New Orleans is basically synonymous with fine dining. Some of the country’s best restaurants lurk in the French Quarter and Garden District, just waiting to be discovered. But the Crescent City’s culinary landscape is about far more than white tablecloths and Champagne. In fact, New Orleans boasts a unique strain of down-home cooking that’s almost impossible to replicate outside of Cajun Country. It’s like there’s something special in the water here—and in many cases, that’s literally true.
Next time you’re in the Big Easy, be sure to try all three of these famous New Orleans restaurants.
1. Cafe du Monde: Benchmark Beignets
What’s a coffee shop doing on a list of fine restaurants in New Orleans? Well, Cafe du Monde isn’t your typical coffee shop. Located on Decatur Street, not far from the heart of the French Quarter, Cafe du Monde is a local institution that’s known for making two things better than anyone else: creamy cafe au lait, the Gulf Coast’s answer to the classic cappuccino, and beignets, a special fritter that’s…well, you just have to try it for yourself.
The secrets to Cafe du Monde’s cafe au lait are great coffee, fresh milk, and a little elbow grease. The secret behind its beignets is even simpler: a time-tested frying process that creates the perfect balance of fluffiness and crunch in a sweet-and-savory shell. Like all beignet experts, Cafe du Monde’s chefs use cottonseed oil in their fryers. Lighter and more neutral-tasting than some other common cooking oils, cottonseed oil doesn’t impart its own flavor or mouthfeel to the beignets. But it’s surprisingly robust, reducing kitchen downtime due to oil changes by about 50 percent. That allows Cafe du Monde to serve customers quickly and efficiently—and, if the lines that frequently stretch out its door and around the block are any indication, it needs all the help it can get.
2. Commander’s Palace: An Impeccable Pedigree
Chef Tory McPhail does a lot more than make coffee and fry beignets. His Commander’s Palace features a full menu that’s heavy on Gulf Coast ingredients and serious about updating Cajun classics for modern tastes. McPhail’s work won him a James Beard Award in 2013, so he’s clearly barking up the right tree.
Like Cafe du Monde, Commander’s Palace doesn’t skimp on the fried foods. And also like its crosstown counterpart, it uses cottonseed oil to handle its heavy (and rotating) selection of fried fish, chicken and potatoes. McPhail experiments with the oil in other ways, too, like as a substitute for olive oil in dressings and aolis. For a true Cajun culinary experience, why not start your day with coffee and beignets from Cafe du Monde and end it with pecan crusted fish at Commander’s?
3. Grand Isle Restaurant: Now That’s Seafood!
You can’t leave New Orleans without taking a taste of the bayou with you. Forget the Gulf shrimp—Grand Isle Restaurant has one of the best (and, thanks to its marble veneer, best looking) oyster bars in town. Sidle up and order a half-dozen of your favorite variety—if you don’t have one, or know the first thing about shellfish at all, the restaurant’s resident oyster expert can help. Follow up with a fried oyster po’boy, a deceptively simple sandwich that melts in your mouth. Round out the meal with a local tap beer from Abita Brewing Company and go home satiated.
Visiting New Orleans without sampling the local cuisine is like marching in a Mardi Gras parade without beads. Whether you have a rarefied palette that’s keen on the city’s classic French preparations or prefer guilty pleasures like sugary beignets and savory po’boys, these three French Quarter restaurants can easily accommodate. Just be sure to share the high points of your culinary adventure—New Orleans’ hardworking chefs and restaurateurs love a little press