New Orleans has surprises in store: the roasted brussels sprout, almond picada, parmigiana, lemon and chilli pizza at Paladar511 will knock your socks off, while the heirloom carrot pizza at Pizza Domenica is a revelation.
As the evening draws in, it’s an opportunity to steel oneself before the night’s adventures, and NoLa offers no shortage of indulgences, regardless of your persuasion. Yes, I’m still talking about food.
For Mexican cuisine so authentic it would freeze The Donald on the spot, like an enormous orange rabbit in the headlights, try Del Fuego Taqueria. Their enchiladas, huitlacoche quesadillas and choice of salsas are a spice-charged delight, best enjoyed with an ice-cold margarita. Two venues offering excellent outdoor dining are The Delachaise, voted best patio, best wine list, best date venue and “best French fries in Louisiana” for over five years and counting; and Bacchanal Wine, NoLa’s “underdog champion” which started as a sleepy little wine shop on the outskirts and is now packed with a local crowd enjoying good food, cocktails and live music in the sweet night air.
The Grande Dame of Creole dining is arguably Arnauds, one of the oldest family-operated restaurants in the country. Founded in 1918 by French wine salesman Arnaud Cazenave, aka ‘The Count’, they expanded from one building by knocking through to adjoining properties, eventually covering an entire block in the French Quarter. The food, atmosphere and service at Arnauds are world class. Their signature appetizer, the Shrimp Arnaud, is gulf shrimps marinated in their famous tangy creole remoulade sauce, while their enormous à la carte range of oysters, shellfish, fish, fowl, meat and vegetable dishes will make your head spin. If you have the room, their dessert of strawberries marinated in a port wine sauce, served over French vanilla ice cream and topped with whipped cream, is to die for.
If you are lucky, you might be invited into the basement to view the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, named after and dedicated to the daughter of Count Arnaud. Wells reportedly reigned as Queen over twenty-two Mardi Gras balls from 1937 to 1968, more than any other women in the history of Carnival. The fascinating museum brings together more than two dozen lavish Mardi Gras costumes, including 13 of Mrs. Wells’ queen costumes, and is a unique snapshot of New Orleans cultural history in all its glory. The collection also contains over 70 vintage photographs, Carnival masks and faux jewels, elaborate krewe invitations and “party favours”. The traditional colours of Mardi Gras–purple, green and gold, symbolizing justice, faith and power–still shimmer throughout.
After your soiree with the Queen of Mardi Gras, a trip to Arnaud’s bar, French75, is de rigueur. After all, the Count ensured that liquor continued to flow at Arnaud’s during prohibition, but carefully under the cover of locked private rooms, disappearing back bars and in china coffee cups. It would be rude not to sample the bar’s namesake, the French 75 or Soixante Quinze, a combination of gin, Champagne, lemon juice, and sugar that ticks all of the right boxes.
The myriad options available to the connoisseur of “adult beverages” in the Big Easy could fill an entire article in itself, or indeed a dedicated monthly magazine. One rather splendiferous echo of New Orleans’ colonial past is The Columns hotel, where one can recline in their stately cocktail bar of an afternoon and enjoy a definitive mint julep, maybe chased by a Buffalo Trace bourbon for good measure. Following this one might like to retire to the nearby Bouligny Tavern, a classic American venue for cocktails, where the soundtrack is vintage jazz, played from the original vinyl.
For those seeking an authentic local brew, the Brieux Carré micro-brewery was founded to serve their in-house masterpiece, the Falcon Warrior double IPA. I didn’t get around to sampling their 90’s Women’s Power Ballads NEIPA, but it’s on my to-do list. On nearby Frenchman Street the options are endless: the Cafe Negril offers authentic live funk, the Marigny Brasserie a lethal Sazarac cocktail with live rock ‘n’ roll, The Spotted Hat Music Club matches cooler NoLa jazz performers with a great selection of beers, while D.B.A. has a reputation for the best live music on Frenchman.
As the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans can offer an authentic experience that is hard to find elsewhere. Joel Dinerstein, author of American Cool, explains: “There used to be dedicated Jazz clubs everywhere, it was a huge part of our culture, but today pretty much the only one left is the Prime Example Jazz Bar.” We go, and the music is beautiful, intense, and brilliant. Another uniquely NoLa experience is joining a second line parade, a quintessential New Orleans art form, described sometimes as “a jazz funeral without a body.” Joel invited us to his Prince of Wales second line, where participants are advised to leave their “guns, dogs, and troubles at home”. These almost weekly NoLa street parades give you a glimpse of the joy, anarchy and sublime madness of the much larger Mardi Gras celebration, which takes place in February next year.
There is no shortage of unpretentious local bars in varying states of outward repair dotted across New Orleans. A classic Irish bar would be Parasol’s in the Garden District, where you can order a “Feckin Tullamore Dew” from the menu, and the staff will do shots with you on a good day, for the right accent. Tracey’s is also an Irish NoLa institution, where you can match your carbs with more carbs in a French fry po-boy (a chip sandwich) and deep-fried gherkins. The Friendly Bar is another classic of its kind, a place to sit outside, watching the world saunter by, while drinking cheap beer. Speaking of which, the Big Easy is indeed easy in its attitude to drinking in public, with the best daiquiris are served at drive-in bars.
In the Bywater district, Markey’s Bar has been a fixture for over 110 years in one way or another, while Vaughan’s Lounge is a local institution offering good company, a great atmosphere, and if you are lucky, some free rice & beans. Roberts’ Bar and Liquor Store offers free ping pong, if the mood should take you, which indeed it did, but I’ve said too much already.
As the night continues, you might be in need of something filthy to round it all off. Yes, I’m still talking about food. Before midnight, head to landmark diner Camellia Grill for omelettes, burgers and 10” catfish po-boys that would make Elvis Presley’s cholesterol blush. After midnight, choose the 24-hour Café du Monde for powdery beignets (pastries made from deep-fried choux pastry) and a café au lait.
At this late stage of proceedings, there are still many options to explore for the intrepid liquid gastronaut. Buffa’s Bar “on the Border of the Quarter since 1939” does brisk trade in chili cheese fries, shrimp creole and their “Logan’s Run for the Border Burger”, you can also park in the front bar 24/7. However, the holy grail of late night NoLa dive bars is Snake and Jakes Christmas Club Lounge. It was picked up for a song in the 80s, and has remained unchanged ever since, give or take some masking tape on the chairs. The establishment is proudly open every night of the year “especially Christmas”, and stays open generally until everyone leaves the next morning. It’s a place where anything goes, and frequently does. It makes Trees Lounge look like The Ritz, which is a very good thing, and indeed, one would not be surprised to see Steve Buscemi peeling his face from the bar at 5am to join some argument. Snake & Jakes is a true classic of its type, an unpretentious bucket list essential, a bit like New Orleans itself.
As Drew Young said, the Big Easy takes its own time to unfold, and this article just scratches the gastronomic surface of the city. My advice is to get yourself down there, and roll with whatever it gives you.
Oisin Lunny has been performing, producing and DJing since the early 90s, first with his band Marxman and then with his solo project Firstborn. Today he is a keynote speaker, composes music for film & TV, DJs globally, and sends out mixtapes to 12,000 friends via his website oisinlunny.com.