Part of the Vieux Carré’s charm is that much of it stays the same; part of its excitement is that it’s a living neighborhood so it’s also constantly changing. Like Antoine’s restaurant adding English translations to its French menu, the French Quarter is often a balance between the elegance of yore and the needs of today. As locals, we should revisit the French Quarter frequently, not only because it’s the center of the city’s existence but also because it nourishes the sense about what makes the city special. On these pages we look at some elements of French Quarter life: food, shopping and a local’s experiences. Explorers founded the old neighborhood, and exploring remains one of the best things to do there.
The French Quarter is known for its architecture, culture, nightlife – and for classic restaurants serving unique cuisine. A survey of classic dishes in the French Quarter is necessarily going to be incomplete, but what follows are our choices for the top dishes in the Vieux Carré.
No list of the neighborhood’s top dishes would be complete without a visit to the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the United States: Antoine’s. Huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller – Oysters Rockefeller – is perhaps the most iconic dish on the restaurant’s menu. The recipe is a secret, but that’s of little moment to generations of diners who order the dish of oysters baked on the half-shell with an anise-scented purée of herbs to this day.
Antoine’s is housed in a sprawling building that’s seen recent renovations after significant damage during Hurricane Katrina.
There are two dishes that merit inclusion on this list from Galatoire’s, one of the most venerated Creole restaurants in the city. Soufflé potatoes are not a New Orleans invention, but New Orleans is the best place in the world to eat them, and Galatoire’s has the best in New Orleans. For the dish, potatoes are thinly sliced and cooked first in a low-temperature oil and then a second time at a higher temperature. During the second cooking, the potatoes puff and crisp and, when done right, they’re ethereal. With the béarnaise sauce served alongside at Galatoire’s, they’re also a bit decadent. Galatoire’s is also one of the best places in the city to experience pompano. Whether you order it fried or broiled, with crabmeat or without, the restaurant never masks the delicate flavor of the mild fish.
Bayona has been one of the best chef-driven restaurants in the French Quarter for years. The menu is divided into two sections; one changes frequently, and the other features dishes that chef Susan Spicer has honed to perfection. One of those dishes is the restaurant’s preparation of sweetbreads. The sweetbreads come crisped on the outside, tender on the inside and with diced roasted beets and brabant potatoes. Diners must choose between a sherry-mustard or a lemon-caper sauce, and although it’s a difficult decision, it’s one that really has no wrong answer.
Not all of the French Quarter’s top dishes involve haute cuisine. The Lucky Dog – with more than 21 million hot dogs sold in the past 50 years from red and yellow carts – is as iconic a dish as can be found in the Quarter. Lucky Dogs are known almost as much for the characters who push the carts and serve the dogs as for their reputed ability to counteract the effects of overindulgence at one of the area’s many drinking establishments, and the Quarter wouldn’t be the same without them.
Central Grocery is the home of the muffuletta. Invented by Salvatore Lupo, the sandwich is served on a soft round loaf and stuffed with salami, ham, provolone cheese and olive salad made in-house. The muffuletta can now be found all over town, of course, but many feel that Central Grocery’s version is the best, and who are we to disagree?
Beignets are also strongly associated with the French Quarter and with Café du Monde, the “coffee stand” at the foot of the French Market that made them famous. Although they’re nothing more than slightly sweetened fried dough, when consumed covered with powdered sugar and a steaming cup of café au lait, they’re a perfect way to start the day or end an evening.
Breakfast at Brennan’s is a hallmark in the French Quarter, but it’s a dessert dish that makes our list this year: Bananas Foster. A recipe that’s original to the restaurant, the dish of bananas sautéed in butter with brown sugar, cinnamon and banana liqueur then flamed in rum and served over vanilla ice cream is justly famous.
Tujague’s is another of the classic Creole restaurants in the French Quarter, though perhaps not so well known outside of town as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s or Galatoire’s. The restaurant serves a six-course table d’hôte menu that always includes brisket with a spicy tomato-horseradish sauce that’s the perfect foil for the richness of the beef.
Dickie Brennan conceived of the Palace Café as a more casual spot than some run by family members. The restaurant is located in the old Werlein building, and the crabmeat cheesecake on its menu is yet another New Orleans original. In the dish, a crabmeat-cheese mixture fills a pecan crust that’s topped with a sauté of mushrooms and a Creole meunière sauce. Since it hit the menu, it’s been a star.
Johnny’s Po-boys sets a standard that’s rarely matched in the French Quarter – or elsewhere in the city, for that matter. The roast beef poor boy gets a great deal of attention, but for our money, the Surf and Turf sandwich, which adds fried shrimp to the already-excellent roast beef, is the way to go.
K-Paul’s chef Paul Prudhomme kicked off the Cajun dining craze of the 1980s, and the dish most commonly credited with that movement was blackened redfish. Today the fish is drum, but the technique is the same. The fish is seasoned with Prudhomme’s signature blend of spices and then seared in an extremely hot cast-iron skillet. The dish is often copied but seldom duplicated.
Another branch of the Brennan family operates Mr. B’s Bistro. The Gumbo Ya-Ya served there is perennially on the lists of best gumbos in New Orleans – and with good reason. It is a Cajun-style chicken-and-andouille gumbo with a dark roux and a good bit of spice. Mr. B’s is a great place for a business lunch or dinner while enjoying the Quarter.
It is hard to call anything served in its natural state a “dish,” but we believe that raw oysters count, and one of the best places to slurp a dozen bivalves is the Acme Oyster House. The place boasts some of the best and fastest oyster-shuckers in New Orleans, and even the recent BP tragedy couldn’t shut Acme down altogether.