New Orleans is one of the truly mythic cities of the American South, full of Native American, Creole, and down home Southern spiritualism subsumed with the spirit of local jazz. It is a place full of soul, heart, music, celebration, struggles and triumphs, at once cheerful and gothic, haunted by the past but evolving solidly towards the future. The best restaurants in New Orleans, as a result, are both a counterpoint to and mirror of this unique, inimitable local culture.
From the willowy cypress trees and swamp hibiscus that define the landscape in “the Swamp”, to the colorful Mardi Gras celebrations and open-air drinking on Bourbon Street, there are many aspects of N’awlins‘ culture that you simply don’t see in any other city– in the South, in America, or anywhere.
Food is a huge aspect of this celebratory local culture, informed by both the city’s precarious location on the often hurricane-addled Golf Coast– and also by the diverse and multifaceted immigrant populations that have inspired the city’s traditions over the years. Reigning over all this dynamism is the iconic depiction of a fleur–de–lis— a stylized lily that used to represent the French royal arms, which today is emblazoned on architecture, clothes, and souvenirs across the city. Today, as one of New Orleans most recognizable symbols, as the mascot of the New Orleans Saints NFL team and the unofficial “mascot” of post-Katrina life in New Orleans. (It’s a lily that represents the Holy Trinity, thought to protect the city.)
Whether you’re looking for a nice restaurant at which to try gumbo, a Po’Boy, or traditional shrimp n’ grits– or are simply in the mood for a good coffee, doughnut, or sandwich, New Orlean’s best restaurants deliver on both character and flavor. This is a city with a lot of soul. Hospitality is a defining characteristic of New Orleans, a city where oyster bars, Italian delis, French cafes, and gourmet sandwich shops can all flourish in equal measure. The results, as they say in the South, make for some good eating. Below, we spotlight the best places to eat in New Orleans– and what, specifically, you should eat where.
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Late-Night Beignets at Café du Monde
Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Café du Monde is likely the single-most photographed food place in all of NoLA. There’s a reason why it’s one of New Orleans most popular food establishments, as well. Their café au lait is excellent, as is their rare and exceedingly hard-to-find chicory coffee. But above all– and the reason you’ve probably already heard about Café du Monde– are the incredible beignet doughnuts. You have to sip a café au lait while eating a beignet (French-style fried doughnuts) when visiting New Orleans. You just have to. It’s a rite of passage.
Established in 1862 in the Original French Market, Café du Monde is a traditional coffee shop that also serves iconic white and dark chocolates, as well as fresh-squeezed orange juice. Many people go here at weird hours of the night to eat under the twinkling lights on the patio, chatting into the wee hours of the morning. (After a night of drinking in New Orleans, it’s also a local favorite way to sober up.) Head here after visiting a jazz club or swing by post-dinner when strolling along the Vieux Carre. This cafe is so popular that it now has many locations around the city (even the airport!), but we like the Riverwalk and original French Market location in the French Quarter best. (<— This latter offers the most “authentic” experience, after all.)
Sandwiches at Turkey and the Wolf
According to Bon Appetite, Turkey and the Wolf serves some of the best sandwiches in America– high praise from a culinary magazine that is rarely so fixated on casual dining. Food + Wine called it one of the most important restaurants of the decade by, thereby cementing its reputation as one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. Founded by Mason Hereford, who moved to NoLA from Charlottesville, Virginia, this unparalleled shop serves inventive, unforgettable sandwiches. At once unpretentious and surprisingly sophisticated, each is a powerhouse of umami. (Consider the recent roasted cauliflower sandwich, slow cooked with tomato goat cheese, basil, onion, honey, mayo, and muffuletta-style olive salad on bellegarde bread. So good!)
Basically: we adore this quirky, colorful sandwich shop. If you like sandwiches, make Turkey and the Wolf a top priority on your visit. Just be advised that the menu changes regularly, so you never know what you’re going get when you show up. If find a lunch item you love, the experience might be akin to witnessing a shooting star. (It’s only there for a limited time, and that’s what makes it so magical.) The cocktails here are also outstanding. Turkey and the Wolf recently featured one called the “Awwjeez, A Rad Place To Jamb.” This was made with cardamom vodka, pamplemousse liqueur, curaçao, lemon, ginger beer, and Mexican pilsner. Yes, this place specializes in cocktails and sandwiches– and they’re all amazing. Who knew this combo could work so well?
Oysters on the Half Shell with Tabasco and Lemon
Eating oysters in New Orleans is like having a croissant in Paris. You have to! Unless, that is, you don’t like oysters– in which case, why did you go to New Orleans (just kidding– try them fried if you don’t love the texture). Red Fish Grill, Luke Restaurant, and Bourbon House on the Bourbon Street are three of my favorite places to get oysters in the city, but literally any walk-up oyster bar will do. It’s all good.
Of all the seafood available in the gulf, New Orleans is best known for its oysters. They serve ‘um super fresh here, either shucked before your very eyes or grilled, fried, roasted, or even served BBQ-style, as they do at Red Fish Grill. The classic preparation is fresh on the half shell, with a dash of tabasco and generous squeeze of lemon. If you already like oysters, these are the best ones you’ll ever have. And if you’ve never had oysters before, New Orleans is a fantastic place to try them.
Muffulettas at Central Grocery
Ok, this isn’t *technically* a restaurant. Central Grocery and Italian Deli is a dive grocery store and deli in the middle of the French Quarter that nevertheless is regarded as one of the best places to eat in New Orleans. They are famous for their super-famous muffulettas, a lunch-meat-and-olive-stuffed submarine sandwich made on Sicilian sesame bread. An original NOLA novelty, this sandwich was invented by Italian immigrant and Central Grocery owner Salvatore Lupo in 1906. Today, it is a wildly popular local culinary touchstone.
While the exact contents of a true muffuletta are a point of debate, Central Grocery makes them on locally-baked bread with their family’s own Italian olive salad, the secret ingredient. (So popular are these subs, in fact, that the deli has partnered with Goldbelly to ship the sandwiches nationwide!) If you’re a sandwich lover, this is another must-try.
Stop by for takeaway and browse the shop’s interesting collection of sauces, olive oils, and aged cheeses; the whole place sort of looks like a grocery store from a Wes Anderson movie. It’s surreal. Come for the muffulettas, stay for the #AccidentalWesAnderson vibes.
Louisiana-Style Mexican Food at Johnny Sánchez
Johnny Sánchez is the low country Mexican restaurant helmed by celebrity chef and beloved Masterchef judge Aarón Sánchez, who specializes in authentic, down-home Southern and Mexican cuisine. Unlike some of the Mexican food you’ll get in California– or some of the Southern food you’ll get elsewhere in the South– Sánchez masterfully honors tradition without getting bogged down in the simplicity of the past. As a result, many critics regard Johnny Sánchez as one of the best restaurants in New Orleans.
Sánchez’s dishes are both hearty and uplifting, herbaceous and deeply satisfying without seeming too greasy or overly-seasoned. Instead, Sánchez brings together what is good about each culinary tradition while creating a unique, site-specific fusion cuisine. Signature items include Louisiana Crawfish Enchiladas and masa-fried Catfish Tacos with avocado, grilled corn slaw, and jalapeño tartar sauce. (You get the idea.)
Here, the warmth and richness of Southern food meets the flavor and impact of the chef’s most inventive Mexican dishes. Even the drinks are unique hybrids. Try the citrus-y house margarita, which matches the color and vivacity of Mardi Gras on a cheery day in the swamp. We also love the chic, high ceilings and epic tattoo wall art (inspired, no doubt, by Sánchez’ own tatted torso). The food here is novel, but super delicious– and it aptly tells a the story of a place through flavors that diners know and love.
Brown Paper Bags of Crawfish
If you aren’t squeamish, sucking your own crawfish is a rite of passage in New Orleans. Many seafood boil shops around the city serve this local delicacy, but we strongly recommend the cajun-style preparation at North Broad Seafood. (It somehow seams less messy over here, not sure why.) We also like Cajun Seafood, a local chain that specializes in super-flavorful and affordable crawfish boils. Meanwhile, Schaefer & Rusich Seafood is a local staple in Metairie. New Orleans’ long tradition of family fishmongering dates back decades, and often much longer than that.
Like most seafood boils in New Orleans, the best way to experience it is at home, either doing-it-yourself or in the company of locals. If you can’t make that happen, get takeout at any of these popular spots. (Everyone does it, even the locals.) Thus, the iconic “brown bags of crawfish” you will undoubtably see on your trip… Take your order to a local park or waterfront picnic table and dig in. We love Audubon Park and the Crescent Park Riverfront, though City Park is huge and the most well attended in terms of people watching. Just be sure to bring wet wipes to clean up your hands afterwards.
Gumbo at Dooky Chase Restaurant
One of the city’s landmarks, Dooky Chase Restaurant is an old school creole joint previously helmed by food industry icon Leah Chase, who passed away in 2019. Dooky Chase is to to New Orleans what Sylvia’s is to Harlem. It’s an iconic place to get regional soul food that is not only pioneering and historically important, but reliably tasty. The vibrant, art-filled restaurant isn’t exactly as modern as some of the best restaurants in New Orleans, but the down-home gumbo is easily the best in America. (And it’s what keeps super fans like Beyoncé coming back.)
To repeat: if you eat here, you MUST GET THE GUMBO! (Or the the shrimp n’ grits.) The restaurant is known for its gumbo, which is the main reason people dine here. Plus, the recipe is a powerful part of Chase’s legacy. Through her spirit and the local art lining the walls, the restaurant tells the story of a deeply American experience of Southern hospitality and identity. And Dooky Chase is one of the best restaurants in New Orleans for coming to understand local iconography. No wonder Barack Obama ate here every time he visited New Orleans!
Po’Boys at Killer PoBoys
Killer PoBoys is a beloved contemporary po’ boy shop on Dauphine Street that appeals to gourmands, foodies, and people seeking classic New Orleans style po’boys, alike. Po’Boys are a classic local dish consisting of (typically fried) seafood or meat in a submarine roll, dressed with delicious sauces and vegetables like pickles, slaw, collards, etc. The global flavors and skull-n-crossbones insignia make Killer PoBoys one of the coolest, hipster-approved places to eat in New Orleans. We love the friendly service and spicy potato salad. (This is also a great place to try real Southern pimento cheese, if you’ve never had it.)
Order the insanely delicious Seared Coriander Lime Gulf Shrimp or the Braised Pork Belly PoBoy for the quintessential experience. It’s all good, so no matter what you order you can’t go wrong. The new walk-up in the back of Erin Rose Bar is good for lunch in the French Quarter. However, for the real Killer PoBoys experience, head to the original location.
Oyster’s Rockefeller at Antoine’s Restaurant
Antoine’s Restaurant is one of the “10 Restaurants that Changed America,” according to food critic and celebrated author Paul Freedman. New Orlean’s oldest restaurant is also one of the fanciest, in the sense that it’s business casual in a city whose restaurants rarely require dressing up. For a lovely date night, make a reservation and order the be sure to check out the pictures of celebrities, diplomats, sport figures and royalty who have dined here since the original restaurant opened in 1840. (These people include Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bing Crosby, among others.)
For the classic experience, order the iconic Oysters Rockefeller (a must-try!) or the original Eggs Sardou– poached eggs nestled in artichoke bottoms with anchovies and hollandaise sauce (way better than it sounds, trust me). For the last 180 years, the restaurant has also been serving Pommes de Terre Souffles, a puffy, French-style fried potato with a cult following. Like the restaurant itself, it’s elevated, but also intimately familiar. And like all the best restaurants in New Orleans, this novelty is somehow always reminiscent of home. 🙂
Want more Southern-style eats? Read our guide to the Best Restaurants in Charleston (& What to See While You’re There).