New Orleans is as delicious as it is fun. What would you expect from a city of such a unique combination of cultures? While the creation of this list of must-eats was intended to coincide with Mardi Gras, these classic New Orleans dishes can and should be had any time of year. Included are places to go try them.
To learn more about southern food while you’re in town and to sip cocktails or even attend an excellent hands-on cooking class with Deelightful Roux School of Cooking, be sure to visit the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Your stomach will thank you. Then, walk it off: Sign up for a food-focused history tour with Doctor Gumbo, which will walk you through the French Quarter, pausing to sample several classic things to nosh on in NOLA.
Tommy Cvitanovich, whose parents Drago and Klara founded Drago’s Restaurant, came up with a recipe in 1993 during a time when oyster safety was a concern and it was wise not to eat them raw. They came with an exceptional sauce of butter, garlic, and parmesan, served with bread to soak up anything you missed. The original location is in Metairie, a NOLA suburb to the north, but the Drago’s inside the Hilton Riverside is perhaps their most popular spot. Make reservations.
There is no shortage of good raw oysters in New Orleans, including at Drago’s. But to switch it up, try Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House for oysters on the half shell. They also do charbroiled oysters with Bordelaise sauce, among other great seafood offerings. The bar serves more than 250 American whiskeys and the bourbon milk punch is legendary.
A dessert that comes with a pyrotechnics show, bananas foster is best at Brennan’s (originally called Vieux Carré when it was located on Bourbon Street before 1956), a relaxed but classy place recommended for its brunch. In 1951, at the prompting of owner Owen Brennan, his sister Ella came up with the idea of turning a family dish of bananas into a flambéed concoction of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon with a scoop of ice cream. Servers here will prepare it tableside, tipping in banana liqueur and rum at separate stages to fuel some impressive flames.
Be aware there typically are two kinds of gumbo—seafood or chicken and Andouille sausage, with a possible blend of the two—and another 200 opinions about how they should be made or where they should be eaten. (Actually, there are even more varieties if you look for them, even gator and vegetarian, but these are less common). It starts with a base stock of celery, green peppers, and onions and then adds meat or seafood (and often okra) and a thickener, served in a bowl with rice on the side or at center (or even a scoop of potato salad in some cases). Start with Liuzza’s by The Track in Mid-City or Gumbo Shop just off Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
Central Grocery & Deli is the originator of the famous sandwich consisting of a round loaf of fresh bread filled with mortadella, Genoa salami, ham, provolone and Swiss cheeses, and olive salad. But while they remain closed with Hurricane Ida damage, you can find their sandwiches in other outlets (see their website), or try Napoleon House as an alternative—along with a Pimm’s Cup, a refreshing London cocktail that found a home in New Orleans.
Is there a better setting for this deep-fried fritter sprinkled with powdered sugar than Cafe Du Monde? Dating back to 1862, its French Market coffee stand draws long lines but don’t worry, it moves fast. You’ll get them “to go” in a bag, but you can still sit at abundant tables right in front of the pickup counter. The cafe serves the traditional blend of coffee grounds mixed with roasted and ground roots of the chicory plant for a cuppa that’s a bit more earthy and nutty and less bitter. Take it black or au lait. You can buy a can of the blend to take home as well.
When they say barbecue, this isn’t the smoky, slow-cooked style for meats. This dish puts plump fresh Gulf shrimp in a rich sauce made with loads of butter and Worcestershire sauce and other seasonings. And when you get through the shrimp, you will be sopping up the sauce with bread until it’s gone. This is peel-and-eat, so you may need a bib. And the heads may be on as they bring essential flavor to the dish. Mr. B’s Bistro is highly recommended, as is Deanie’s Seafood.
Though it’s called the French Quarter, Spanish colonialists actually occupied the space after the French left, putting their mark on the look of the place, especially the architecture. When they tried to re-create their beloved paella using local ingredients, jambalaya happened, bringing together rice, Gulf shrimp, smoked sausage, and chicken in a single pot with peppers, onions, and seasonings. Recipes will vary, but the jambalaya at Coop’s Place gets a lot of raves and adds boneless rabbit (speaking of paella).
From the French word for “to smother,” this dish does indeed inundate a plate with a rich sauce similar to, but lighter and slightly sweeter than, gumbos, and is served with local crawfish meat over rice. Head to the Original Pierre Maspero’s, a Cajun restaurant in a historic 1788 brick building, one of the oldest structures in the city.
The signature sandwich of the Big Easy (with all due respect to the muffuleta) was created in 1929 by brothers Benny and Clovis at the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand & Restaurant. At the time, the unionized streetcar workers went on strike and the brothers, former conductors themselves, supported them by providing free sandwiches. When another hungry striker headed their way, one of the brothers would shout, “Here comes another poor boy!”
The Martins first served French bread loaf sandwiches with fried potatoes and gravy with bits of roast beef, but then they worked with a baker to develop a loaf with squared ends. Martin Bros is long gone now, and today you will find all sorts of varieties: catfish, oyster, crab, shrimp, roast beef—you name it. Order it “dressed” and you’ll get lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayo on it. Parkway Bakery & Tavern has been serving them since right about when the Martins started. In the French Quarter, Verti Marte runs counter service round-the-clock; a mere 10-minute walk from there, Johnny’s Po-Boys (511 St Louis St.) offers more than 30 varieties.