The search for America’s best food cities: New Orleans

The search for America's best food cities:

New Orleans

The search for America's best food cities: New Orleans

The search for America's best food cities:

New Orleans

The search for America's best food cities: New Orleans

Published on August 25, 2015

Sixth in a monthly series.

Plenty of American cities pride themselves on their fine food and drink. None of them relish where they’ve been and what they have as much as New Orleans, a city founded by the French, ruled for 40 years by the Spanish — and nearly washed away a decade ago by Hurricane Katrina.

The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I:
Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.

“You will come across no one who says he just eats for fuel,” writer and photographer Pableaux Johnson says over a dinner of duck confit with dirty rice at the admired Herbsaint, where the food, much like the city, mixes cultures to jazzy effect. “We’re a small city with outsize appetites.”

On the brink of an anniversary no one wishes to celebrate, I revisited the Louisiana port town as part of my tour of the country to identify, and ultimately rank, the top 10 food cities in America. Whether I was chomping on a po’ boy a few feet away from a video gambling booth at Parkway Bakery & Tavern or singing “Happy Birthday” — along with the rest of the restaurant — to a 90-year-old grande dame at the dowager Galatoire’s on a Sazerac-laced Friday afternoon, New Orleans’s signature joie de vivre was my constant companion.

This was also a week in which I discovered a museum that allows patrons to tour with cocktails in hand (mighty kind of you, Southern Food & Beverage Museum) and watched grown men navigate the streets in clingy frocks (via the fundraising Red Dress Race). Far more than in most places, opposites seem to attract in this most bohemian of American cities.

“You can come down to New Orleans and fly your freak flag,” says chef Isaac Toups, co-owner of Toups’ Meatery, a contemporary Cajun restaurant in Mid-City. “You can have a glass of wine with breakfast,” and no one cares.

No moment hit the point home quite like the sultry night a genial cardiologist surrendered his stool at the SRO bar at Coquette in the Garden District so I could eat. I was embarrassed when the doctor, settling his bill, caught me eyeing a pack of Marlboros poking out of his coat pocket. He smiled as he shook my hand goodbye. “New Orleans,” he said, “is a city of contradictions.”

Note: Clockwise from top: The late-night scene outside Bacchanal, a wine bar and restaurant in the Bywater; chef Burnetter McMillan tosses shrimp at Liuzza’s by the Track; a whole fried Gulf fish at Mopho in Mid-City.From top to bottom: The late-night scene outside Bacchanal, a wine bar and restaurant in the Bywater; a whole fried Gulf fish at Mopho in Mid-City; chef Burnetter McMillan tosses shrimp at Liuzza’s by the Track.

Always an open invitation

To eat even a few meals here is to discover the truth: Nothing tastes like this. “Our food is the strangest thing,” says chef Leah Chase, at 92 still a daily presence in the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s, which opened in 1941. As Brett Anderson, the veteran restaurant critic of the Times-Picayune, puts it: “The city has places that simply can’t be found anywhere else.”

F’true. The society restaurant Galatoire’s is the only place in this country where lunch too easily slips into the dinner hour, coffee is more intoxicating than stimulating (welcome to cafe brulot) and underdressed novices to the spectacle are heard to say, “No one gave me the hat memo.” Other than at the beloved Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, would there be dozens of people willing to wait 30 minutes or more for a cone of shaved ice in 104-degree heat, weather that felt like a swamp on fire? At Toups’ Meatery, my server almost insisted I order an appetizer of crawfish fritters: “Oh man, last of the season!” And when the bartender at the Mayhaw saw me debating a second cocktail before 11 a.m. on a weekday (research, baby!), he settled the matter with, “Man, you’re in New Orleans.”

Lolis Eric Elie, the TV writer, food historian and author of “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans,” says his native city has a long history of equal opportunity when it comes to good food, pointing to the roast beef po’ boy and red beans and rice as “inexpensive, high-quality and emblematic of New Orleans.”

San Francisco likes to talk up the ultra-freshness of its larder and New York counts more stars than there are in heaven, but “New Orleans has its own cuisine,” says Liz Williams, founder of the food and beverage museum, which relocated from the Riverwalk mall to Central City last year. “All of us identify ourselves with our food.” Crucially, she adds, “Rich or poor, we all eat beans and rice.”

Alon Shaya, a protege of esteemed chef-restaurateur John Besh, knew as much when he returned to New Orleans with his boss mere days after Katrina to help feed emergency personnel in the parking lot of a looted Wal-Mart. On his person: a pistol, which he never had to use. On the menu: red beans and rice. “We could have just made rice,” says Shaya, who won this year’s James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: South for the hit Israeli restaurant that bears his name. But red beans and rice “hold a special place here. People would be comforted” by the complete dish.

Where Tom went:

Store

Bacchanal Wine

Buy a bottle of something red or white from one of the clerks in the Bywater wine shop. Then stroll out back to what amounts to a block party beneath a canopy of trees strung with lights and live music to accompany the sipping.

600 Poland Ave.

504-948-9111

www.bacchanalwine.com

Restaurant

Brennan’s

Best known for one of the most extravagant breakfasts anywhere, a spread that might start with brandy milk punch and conclude in flames with bananas Foster, this dowager French Quarter restaurant emerged from a $20 million facelift last year looking pinker, greener and lusher than ever.

417 Royal St.

504-525-9711

www.brennansneworleans.com

Restaurant

Cane & Table

The saying that New Orleans is the northernmost part of the Caribbean rings true at the rum-fueled Cane & Table, whose tropically inspired back patio gives patrons the sense they’ve landed in Havana. Peas and rice are meaty with local andouille; “Hilter’s Jitters” adds a note of chocolate to the classic daiquiri.

1113 Decatur St.

504-581-1112

www.caneandtablenola.com

Sandwiches

Central Grocery

Time stands still in this Italian market in the French Quarter, where the bestseller is the definitive muffuletta sandwich, a round loaf of bread stuffed with layers of ham, Genoa salami, provolone, mortadella and chopped olive salad. Flying out? There are few better souvenirs than a “boxed and bubble-wrapped” muffuletta.

923 Decatur St.

504-523-1620

www.centralgrocerynola.com

Restaurant

Clancy's

Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune, counts the French-Creole venue as one of his favorite dining destinations. You may, too, after a night of crabmeat salad, sauteed baby drum and lemon icebox pie delivered by ace-but-amusing servers in tuxedos. Ask about the sketches gracing the walls and a waiter might crack of the VIP regulars, “They’re all bad tippers!”

6100 Annunciation St.

504-895-1111

www.clancysneworleans.com

Sandwiches

Cochon Butcher

A one-stop shop for carnivores and a spinoff of the popular Cochon around the corner, this pungent storefront calls to our inner piggies with display cases of house-made boudin, duck pastrami and deer sausage and a sandwich menu featuring Cajun pork dogs, Moroccan-spiced lamb and Le Pig Mac: two all-pork patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese ... you get the idea.

930 Tchoupitoulas St.

504-588-7675

www.cochonbutcher.com

Bar

Cure

In a city that takes its libations seriously, Cure, a former firehouse, stands out with menus devoted not just to classic drinks, but to seasonal, “obscure” and even reserve cocktails. The “bonded” Sazerac relies on rye whiskey from E.H. Taylor and Nouvelle-Orleans absinthe for its greatness. Sip slowly; the splurge costs $20.

4905 Freret St.

504-302-2357

curenola.com

Bar

French 75

Three compelling reasons to explore the watering hole inside Arnaud’s restaurant: a handsome bar dating to the late 1800s, master mixer Chris Hannah, and a swirl of Courvoisier, sugar, lemon juice and Champagne – the signature French 75, of course.

813 Bienville St.

504-523-5433

www.arnaudsrestaurant.com/bars/french-75

Restaurant

Galatoire’s

The recipe for fun at Galatoire’s: show up early for the chance of a Friday lunch table on the ground floor; ask for a waiter named Bryan; ease in with a Sazerac and souffle potatoes; trust the server to bring you whatever fish looks best; and revive yourself with cafe brulot. The people-watching alone is worth the effort. (The hats!)

209 Bourbon St.

504-525-2021

www.galatoires.com

Sandwiches

Guy’s Po-Boys

High noon finds a crowd of cops, construction workers and the occasional suit or two in this cramped, cash-only po' boy shop in Uptown, its walls painted in stars-and-stripes colors. Rib-stickers include dense rolls packed with peerless grilled shrimp and cayenne-spiked pork chops.

5259 Magazine St.

504-891-5025

Shop

Hansen’s Sno-Bliz

“There are no shortcuts to quality” reads a sign on the cinderblock wall of the city’s most beloved shaver of ice and maker of syrups. Which means you are likely to wait for the pleasure of a creamy-textured snowball, made using a contraption developed in the 1930s by Ernest Hansen and based on sweeteners created by his wife, Mary. Flavors run from old-fashioned cream of nectar to trendy ginger-cayenne.

4801 Tchoupitoulas St.

504-891-9788

www.snobliz.com

Restaurant

Herbsaint

The senior restaurant in the empire of Acadiana native Donald Link (Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Peche Seafood Grill), Herbsaint in the Warehouse District salutes France and other ports of call while staying true to its community. Expect to find dirty rice alongside duck confit and chili vinaigrette lacing grilled jumbo shrimp with creamed corn.

701 St. Charles Ave.

504-524-4114

www.herbsaint.com

Store

Kitchen Witch

Christmas lights wind through a treasure trove of old and new food-related books, many carrying the names of local chefs — Besh, Link, Prudhomme, Spicer — and restaurants. In the mix: vintage church cookbooks (“Angel Food”), “vacation” glasses (to-go cups) and hundreds of record albums.

631 Toulouse St.

504-528-8382

kwcookbooks.com

Restaurant

La Petite Grocery

Named for the market that preceded it, La Petite Grocery in Uptown calls to food fanciers with golden crab beignets, rabbit served like a schnitzel and pasta draped with zesty turtle Bolognese. The only thing holding a diner back from another round on the burgundy banquette beneath the pressed tin ceiling: the roar of the inevitable crowd.

4238 Magazine St.

504-891-3377

www.lapetitegrocery.com

Store

Lucullus

Food lovers with a taste for what’s old and exquisite have plenty to peruse at this antique store in the heart of the French Quarter. Finds include an Edwardian-era plated silver meat dome, Italian lace tablecloths and French belle epoque bistro saucers.

610 Chartres St.

504-528-9620

lucullusantiques.com

Restaurant

Mopho

Chef-owner Michael Gulotta served as chef de cuisine at fine-dining August before opening this hipster Vietnamese retreat in Mid-City last year. His skill reveals itself on a whimsical menu that embraces kicky chicken wings and pho in a handful of flavors but also po’ boys stuffed with “sloppy roast duck” and banana barbecue sauce.

514 City Park Ave.

504-482-6845

mophonola.com

Sandwiches

Parkway Bakery & Tavern

The Baskin-Robbins of local sandwich makers, this family-run watering hole in Mid-City offers 20 or so flavors of po' boys. “Surf and turf” packs gravy-splashed shrimp and roast beef in a sturdy roll, while “Caprese” is mindful of customers who don’t eat meat. A covered patio in back makes room for everyone, pets included.

538 Hagan Ave.

504-482-3047

www.parkwaypoorboys.com

Restaurant

Pascal’s Manale

Go for oysters shucked at a bar dating to 1913 and stick around for barbecue shrimp. Bibs go around the necks of diners who order the house signature, a Creole-Italian classic featuring whole shrimp in a hot bath of butter and pepper. Crusty French bread makes an excellent mop for any remains.

1838 Napoleon Ave.

504-895-4877

pascalsmanale.com

Restaurant

Peche Seafood Grill

The best fishing hole for miles may be the Warehouse District’s kind-of-rustic, sort-of-industrial dining room, where the great catches include catfish with pickled greens, a Louisiana shrimp roll and a model caramel cake. Small wonder that the James Beard Foundation presented Peche with awards last year for both Best New Restaurant and Best Chef: South.

800 Magazine St.

504-522-1744

www.pecherestaurant.com

Restaurant

Shaya

The buzziest restaurant in town is the handiwork of Alon Shaya, the James Beard award-winning chef whose menu proves a valentine to modern Israel. Among the seductions: avocado and smoked whitefish on rye toast, curry-spiced cauliflower in a well of lush hummus, slow-cooked lamb with fruited tabouleh. Try, if you can, not to fill up too early on Shaya’s world-class pita.

4213 Magazine St.

504-891-4213

www.shayarestaurant.com

Museum

Southern Food & Beverage Museum

A must-see for anyone who enjoys food history and the pleasures of the (Southern) table, the museum brims with enticements. Check out the machine Popeye's founder Al Copeland used to measure the heat in chili peppers, an absinthe collection, Prohibition posters and, just a block way, a collection of more than 17,000 cookbooks and pamphlets. A demonstration kitchen and restaurant, Purloo, round out the scholarship -- and fun.

1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

504-569-0405

sofabinstitute.org/southern-food-and-beverage

Store

St. James Cheese Company

The name of the city’s best source for fromage is a nod both to the neighborhood in London where the owners began their cheese careers and the London hospital sung about by the trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Go for a cheese sandwich at lunch; cheese with wine at happy hour; or for the occasional lesson on the glories of cheeses from Spain or Sonoma.

5004 Prytania St.

504-899-4737

www.stjamescheese.com

Market

St. Roch Market

Shuttered by Katrina, the one-time seafood market reopened this spring as a pristine food hall with more than a dozen vendors and abundant counter seating throughout. Among the draws are crab cakes from Elysian Seafood, daiquiris and other cocktails from the Mayhaw and local pecans, okra and raw honey sourced by St. Roch Forage.

2381 St. Claude Ave.

504- 609-3813

www.strochmarket.com

Restaurant

Toups' Meatery

Hospitality veterans Isaac and Amanda Toups (he cooks, she handles wine) have a winner in their contemporary Cajun outpost in Mid-City. Loosen your belt for barbecued goat delivered with pickled peppers and a wedge of cornbread, and fennel-topped lamb neck rising from a tasty swamp of black-eyed peas.

845 N. Carrollton Ave.

504-252-4999

www.toupsmeatery.com

Restaurant

Upperline

Now ubiquitous, the duo of fried green tomatoes and shrimp remoulade originated in this rambling townhouse-turned-restaurant in Uptown. The other classic to seek out is hostess extraordinaire JoAnn Clevenger, a gracious presence in the art-filled dining rooms since she introduced Upperline more than three decades ago. Theme dinners keep her dining destination fresh. Traditions including duck in peach-ginger sauce and grilled drum fish with hot sauce make for lasting memories.

1413 Upperline St.

504-891-9822

www.upperline.com

Restaurant

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

A tarp shades the crowds that routinely show up for lunch in what began life in Treme as a bar in 1957 and morphed into a restaurant in the early ‘70s. The pork chops and smothered veal are pure comfort, but what keeps Willie Mae’s on the food map is the kitchen’s hand-battered, fried-to-order, finger-lickin’-luscious chicken.

2401 St. Ann St.

504-822-9503

Another great equalizer is gumbo, which everyone agrees requires a proper roux and can accept just about any meat or vegetable — including, for the budget-minded, Vienna sausages.

The New Orleans repertoire has been shaped, from the start, by French Acadians (who became “Cajuns”), French-Creoles, African slaves, Spanish colonists, German settlers, Croatians (important to the city’s oyster industry), Haitians fleeing revolution, multiple waves of Irish and, in the mid-1970s, Vietnamese refugees.

Further, entire forests have been devoted to books explaining the differences between Cajun and Creole cooking; a tweet might winnow the fine points down to rural vs. city, lard vs. butter, loud vs. lyrical.

[RECIPE: Herbsaint Grilled Okra With Fresh Cheese and Peanuts

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 19:  Grilled Okra With Fresh Cheese and Peanuts, in studio at The Washington Post in Washington, DC on August 19, 2015. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick for The Washington Post)

(Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)

As steeped as the city is in tradition, ultimately, “ethnic groups get ‘Creolized,’ ” says Williams, meaning that foreign elements “all become our food.” Thus, Italian ice gave way to snowballs and, more recently, banh mi became Vietnamese po’ boys. “We’re quick to adopt,” says Williams. When something new comes along, she adds, New Orleans says, “All right, come on in!” At the same time, says Chase, “we’re not copying. We’re saying, ‘I’ll make this my own.’ ” An Italian cook’s pasta con sarde, she says, might become her “sardines in Creole gravy over rice.”

“New Orleans can’t be mistaken for anything else,” says Johnson, whose encyclopedic “Eating in New Orleans” had the misfortune of coming out in July 2005 but remains vital. Every Monday, he whips up red beans and rice for a changing collection of up to 14 guests. That’s the most number of friends (and sometimes strangers) that can gather around his kitchen’s old oak table, passed down from his grandmother.

The host’s weekly ritual, accompanied by cornbread and whatever liquid pleasures folks bring, illustrates another way New Orleans differs from other great food destinations: “It’s not just about eating or the skill of the chef,” says Sara Roahen, a child of Wisconsin who wrote about falling in love with her adopted New Orleans in 2008’s “Gumbo Tales.” “New Orleanians have an expectation of things happening at the table.” An occasional partaker in Johnson’s Monday night get-togethers, she says, “There’s a lot about this city’s culture that demands participation: the music, Mardi Gras, the food. And so eating with others here makes me feel closer not just to my companions, but also to the rhythms of the city.”

Says Chase, “Our food is what brings us together.”

Shaya, a native of Israel and a transplant from Philadelphia, points out that eateries were among the first businesses to reopen after the storm. “Restaurants were our social clubs,” he says. “Everyone came and asked the same question: ‘How did you do?’ ”

Note: Clockwise from top left: A man lunches at Cochon Butcher in the Lower Garden District while minding his neckwear; the signature muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery in the French Quarter; a musician blows his trumpet as his brass band plays along Frenchmen Street; U-Peel Em Shrimp served at Liuzza’s by the Track in the city’s Fairgrounds neighborhood.From top to bottom: A man lunches at Cochon Butcher in the Lower Garden District while minding his neckwear; the signature muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery in the French Quarter; U-Peel Em Shrimp served at Liuzza’s by the Track in the city’s Fairgrounds neighborhood; a musician blows his trumpet as his brass band plays along Frenchmen Street.

The raucous and the refined

Generations of frat boys and Mardi Gras revelers know New Orleans for Hand Grenades and Hurricanes on Bourbon Street. Cocktail enthusiasts prefer to emphasize the city’s long history of civilized drinking. Among other libations, New Orleans introduced the Sazerac (1850), the Ramos gin fizz (1888) and the Vieux Carre (1934) to the pantheon of classics. If poorly made by some bars in some eras, none of the trio ever went out of style; indeed, in 2006, the Sazerac, the famed elixir of rye whiskey, bitters and absinthe, became New Orleans’ official cocktail by government decree.

How New Orleans stacks up

Creativity

As steeped as the city is in tradition, New Orleans welcomes into its culinary folds outside influences. Among the city’s more innovative chefs are Alon Shaya of Shaya, the trendy Israeli restaurant; Slade Rushing, hired by Brennan’s to update the grand dame’s menu; and Isaac Toups, the co-owner of Toups’ Meatery, a contemporary Cajun spot whose menu finds a thick pork chop finished with a cane syrup gastrique.

Community

Restaurant workers were among the first in the city to start the rebuilding process after Katrina. New Orleans’s significant cultural and gastronomical contributions include the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and Tales of the Cocktail, an annual gathering of spirits enthusiasts from around the world.

Tradition

New Orleans is credited for originating or promoting such diverse comestibles as red beans and rice, po’ boys, muffulettas, shrimp remoulade, bananas Foster, snow balls, the Sazerac, Ramos gin fizz, Herbsaint (a substitute for absinthe).

Ingredients

Locals chart the seasons by eating oysters and satsumas in winter, crawfish and Creole tomatoes in spring, crab and okra in summer and shrimp and sweet potatoes in autumn.

Shopping

While the farm markets, at least in August, can’t compare to the role models in Portland, Oregon, or San Francisco, among other cities, a distinct New Orleans vibe can be found at shops including Kitchen Witch, a funky cookbook store, and Lucullus, an antique store with a culinary focus.

Variety

Strong on both traditional and modern Vietnamese restaurants, po’ boy joints and high-end dining destinations, New Orleans could use better bakeries and Chinese and Japanese restaurants.

Service

With few exceptions (“Is everything amazing?” asked a young server at the freshly-minted Willa Jean), New Orleans is a host with the most, relaxed and gracious.

“A small city with out-sized appetites,” as local writer Pableaux Johnson puts it, New Orleans lets the good times roll with a host of restaurants that never let you forget where you are and good eats – snow cones, po boys, gumbo, epic feasts in ancient dining rooms -- that can be had for “$3 or $300,” Johnson says. While steeped in tradition, the home of the Sazerac, red beans and rice (and go-cups!) throws out the welcome mat for fresh ideas, often incorporating them into a cuisine that’s unlike any other.

“We’re not a trendy city,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, a high-minded industry event that started with about 50 participants in 2002 and last year welcomed 17,000 participants from 34 countries. Among the city’s most serious parties, the five-day-long Tales has pumped $70 million into the local economy since 2008, when the figure started being measured. Perhaps only in NOLA could a conference centered on booze end with a blessing by a priest, as occurred this July in Jackson Square Park with a farewell from Father Bill Dailey, a lecturer in law at Notre Dame Law School (and a cocktail geek).

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - AUGUST 8: Bartenders Nick Detrich creates a Stereo Taste cocktail at Cane & Table in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Saturday, August 8, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Nick Detrich creates a Stereo Taste cocktail at Cane & Table in New Orleans.

Tuennerman credits her home town’s let-the-good-times-roll attitude with elevating the sport of sipping. Go-cups, she says, lend mobility to refreshment, whether for neighbors walking their dogs or anyone of legal age who cares to bar-hop. Go-cups, says Neal Bodenheimer, the co-owner of several top-shelf bars in New Orleans, including Cure and Cane & Table, “are not only accepted but revered. They remind us of our roots: watching a parade, going to a concert — enjoying our city.”

New Orleans’s liberal attitude toward alcohol surfaces in unexpected settings. Visitors at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, which houses what is thought to be the city’s oldest surviving bar (from 1849), are allowed to drink cocktails from “real glass” as opposed to plastic as they tour the exhibits, says Williams, the museum’s founder. “How could we not?”

Visiting the Mayhaw in St. Roch Market, the pristine food hall that is a fresh symbol of gentrification, Tuennerman overheard a stranger order a Revolver, similar to a Manhattan but with coffee liqueur instead of vermouth. He turned to her, offered his glass and asked: “Want to try it?” Tuennerman took him up on the offer. “You don’t find that in New York,” she says.

Note: Clockwise from top: Cochon Butcher — a spinoff of chef Donald Link’s more refined Cochon — draws big lunch crowds; JoAnn Clavenger visits with customers and staff at her Upperline Restaurant in the Uptown neighborhood; Selah Minkoff, 7, eats chicken noodle soup at Mopho in Mid-City.From top to bottom: Cochon Butcher — a spinoff of chef Donald Link’s more refined Cochon — draws big lunch crowds; Selah Minkoff, 7, eats chicken noodle soup at Mopho in Mid-City; JoAnn Clavenger visits with customers and staff at her Upperline Restaurant in the Uptown neighborhood.

Where red beans and rice fit in

Perhaps the need for such connections is stronger than ever since Katrina, which left more than 1,800 people dead and caused an estimated $108 billion in damage. Discuss Katrina with locals, and the word “trauma” comes up a lot.

“Blunt trauma has changed the city,” says Johnson. “You can’t go anywhere without experiencing evidence of blunt trauma. You want it behind you.”

But the wounds remain. “After 10 years, we’re still making sense of it,” Johnson wrote via e-mail. “I don’t know anybody here who takes very much for granted, and those same people work to keep the city moving forward as they honor the memory of that disaster.” Elie, the writer and filmmaker, bemoans the death of small neighborhood restaurants and the decision by the children of African-American restaurateurs not to go into the business, even at a time when there’s more money and respect to be had.

In a slap heard ’round the food world a year after Katrina, GQ’s Alan Richman visited a weakened New Orleans and asked, “I know we are supposed to salvage what’s left of the city, but what exactly is it that we’re trying to cherish and preserve?” Among other slights, he compared Creoles to “faerie folk, like leprechauns,” because he never met one.

Anderson of the Times-Picayune hit back, writing that Richman “mucks around in exhausted clichés with the pride of someone who has uncovered hidden truths.” More recently, Anderson argued that in terms of dining establishments, “months before Katrina hit, New Orleans was as good a city as it ever had been.”

Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat

Play Video

The ice is shaved so fine at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz it’s like eating snow, sweetened with homemade syrups.

If anything positive came of Katrina, it was a renewed connectedness to the area, “a renaissance of spirit,” says Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture and the author of multiple books about New Orleans. “This trauma has made New Orleanians more self-aware of their history, their culture, their geography.”

Helping to lead the charge are what Campanella calls “Orleaneophilic super-natives,” outsiders so enamored of the city they “overcompensate for not being local.”

The first wave of the so-called “brain gain” included “urbanists, environmentalists and social workers” eager to be part of something significant, Campanella wrote in a 2013 essay for Newgeography.com. Right behind the crusaders were artists, musicians and other types “who turned their backs on the Great Recession woes and resettled in what they perceived to be an undiscovered bohemia in the lower faubourgs of New Orleans — just as their predecessors did in the French Quarter 80 years prior.” Gentrification, in other words, is hardly a recent phenomenon.

Wood-fired pizza? That’s fairly new to town, a product of “a different population that wants different things,” says Anderson.

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Roahen, author of “Gumbo Tales,” agrees: “We’re eating a lot like the rest of the country is eating,” she says. Post-Katrina New Orleans finds more international accents (including inventive Vietnamese), chefs who don’t feel compelled to put gumbo on their menus and “more casual places that aren’t po’ boy shops.”

As of two years ago, New Orleans had 2,375 restaurants, up from 2,138 a decade ago and 1,860 the year after Katrina, according to the Census Bureau.

“I can’t tell what’s going to happen,” Roahen says of the wave of outsiders and their ideas. “Will they eat red beans? Something else?” Like me, she appreciates the better balance of choices (“If that’s a priority”) but likes knowing she’s not far from some of the dishes that made her fall for the city in the first place.

Long live Gulf fish topped with sweet crab. For starters.

Toups of the eponymous Cajun restaurant welcomes most of the changes post-Katrina. Restaurants that were resting on their laurels have either closed or stepped up their game, he says, and diners’ wants, needs and expectations are higher.

With that comes some wiggle room for chefs. Toups comes from a family that can trace its roots in the region back 300 years, but the Cajun has no problem using soy sauce in some of his food — or promoting to chef de cuisine a guy from Minnesota.

Bucking convention is part of the beauty of New Orleans, says Shaya, who never dreamed when he came to town he could pull off a modern Israeli restaurant. “I can dress up as a chicken for Mardi Gras and be the chef of a restaurant,” he says, “and not feel like I’m leading a double life.”

Where Tom went:

Store

Bacchanal Wine

Buy a bottle of something red or white from one of the clerks in the Bywater wine shop. Then stroll out back to what amounts to a block party beneath a canopy of trees strung with lights and live music to accompany the sipping.

600 Poland Ave.

504-948-9111

www.bacchanalwine.com

Restaurant

Brennan’s

Best known for one of the most extravagant breakfasts anywhere, a spread that might start with brandy milk punch and conclude in flames with bananas Foster, this dowager French Quarter restaurant emerged from a $20 million facelift last year looking pinker, greener and lusher than ever.

417 Royal St.

504-525-9711

www.brennansneworleans.com

Restaurant

Cane & Table

The saying that New Orleans is the northernmost part of the Caribbean rings true at the rum-fueled Cane & Table, whose tropically inspired back patio gives patrons the sense they’ve landed in Havana. Peas and rice are meaty with local andouille; “Hilter’s Jitters” adds a note of chocolate to the classic daiquiri.

1113 Decatur St.

504-581-1112

www.caneandtablenola.com

Sandwiches

Central Grocery

Time stands still in this Italian market in the French Quarter, where the bestseller is the definitive muffuletta sandwich, a round loaf of bread stuffed with layers of ham, Genoa salami, provolone, mortadella and chopped olive salad. Flying out? There are few better souvenirs than a “boxed and bubble-wrapped” muffuletta.

923 Decatur St.

504-523-1620

www.centralgrocerynola.com

Restaurant

Clancy's

Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune, counts the French-Creole venue as one of his favorite dining destinations. You may, too, after a night of crabmeat salad, sauteed baby drum and lemon icebox pie delivered by ace-but-amusing servers in tuxedos. Ask about the sketches gracing the walls and a waiter might crack of the VIP regulars, “They’re all bad tippers!”

6100 Annunciation St.

504-895-1111

www.clancysneworleans.com

Sandwiches

Cochon Butcher

A one-stop shop for carnivores and a spinoff of the popular Cochon around the corner, this pungent storefront calls to our inner piggies with display cases of house-made boudin, duck pastrami and deer sausage and a sandwich menu featuring Cajun pork dogs, Moroccan-spiced lamb and Le Pig Mac: two all-pork patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese ... you get the idea.

930 Tchoupitoulas St.

504-588-7675

www.cochonbutcher.com

Bar

Cure

In a city that takes its libations seriously, Cure, a former firehouse, stands out with menus devoted not just to classic drinks, but to seasonal, “obscure” and even reserve cocktails. The “bonded” Sazerac relies on rye whiskey from E.H. Taylor and Nouvelle-Orleans absinthe for its greatness. Sip slowly; the splurge costs $20.

4905 Freret St.

504-302-2357

curenola.com

Bar

French 75

Three compelling reasons to explore the watering hole inside Arnaud’s restaurant: a handsome bar dating to the late 1800s, master mixer Chris Hannah, and a swirl of Courvoisier, sugar, lemon juice and Champagne – the signature French 75, of course.

813 Bienville St.

504-523-5433

www.arnaudsrestaurant.com/bars/french-75

Restaurant

Galatoire’s

The recipe for fun at Galatoire’s: show up early for the chance of a Friday lunch table on the ground floor; ask for a waiter named Bryan; ease in with a Sazerac and souffle potatoes; trust the server to bring you whatever fish looks best; and revive yourself with cafe brulot. The people-watching alone is worth the effort. (The hats!)

209 Bourbon St.

504-525-2021

www.galatoires.com

Sandwiches

Guy’s Po-Boys

High noon finds a crowd of cops, construction workers and the occasional suit or two in this cramped, cash-only po' boy shop in Uptown, its walls painted in stars-and-stripes colors. Rib-stickers include dense rolls packed with peerless grilled shrimp and cayenne-spiked pork chops.

5259 Magazine St.

504-891-5025

Shop

Hansen’s Sno-Bliz

“There are no shortcuts to quality” reads a sign on the cinderblock wall of the city’s most beloved shaver of ice and maker of syrups. Which means you are likely to wait for the pleasure of a creamy-textured snowball, made using a contraption developed in the 1930s by Ernest Hansen and based on sweeteners created by his wife, Mary. Flavors run from old-fashioned cream of nectar to trendy ginger-cayenne.

4801 Tchoupitoulas St.

504-891-9788

www.snobliz.com

Restaurant

Herbsaint

The senior restaurant in the empire of Acadiana native Donald Link (Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Peche Seafood Grill), Herbsaint in the Warehouse District salutes France and other ports of call while staying true to its community. Expect to find dirty rice alongside duck confit and chili vinaigrette lacing grilled jumbo shrimp with creamed corn.

701 St. Charles Ave.

504-524-4114

www.herbsaint.com

Store

Kitchen Witch

Christmas lights wind through a treasure trove of old and new food-related books, many carrying the names of local chefs — Besh, Link, Prudhomme, Spicer — and restaurants. In the mix: vintage church cookbooks (“Angel Food”), “vacation” glasses (to-go cups) and hundreds of record albums.

631 Toulouse St.

504-528-8382

kwcookbooks.com

Restaurant

La Petite Grocery

Named for the market that preceded it, La Petite Grocery in Uptown calls to food fanciers with golden crab beignets, rabbit served like a schnitzel and pasta draped with zesty turtle Bolognese. The only thing holding a diner back from another round on the burgundy banquette beneath the pressed tin ceiling: the roar of the inevitable crowd.

4238 Magazine St.

504-891-3377

www.lapetitegrocery.com

Store

Lucullus

Food lovers with a taste for what’s old and exquisite have plenty to peruse at this antique store in the heart of the French Quarter. Finds include an Edwardian-era plated silver meat dome, Italian lace tablecloths and French belle epoque bistro saucers.

610 Chartres St.

504-528-9620

lucullusantiques.com

Restaurant

Mopho

Chef-owner Michael Gulotta served as chef de cuisine at fine-dining August before opening this hipster Vietnamese retreat in Mid-City last year. His skill reveals itself on a whimsical menu that embraces kicky chicken wings and pho in a handful of flavors but also po’ boys stuffed with “sloppy roast duck” and banana barbecue sauce.

514 City Park Ave.

504-482-6845

mophonola.com

Sandwiches

Parkway Bakery & Tavern

The Baskin-Robbins of local sandwich makers, this family-run watering hole in Mid-City offers 20 or so flavors of po' boys. “Surf and turf” packs gravy-splashed shrimp and roast beef in a sturdy roll, while “Caprese” is mindful of customers who don’t eat meat. A covered patio in back makes room for everyone, pets included.

538 Hagan Ave.

504-482-3047

www.parkwaypoorboys.com

Restaurant

Pascal’s Manale

Go for oysters shucked at a bar dating to 1913 and stick around for barbecue shrimp. Bibs go around the necks of diners who order the house signature, a Creole-Italian classic featuring whole shrimp in a hot bath of butter and pepper. Crusty French bread makes an excellent mop for any remains.

1838 Napoleon Ave.

504-895-4877

pascalsmanale.com

Restaurant

Peche Seafood Grill

The best fishing hole for miles may be the Warehouse District’s kind-of-rustic, sort-of-industrial dining room, where the great catches include catfish with pickled greens, a Louisiana shrimp roll and a model caramel cake. Small wonder that the James Beard Foundation presented Peche with awards last year for both Best New Restaurant and Best Chef: South.

800 Magazine St.

504-522-1744

www.pecherestaurant.com

Restaurant

Shaya

The buzziest restaurant in town is the handiwork of Alon Shaya, the James Beard award-winning chef whose menu proves a valentine to modern Israel. Among the seductions: avocado and smoked whitefish on rye toast, curry-spiced cauliflower in a well of lush hummus, slow-cooked lamb with fruited tabouleh. Try, if you can, not to fill up too early on Shaya’s world-class pita.

4213 Magazine St.

504-891-4213

www.shayarestaurant.com

Museum

Southern Food & Beverage Museum

A must-see for anyone who enjoys food history and the pleasures of the (Southern) table, the museum brims with enticements. Check out the machine Popeye's founder Al Copeland used to measure the heat in chili peppers, an absinthe collection, Prohibition posters and, just a block way, a collection of more than 17,000 cookbooks and pamphlets. A demonstration kitchen and restaurant, Purloo, round out the scholarship -- and fun.

1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

504-569-0405

sofabinstitute.org/southern-food-and-beverage

Store

St. James Cheese Company

The name of the city’s best source for fromage is a nod both to the neighborhood in London where the owners began their cheese careers and the London hospital sung about by the trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Go for a cheese sandwich at lunch; cheese with wine at happy hour; or for the occasional lesson on the glories of cheeses from Spain or Sonoma.

5004 Prytania St.

504-899-4737

www.stjamescheese.com

Market

St. Roch Market

Shuttered by Katrina, the one-time seafood market reopened this spring as a pristine food hall with more than a dozen vendors and abundant counter seating throughout. Among the draws are crab cakes from Elysian Seafood, daiquiris and other cocktails from the Mayhaw and local pecans, okra and raw honey sourced by St. Roch Forage.

2381 St. Claude Ave.

504- 609-3813

www.strochmarket.com

Restaurant

Toups' Meatery

Hospitality veterans Isaac and Amanda Toups (he cooks, she handles wine) have a winner in their contemporary Cajun outpost in Mid-City. Loosen your belt for barbecued goat delivered with pickled peppers and a wedge of cornbread, and fennel-topped lamb neck rising from a tasty swamp of black-eyed peas.

845 N. Carrollton Ave.

504-252-4999

www.toupsmeatery.com

Restaurant

Upperline

Now ubiquitous, the duo of fried green tomatoes and shrimp remoulade originated in this rambling townhouse-turned-restaurant in Uptown. The other classic to seek out is hostess extraordinaire JoAnn Clevenger, a gracious presence in the art-filled dining rooms since she introduced Upperline more than three decades ago. Theme dinners keep her dining destination fresh. Traditions including duck in peach-ginger sauce and grilled drum fish with hot sauce make for lasting memories.

1413 Upperline St.

504-891-9822

www.upperline.com

Restaurant

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

A tarp shades the crowds that routinely show up for lunch in what began life in Treme as a bar in 1957 and morphed into a restaurant in the early ‘70s. The pork chops and smothered veal are pure comfort, but what keeps Willie Mae’s on the food map is the kitchen’s hand-battered, fried-to-order, finger-lickin’-luscious chicken.

2401 St. Ann St.

504-822-9503

Editor’s picks

Recipe: Bonded Sazerac

This version of New Orleans’s official cocktail is made with some rare ingredients.

A decade into the Katrina diaspora

Here is where some of those people stood in the early months after the disaster, and where they stand now.

Credits

About the series

Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema explores America’s best food cities, 10 of which he’ll rate at year’s end.