I moved to New Orleans, my ancestral home, two decades ago. In that relatively short period of time, I’ve witnessed our dining scene ebb and flow through a multitude of changes: citywide disasters and neighborhood recoveries, the rise of national trends, the fall of restaurant empires, and the rebirth of regional specialties.
As New Orleans winds down from its 300th-anniversary celebration, held last year, it’s worth taking a look at what's changed, and what hasn’t, in the culinary landscape of a city so closely associated with the joys of eating and drinking. It's well known that we citizens of the Crescent City are raised on the glorious bounty of the Gulf of Mexico and smoked Cajun meats, but there's more to New Orleans than that.
Once the nation’s first great coffee port and former roasting capital, the city subsisted for too long on inferior grounds; today, its reputation has bounced back, thanks to new-wave coffee houses like Cherry Espresso Bar and French Truck. A former leading sugar exporter, New Orleans remains a swell place to enjoy sweet treats like snowballs and pralines, but it's also in the midst of a bread and pastry renaissance, assisted by bakeries like Willa Jean, Bellegarde, and Bywater Bakery. And though there's (sadly) no merit to the oft-repeated claim that the cocktail itself was invented in New Orleans, let’s just say we’re reinventing it every evening.
The city’s present dining options offer both a vision of the past and a peek into our next century to come: tables laden with as much Vietnamese pho as gumbo, handmade tortillas along with po' boys. Here, you can find Southern-inspired fine-dining menus, but also a Slavic-punk late-hour hangout serving shashlik and pierogi; syrup-coated crushed ice, but the best vegan cookies, too. And cocktails—always an abundance of cocktails.
Levee Baking Co.
The name of this bakery suggests a simple, subtle pun. "Levee," from the French verb lever, means "risen." And New Orleans, of course, is a city surrounded by levees, the concrete and earthen walls that protect it (and, yes, sometimes fail to protect it) from its watery environment.
For two years, Christina Balzebre saved many a hungry New Orleanian's weekend morning with her pop-up paradise of a bakery, located in the converted living room of an Uptown shotgun house she shared with the Mosquito Supper Club. Her coveted croissants, cookies, and savory breads made for daunting lines, but, even though I usually avoid queues, for Balzebre’s pastries I would always wait.
In June 2019, Levee relocated to bigger digs on Magazine Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, where visitors can expect daily rotations of seasonal sweet and savory scones, galettes, hand pies, and jam-filled biscuits. There’s always an array of tarts, pies, and cakes, too, including an incredible carrot cake with black sesame and pecans. And I always save room for a salted chocolate olive oil cookie, possibly the most talked-about confection in New Orleans at the moment—and vegan, at that. Thanks in part to Levee, the quality of New Orleans’ long-moribund bread and pastry offerings has risen a whole lot higher.
As in much of the country, New Orleans has been enjoying a café renaissance of late. These days, my preferred spot for conversations with friends or quietly reading a book over slow sips of coffee is Pagoda.
Located in the Seventh Ward, right off bustling Bayou Road, Pagoda has a vegan-friendly menu that looks beyond avocado toast, with plenty of representation from local purveyors. Filling breakfast tacos arrive on fresh-masa tortillas from Mawí Tortillas. Sandwiches—like an Indian banh mi with honey-roasted beets and cilantro-coconut chutney—come served on loaves from Dong Phuong Bakery. Terranova’s Supermarket supplies the green onion sausage that fills the sausage rolls. And To Le, the city’s celebrity curd crafter, furnishes the tofu that can be added to most every dish. There are also home-brewed sodas, house-made granola, and a display window full of baked goods.
Pagoda not only tastes good, it does good. The café periodically hosts a free brake-light repair clinic for area residents in need, and if there’s a solidarity march in town, like the recent Global Climate Strike, it will close for the day to allow its employees to attend.
Seating is outdoors only, though mostly shaded—the better to soak up the vibes.
Liuzza's by the Track
I recently swore off the complicated pleasures of beef, pork, chicken, and other legged beasties, and I’ve made my peace with the loss of hamburgers, fried chicken, and links of Cajun boudin. But I haven’t yet come to terms with saying good-bye to Liuzza’s Creole gumbo. This is an everything gumbo: a thin-brothed, overstuffed mess of chicken, smoked sausage, tomato, okra, and sautéed oysters and shrimp that arrives sloshing over the sides of the bowl.
Liuzza’s—not to be confused with the distantly related restaurant of the same name on Bienville Street—is, as its full name suggests, located by the city’s racetrack, a.k.a. the Fair Grounds, but best known as the annual site of Jazz Fest. Consequently, Liuzza’s can feel like an off-track betting parlor (the world’s most delicious and charming OTB, to be sure), complete with down-and-out gentlemen sipping ice-encrusted schooners of beer while yelling at the horses galloping circles around the television.
Though the gumbo of my dreams might be forbidden for now, I haven’t yet given up seafood. Which means I can still devour Liuzza’s signature BBQ Shrimp PoBoy, a hollowed-out bread loaf packed with buttery, peppery crustaceans—a sloppy mess of a sandwich that calls for a knife and fork.
Pho Tau Bay
Karl Takacs opened the first New Orleans Pho Tau Bay in 1982 with his wife, Tuyet. She was the scion of a restaurant dynasty, the daughter of Vu Van Y, who once owned 14 Pho Tau Bay soup shops in Saigon. The Takacses’ own restaurant empire, named after the original family business, eventually numbered a half dozen addresses in the New Orleans metro area. But each shuttered following Hurricane Katrina, except for the original, suburban location, and it was a dire day in February 2015 when that, too, closed, making way for a Walmart. To the delight of pho lovers citywide, Pho Tau Bay reopened, in the city’s Central Business District, just over a year later.
Gumbo may be god in New Orleans, but Pho Tau Bay’s pho makes a strong case for rethinking the hierarchy of soups beloved in the region. The shop still serves the same pho bo, or beef and rice-noodle soup, that Karl Takacs first fell for as a young Vietnam War soldier (legend has it that he ate seven bowls in a single sitting). You'll also find chicken noodle soups, vegetarian soups, seafood soups, and egg and glass-noodle soups, in addition to vermicelli dishes and banh mi sandwiches.
Today, Pho Tau Bay is a third-generation enterprise, run by Karl Jr. and his wife, Laura. In a city brimming with Vietnamese restaurants, Pho Tau Bay is where New Orleans slurps.
The po’ boy originated a century ago as a working-class lunch, a cheap and filling meal for striking streetcar conductors, served via New Orleans’ light, airy, and thin-crusted “French” loaves. Though New Orleans’ vernacular sandwich has recently been gussied up and gentrified, the po’ boy remains thoroughly proletariat at Sammy’s, where the noon-hour line stretches from the counter to, and sometimes out of, the front door. On any given day, an economically and racially diverse crowd of locals from all over this gritty city wait here to eat.
Open since 1991, Sammy's makes what is arguably the city’s best sandwich. There are your everyday po’ boy varieties: roast beef dripping with gravy, hot sausage patties, fried shrimp, oyster, and catfish. There are deep cuts: fried trout, or a fried, breaded, or grilled pork chop. And then there are the real oddities, the specialties of the house: Bayou Brisket, sriracha shrimp, and the award-winning Ray Ray—fried chicken topped with grilled ham and Swiss.
There are also daily specials; soups (try a cup of the seafood soup with mirliton, a locally beloved squash better known elsewhere as chayote); seafood platters; meat-and-vegetable plates (including some of the city’s best white beans, another treasured local dish); and a list of side dishes that runs longer than the lunch-crowd queue. Get there early or call in your order; otherwise, stand in line, ask your neighbors what you should eat, and receive a thousand different answers.
Plum Street Snowballs
On a recent wet and windy Friday afternoon, as a hurricane spun just southwest of the city and most of its citizens sheltered in place, I called Plum Street Snowballs on the off chance that they might be open. Come on in, co-owner Donna Black shouted over the soft gales that swelled outside, we ain’t closing until the winds pick up.
Plum Street’s proprietors understand: New Orleanians need snowballs. In the summertime—and, frankly, in the spring and fall seasons, and, yes, sometimes even in the winters—the air lingers languid and liquid, morning, noon, and night. Such hot and humid days demand a heaping mound of crushed ice bathed in sweet syrup.
Hidden in an uptown residential neighborhood, a short walk from the Carrollton and St. Charles streetcar lines, Plum Street has been selling snow since 1945, back when cups cost nothing but a nickel. Today, it offers nearly 100 flavors, including standbys like root beer, lemon-lime, and watermelon; cream flavors, like nectar cream, cream ice cream, and the stellar orchid cream vanilla, which tints the ice a lush violet hue; and more localized blends, like strawberry daiquiri, bananas Foster cream, and king cake.
Standing in line will give you time to dream up the perfect flavor combination—peach cream plus plum, perhaps? Then you'll order up a paper pail of treacly snow—maybe with a drizzle of homemade condensed milk—grab a shaded seat beneath the rainbow umbrella, and cool down.
Bywater American Bistro
Three cheers for the comfortable, dependable, friendly neighborhood bistro. When local dining power couple, and partners in marriage, Nina Compton and Larry Miller began their search for a second restaurant space, they had no further to look than the first-floor loft downstairs from their warehouse home. Like the couple’s first restaurant, the James Beard Award–winning, Caribbean-inspired Compère Lapin, Bywater American Bistro (a.k.a. BAB) pairs adventurous eating with graceful hospitality.
BAB’s menu, overseen by chefs Compton and Levi Raines, is as quirky and eclectic as the neighborhood from which the bistro takes its name. Lettuce leaves are hand-painted with whipped avocado butter in the Little Gem salad. The seasonal soup melds flavors and textures; right now, that means sweet golden beets with acidic tomatoes, and crunchy croutons with a swirl of creamy buttermilk sorbet. A fillet of red snapper, steamed soft-to-melting, pairs with a smear of Crystal Hot Sauce Hollandaise.
The menu’s rice/grain/noodle category offers a handful of standouts, and you'll want to bring enough friends to order them all: habanero-electrified jerk chicken rice studded with butter beans, fried Gulf oysters swimming in oyster gravy, butter-gilded spaghetti pomodoro.
Grab a seat at the bar for a view of the kitchen and cocktail action, and be sure to introduce yourself to Larry, the best host in the business.
As Bywater American Bistro demonstrates, there’s something special about a restaurant romance, and Coquette only underscores the point. In 2008, chef-owner Michael Stoltzfus opened Coquette in a splendid two-story, tin-ceilinged Garden District corner space; the restaurant became a perennial James Beard nominee. Eight years later, Stoltzfus’s romantic partner, Kristen Essig, became his business partner, and Coquette was reborn.
The co-owners work as co-chefs, producing creative spins on the modern South and proving that too many cooks in the kitchen can be a very good thing. Start with a light bite of smoked trout roe and onion dip, then move on to small plates of grilled Gulf shrimp with New Orleans rémoulade and sauerkraut, and a rice bowl of Louisiana long grains bejeweled with crabmeat, jalapeño, and the subtle surprise of crunchy popcorn. For something larger, try the smoked beef short ribs, slightly puckered by the addition of pickled celery. Among the unusual treats on the dessert menu is a black-tea semifreddo spiced with peach and ginger.
The bar makes a mighty Sazerac, and the wine list gravitates toward micro producers and cult favorites. The chef’s menus are among the best deals in town: a five-course “blind tasting” dinner for 80 bucks; a family-style brunch platter of fried chicken, deviled eggs, pickles, and more sides for half that price. Essig and Stoltzfus’s love continues to flourish at Coquette’s recently opened sister restaurant, the comfort food–focused Thalia, a mile downriver.
The Green Room Kukhnya
Ah, picturesque old New Orleans, maiden of the mighty, muddy Mississippi, a city brimming with charms: oak-lined avenues, colonial architecture, Eastern European cuisine...
*record skips* *dishes crash to the ground* *Russian nesting dolls spontaneously combust*
Okay, hear me out. No, you don’t come to New Orleans to eat borscht and blini. But, despite its modest size and gumbo-centric reputation, this is a cosmopolitan city, historically famous for offering an array of global fare. So, if you’ve already made the trip, well, then, yes, go right on and head to Kukhnya.
Long housed in the back of the dearly departed punk-eclectic dive bar Siberia, Kukhnya has transformed from a grungy takeout window to a grungy brick-and-mortar specializing in “Slavic soul food.” The menu is surprisingly robust: pierogi, kapusta (Polish braised cabbage), stroganoff, and tkemali-daubed Georgian shashlik (grilled chicken with a spiced plum sauce). Located on St. Bernard Avenue, within walking distance of the French Quarter, Tremé, and Marigny, Kukhnya is open late, stocks a full bar, and serves plenty of burgers and other booze-soaking sandwiches. But there are also vegetarian provisions, like beefless borscht, veggie-stuffed cabbage rolls (called golubtsy), and a superb beet Reuben.
Jewel of the South
What happens when two of the world’s best and most revered bartenders join forces to open a French Quarter craft tavern dedicated to exploring the history of New Orleans’ cocktail culture? Answer: a glimpse into the looking glass that is the future of imbibing.
Nick Detrich, formerly of Cane & Table, and Chris Hannah, the longtime face behind the counter at Arnaud's French 75 Bar, named their business after a 19th-century restaurant, the domain of iconic bartender Joseph Santini. The Brandy Crusta, a Santini concoction of cognac, curaçao, maraschino liqueur, and Angostura bitters, finished with a sugared rim, is the jewel of the Jewel. But the French 75 is tough to pass up; according to the menu, Hannah has mixed nearly a million of them over his long career. My favorite is the Night Tripper, a heady take on the Manhattan and an homage to dearly departed local gonzo pianist Dr. John. (Detrich and Hannah’s Cuban-cocktail cubbyhole, Manolito, is also well worth a visit.)
Don’t overlook the seasonal dinner menu at Jewel of the South, composed by Englishman turned New Orleanian Philip Whitmarsh, for clever, contemporary, pubbish takes on the South’s foodways: crumpets slathered in whipped crab fat (tomalley), burrata with collard pesto, and gumbo served over buttered rice and dolloped with potato salad.