NEW ORLEANS— In a poll of national food critics I believe New Orleans would be listed among the top three food cities in America. To my taste— and I’ve eaten extensively in most of America’s top restaurant cities— New Orleans is number one. Period. No question. End of discussion.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up 90 minutes away from this culinary mecca. As a restaurateur and part-time New Orleanian I’m blessed to have spent over six decades eating my way through the city, typically logging in more than 120 New Orleans restaurant meals annually.
For the past couple of decades, I’ve kept a journal of my restaurant visits in New Orleans. I also keep a to-do list of new restaurants I have yet to visit, and a separate list of restaurants I plan to re-visit. I typically field hundreds of requests for restaurant recommendations in New Orleans each year. There are a few dozen restaurants that aren’t on any to-do or re-visit list because they are places that I frequent on a regular basis. The following is that list.
MY FAVORITE BREAKFAST SPOT: LA BOULANGERIE, 4600 Magazine St— Most mornings I drive from the Marigny to Uptown Magazine just west of Napoleon, because the croissants made at Donald Link’s bakery are worth the drive.
Other Breakfast Joints I Frequent: Toast, 5433 Laurel Street— I bounce between the Uptown location and the one near the fairgrounds. Toast is 100% local New Orleans in the morning.
MY FAVORITE BRUNCH SPOT: PALADAR 511, 511 Marigny Street— This is the place I eat brunch most often, and not just because it’s in our building. The huevos rancheros and the lemon-ricotta blueberry pancakes are stellar. I can never choose between the two, so I always order both. The Eggs Benedict is unique and loaded with corn and crabmeat. They offer a great dinner menu as well.
Other Brunches I Frequent: Brennan’s, 417 Royal Street— Of the four old-line French Quarter institutions— Galitoire’s, Arnaud’s Antoine’s, and Brennan’s— I eat at the latter most often, and almost always for brunch. Ralph Brennan did the city a huge favor when he took over the reins several years back.
Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue— The old blue lady in the Garden District never disappoints and has been the launching pad for some of the nation’s most legendary chefs. Meg Bickford is currently under the toque and carrying that flame.
Gris Gris, 1800 Magazine Street— Eric Cook is a hard-working, dedicated chef who has excellent touch when it comes to food and a keen eye in knowing what his guests want. The brunch is great, but so are lunch and dinner. It’s a great Monday spot, too. Cook also owns Saint John in the French Quarter, definitely worth a visit.
MY FAVORITE DINNER SPOT: BRIGTSEN’S, 723 Dante St— This restaurant and this chef have been at the top of my list for more than three decades. Frank Brigtsen is the heir apparent to his longtime mentor, Paul Prudhomme. The Butternut Shrimp Bisque is one of the best soups I have ever tasted (second only to Paul Bocuse’s mushroom soup in Lyon). The seafood platter makes use of Warren LeRuth’s baked oyster recipe. I could seriously make a meal of the crawfish cornbread, and mashed potatoes, and often do. This is real New Orleans. Long live Frank Brigtsen.
Other dinner spots I frequent:
La Petit Grocery, 4238 Magazine St— The birthplace of the Blue Crab Beignet. Chef Justin Devillier is certainly one of the city’s best.
Lilette, 3637 Magazine St— Also a perfect spot for lunch.
Bywater American Bistro, 2900 Chartres St— Nina Compton runs my wife’s favorite New Orleans restaurant.
MY FAVORITE PLACE FOR FINE DINING— RESTAURANT AUGUST, 301 Tchoupitoulas Street— I love the room, the service is always impeccable, and it keeps getting better. The meal I enjoyed there two nights ago was the best— of many— I’ve ever eaten in that establishment.
Other fine dining I frequent: Saint Germain, 3054 St. Claude Ave.— It’s not about the atmosphere, it’s about the food. The chefs at Saint Germaine have excellent “touch.” It’s a tough reservation to get. Partially because there are only 12 seats inside, but also because it is so good.
MY FAVORITE STEAKHOUSE: DORIS METROPOLITAN, 620 Chartres St— Their aged prime beef is excellent. Never misses.
Other steakhouses I frequent: Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, 716 Iberville Street— Great steaks with Brennan family service. No matter which branch of the family one eats with, the service is stellar. It’s in their genes.
MY FAVORITE PO-BOY SHOP: DOMILISE’S, 5240 Annunciation Street— My go-to for po-boys for over 30 years.
Other po-boy shops I frequent:
Parkway Bakery and Tavern 538 Hagan Avenue— There’s always a line so schedule accordingly.
R&O Restaurant and Catering, 216 Metairie-Hammond Highway— A great roast beef po-boy, and excellent fried seafood.
If there’s no line out of the door (rare) at the Acme in the Quarter dash in, be seated, order the best roast beef po-boy in town, and a dozen on the half shell with the hottest horseradish known to man. Excellent. I wrote it off as a tourist trap years ago, but it’s still legit.
MY FAVORITE SANDWICH— THE SAM AT STEIN’S DELI, 2207 Magazine St— In years past I have driven from Hattiesburg, ordered this sandwich, eaten it, and driven home.
Other awesome and original sandwiches:
Turkey & the Wolf, 739 Jackson Avenue— Mason Herford— my favorite Instagram follow— turned the sandwich world upside down, in the most beautiful and hilarious way. The Collard Green Melt and Fried Bologna Sandwiches are, on one hand, everyman’s food, and on the other hand, brilliantly inspired.
The Deli Deluxe at Martin’s Wine Cellar is a close cousin to the Sam at Stein’s
MY FAVORITE APPETIZER: OYSTER BLT, GRIS GRIS, 1800 Magazine Street— Perfection on a plate. Smoked pork belly, tomato jam, crispy fried oysters, and sugarcane vinegar with a touch of heat.
Other Favorite Appetizers:
Shrimp and Tasso with Five-Pepper Jelly, Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue— the first time I ate it I immediately ordered another before my entrée arrived.
MY FAVORITE ITALIAN: I spend 12 weeks a year working in Italy. When I’m home I typically don’t eat much Italian— not because I’m a Italophile or food snob about it, not at all— it’s just that I get my fill over there and want to enjoy other cuisines when I’m home. These three are all can’t-miss options.
Gianna, 700 Magazine Street
Domenica, 123 Baronne Street
The Italian Barrel, 1240 Decatur St
MY FAVORITE MEXICAN CUISINE: El Gato Negro, French Quarter, Lakeview, and Gretna— Get the wet-aged skirt steak any way they prepare it.
MY FAVORITE PIZZA: PIZZA DELICIOUS, 617 Piety Street— Excellent pies.
MY FAVORITE BURGER: COMPANY BURGER, 4600 Freret Street— Everything I want in a burger joint.
(Note: Those who wait in line at Port of Call can get the same burger at Snug Harbor a few blocks away, without the wait)
MY FAVORITE THAI RESTAURANT: SUKHO THAI, 2200 Royal St— My family eats a fair amount of Thai food. This place is always spot on.
MY FAVORITE CHINESE: MISS SHIRLEY’S, 3009 Magazine Street— I hate when I ask a server, “What’s good?” and the reply is, “It’s all good.” So, it pains me to say, with this recommendation, and in reference to their menu, it’s all good. It’s true.
MY FAVORITE OYSTER BAR: PASCAL’S MANALE, 1838 Napoleon Avenue— It’s an old-school stand-up oyster bar. The oysters are always cold and salty. My son and I go there for the raw oysters and always eat dinner somewhere else. He would probably tell you that Casamento’s is his favorite.
I also like eating oysters at Cooter Brown’s at the Riverbend (oysters always taste better in a dive bar).
MY FAVORITE ATMOSPHERE: SEAWORTHY, 630 Carondelet Street— The designers did such a great job on all aspects of this interior. Nothing formal. I love it. Killer oyster selection, too.
MY OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH FAVORITE: ROSEDALE, 801 Rosedale Drive— You have to be going there to get there, but this Susan Spicer restaurant almost feels as if it were 100% tailor made for me— very casual, comfortable, with great service and excellent food. The barbeque shrimp served there should be the gold standard for all others. The fried chicken thighs ARE perfect.
MY FAVORITE TACOS: GALAXIE TACOS, 3060 St. Claude Avenue— the barbacoa tacos here are spot on. The converted gas station vibe is perfect, and there’s almost always a place to park on the neutral ground of St. Claude.
Other taco joints: Val’s, 4632 Freret— there must be something about tacos served in a converted gas station that appeals to me.
MY FAVORITE GUMBO: GRIS GRIS, 1800 Magazine Street— Eric Cook is quickly becoming one of my top-five favorite chefs in the city. His gumbo is so good it’s where I take out-of-town guests who have never eaten that particular dish before.
Other gumbos I like:
Herbsaint, 701 St. Charles Avenue
Station 6, 105 Metairie-Hammond Highway
MY FAVORITE SOUP: SHRIMP AND SQUASH BISQUE, BRIGTSEN’S, 723 Dante St— So good it’s worth mentioning twice in this list. I get a pint and take it home.
MY OFTEN-RECOMMENDED NOT-IN-ANOTHER-CATEGORY FAVORITES (the Link trifecta). All are solid and never disappoint.
Herbsaint 701 St Charles Avenue
Cochon 930 Tchoupitoulas Street
Peche 800 Magazine Street
THE RESTAURANTS I TAKE MY VISITING EUROPEAN FRIENDS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN TO NEW ORLEANS: BRENNAN’S, 417 Royal Street— To me this is the quintessential New Orleans dining experience. Galitoire’s, Arnaud’s Antoine’s certainly all represent the city well, but Ralph Brennan is one of the country’s great restaurateurs. Best to leave my guest’s restaurant fate in his hands.
OTHER RANDOM FAVORITES
Mandina’s— the best red gravy in town. Also, the best spot for Monday lunch Red Beans and Rice.
N7— cool outdoor area. Solid French-inspired cuisine.
Horn’s— another great locals-only breakfast spot.
Red’s Chinese— three words: Kung Pao Pastrami.
Mosca’s— No need to make decisions, get the Spaghetti Bordelaise and the Oysters Mosca and eat them together.
Andouille Cheese Grits
1 tablespoon bacon fat or clarified butter
1/2 pound andouille sausage, medium dice
2 teaspoons garlic
4 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons Hot Sauce
2 tablespoons Creole Seasoning
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white grits, quick cooking (stone ground or regular grits can be used- adjust cooking time)
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
In a large skillet, heat clarified butter until hot. Add andouille and garlic and sauté for 4–5 minutes. Remove from heat and drain off excess fat using a fine mesh strainer. Set the andouille and garlic aside.
In a large saucepan, bring the milk, seasonings, and butter to a boil. Slowly pour in grits while stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low. Continue to stir for 15 minutes. Add the sautéed andouille and garlic mix, and cheese. Serve immediately.
Yield: 8-10 servings
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)