If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you might associate the Big Easy with Mardi Gras and crazy parties — and nothing more. But there’s a lot more to New Orleans than fishbowl-sized drinks on Bourbon Street. In addition to being a jazz destination, the Crescent City is home to some amazing restaurants. Whether you’re in the market for an expensive dining experience or a delicious dive, New Orleans has the perfect restaurant for you. Here are the best New Orleans restaurants for first-time visitors.
Best High-End Experience: Commander’s Palace
Commander’s Palace is a landmark of New Orleans’ Garden District neighborhood, where it was founded in 1880 to be patronized by wealthy families. The restaurant’s historic atmosphere, combined with white tablecloths and uniformed waitstaff, lends it a pleasant heir of formality. The service is fantastic and its food is on par with expensive restaurants in Washington, DC, New York, and LA. If you’re up for an expensive meal in New Orleans, Commander’s Palace is a must-do experience.
The tasting menu, Chef Tory’s Playground, offers an array of delicious options for $90. If you’re not up for a huge meal, you’re sure to find something you’ll love on the a la carte menu. My sea scallops were divine — cooked perfectly and served on a bed of risotto. My parents loved the pecan crusted gulf fish and the quail was excellent. The only thing I’d skip is dessert; we tried the bread pudding and the tortuga rum cake and both were good, but not amazing. Commander’s Palace has amazing food, great service, and an interesting history. If you’re dining out in NOLA, I highly recommend Commander’s Palace. (Ready to try your hand at highbrow cooking? Get the Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook.)
Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., New Orleans, LA 70130
Best Dive: Mother’s Restaurant
Established in 1938, Mother’s Restaurant is everything you could hope for in a dive: delicious food, low prices, and a fun atmosphere. On a busy day, be prepared to stand in line outside the cool old building that is home to Mother’s. Once inside, you’ll go through a cafeteria-style line where you’ll place and pay for your order. Then you’ll take a number to a table and wait for your gastronomical experience to being.
There are 15 types of po’ boys to choose from, ranging in price from $9.50 to $17.50. If that sounds expensive, bear in mind that the po’ boys are gigantic — each one includes an entire loaf of Leidenheimer Baking Company’s famous bread and could easily feed 2-3 people. I highly recommend the Famous Ferdi Special, which includes Mother’s signature debris (the roast beef that falls into the gravy while baking in the oven), and the oyster po’ boy. Mother’s also serves an amazing greasy spoon breakfast (served all day) and the Breakfast Special, which features 2 eggs, meat, grits, and a biscuit, is fantastic.
Mother’s Restaurant, 401 Poydras, New Orleans, LA 70130
Best Brunch: Brennan’s
I wasn’t sure what to expect when my mom suggested Brennan’s, a 67-year-old New Orleans restaurant, for brunch. I was pleasantly surprised by the cool, historic building and the vastness of the restaurant — it’s huge! And there’s courtyard seating, which would be great in the spring or fall, or even a warm winter day. I love a good Eggs Benedict, so I was thrilled that the menu offered twelve variations of poached eggs and/or meat with Hollandaise sauce. After much indecision, I settled on the Eggs Shannon, which featured poached eggs served over fried trout a creamed spinach, all covered in Hollandaise sauce. It was delicious. Brennan’s also has a three-course prix fixe breakfast menu.
If you’re a breakfast person, make sure Brennan’s is on your list when you visit New Orleans. No matter what time of day you go, order the Bananas Foster, supposedly created by Brennan’s. It’s delicious, but the spectacle alone is worth it. Bananas are sauteed in butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and banana liqueur, and doused in rum. Then the whole concoction is lit on fire right in front of you and served with vanilla ice cream. (Can’t get enough Brennan’s? You might want to buy the Brennan’s New Orleans Cookbook.)
Brennan’s, 417 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
Best Beignet: Cafe du Monde
The first time I went to New Orleans, I skipped Cafe du Monde because I’d heard it was a tourist trap. This time, the lure of tasting my first beignet got to me and I decided I had to go. Fortunately, I have a 14-month-old who wakes me up at 6:00 am every morning, so I was able to beat the rush. Our party of 2.5 was able to get a table immediately. (Later that day, we walked by the restaurant and there were probably 40 people in line.) Two minutes after we sat down, I was biting into a beignet. Beignets don’t sound like much — fried dough covered in powdered sugar — but they rival the best donut I’ve ever had. And the coffee at Cafe du Monde is fantastic: dark, strong, and delicious. We split one order of beignets between two of us (and let our son have a few bites) and that was plenty; there are three large beignets to an order. If you travel to New Orleans, be sure to stop at Cafe du Monde. (Note: We also sampled Cafe Beignet’s offerings, but the coffee was terrible and the beignets weren’t quite as good as Cafe du Monde.)
Cafe du Monde, 800 Decatur Street, New Orleans, LA 70116 (and a number of other locations)
Best Take-Out: Domenica
On New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, we ordered take-out gnocchi and pizza from Domenica and it was some of the best Italian food I’ve had in a long time. Located in the historic Roosevelt Hotel, Domenica has a great vibe. The pizza was fantastic, with a thin crust covered in gorgonzola, apples, and pecans. The perfectly tender, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi was coated with a cream sauce and served with duck and toasted almonds. I’m confident anything you order there will be amazing. Be sure to check out the happy hour (7 days/week from 3-6 pm) for half price pizzas, wine, cocktails, and beer.
Want to read about even more fantastic New Orleans restaurants? Check out Food Lovers’ Guide to New Orleans and New Orleans Dining: A Guide for the Hungry Visitor Craving and Authentic Experience.
What do you think are the best New Orleans restaurants for first-time visitors? Would you add anything to this list?