Neglected and sometimes forgotten in the annals of Orleans culinary rags is the downtown lunch spot. Not the lunch at Restaurant August, Herbsaint or Cochon (which are all phenomenal), but your average $10-$20 meal. Being a denizen of downtown NOLA five days a week, I’ve accumulated healthy and adamant opinions on pretty much every blue plate special (and, accordingly, every not-so-special plate) there is to be had between Canal and Calliope. I reckon it behooves me to share the fruits of my reconnaissance.
The Lafayette Square Zone
The Lafayette Square Zone is that area within a few blocks of Lafayette Square, located between St. Charles Avenue and Camp and Poydras streets. You can walk from the Square without suffering heat stroke and, in a New Orleans summer, this is an important delineation to make.
There are four restaurants which are pretty much immediately on the Square: Lil Dizzy’s, The Café at the Square, Between the Bread and Capdeville. Three of these places are sit-down, full-service restaurants. The odd man out is Between the Bread, a deli-style, counter-service business across St. Charles Ave. from the Square. All of them will run you less than $20 for lunch, with Between the Bread being the cheapest with $7.50 sandwiches (I had the BLT on sourdough just this week – a great sandwich, and my fifth reference to bacon in six columns).
I have not been so high on Lil Dizzy’s (inside the Whitney Bank Building on Poydras and Camp streets) in the past year and a half because of a major staff shakeup. But the weekly meatloaf special on Tuesdays is still substantial (coming with two sides and a salad bar) and cheap (around $10). Capdeville is good, not great; their fried red-beans-and-rice balls are better left alone. There is nothing wrong with the dish per se, but if you’re going to futz with a classic, you ought to give the flavors some panache while you’re at it.
Of the four places, I probably frequent the Café at the Square the most often. Between David, the very entertaining manager/owner, the lunch specials which change daily and seasonally (their oysters are always great), and their dependably good menu mainstays like the cheddar cheeseburger, it’s your best bet for both a pleasant lunch experience and variety.
Between Poydras and Canal
This is a pretty self-explanatory geographical zone, with one caveat – it’s mainly around the St. Charles Avenue side of Poydras (the restaurant numbers dwindle as you get closer to the Dome). Most obvious on this list (so much so that I won’t even get into it) is Mother’s Restaurant, right on Poydras, and continuing on is the relatively new addition of the downtown Ruby Slipper on Magazine, Commerce on Camp Street, P&G’s on Baronne Street and Welty’s on Camp Street. There are obviously more “lunch” spots in this wide area, but I can’t put everything on and I probably either have a bad opinion or no opinion on them. Take that as you will.
Of these five restaurants, Commerce probably gets most of my money through sheer routine, and all of that money is in cash, because they don’t take plastic (an ATM is available on site). Commerce is a great hole-in-the-wall for shrimp and oyster poor boys with a counter of weekly specials (spaghetti, various cheese-covered meats, chicken and so on). I can tell you for a fact that a shrimp poor boy with a fountain root beer will cost you $10.00 even, rung up on a 40-year-old cash register with analog numbers. Also, I’ve never walked out of that restaurant hungry.
The Ruby Slipper, having gotten a lot of press for the success of their Mid-City location, continues to deliver great food at their downtown address with about twice as many tables, but sometimes less than punctual service.
Welty’s is the favorite of business people who want salads for lunch. They do the salad thing very well, which is why I eat there the least. (I am many things, but a connoisseur of entree salads is not one of them.)
P&G Restaurant is the most distant restaurant, all the way on Baronne Street, two blocks off of Poydras, but is probably the most typical lunch diner of the bunch. P&G’s has a lunch “special” list that is usually in the double-digits, and has always included the chicken fried steak as long as I’ve eaten there. With a drink and two sides for $11.00, it’s really difficult to go wrong at P&G’s. And don’t take the owner/proprietor the wrong way – he might come off at first as a stunt double for Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but he’s just trying to move the line along. When the line is slow, you’ll discover he’s a nice guy who sincerely appreciates the people who don’t mind walking a few blocks to frequent his place.
Outliers are those places that aren’t really that close to many of the downtown office complexes, but not so far away that you shouldn’t consider going to them anyway. In no particular order, there are the Ugly Dog Saloon on Andrew Higgins Drive and Tchoupitoulas Street, the Blue Plate Café on Prytania Street (just a few blocks on the other side of Calliope from the Warehouse District), Cochon Butcher on Andew Higgins across Tchoupitoulas from the Ugly Dog, Samurai on Decatur Street in the Quarter and Sukho Thai all the way up Royal Street in the Marigny.
The Ugly Dog Saloon has weekly specials, usually built around a type of burger, but their sides are what keep bringing me back. Their cole slaw and potato salad are both freakin’ delicious. I can’t describe precisely why I love the coleslaw so much. I can say that it shares as much in common with your typical coleslaw as a hamburger does with a steak – they happen to have the same main ingredient, but that’s where the similarity ends. Spicy, crunchy, very loosely chopped – you really ought to try this stuff at least once.
I’ve written about Cochon Butcher before. They continue to have amazing food and new specials on a weekly basis.
The Blue Plate Café, which is about as far away from the CBD as the French Quarter, albeit in the opposite direction, is a great full-service, blue-collar eatery. While they have daily specials, the regular menu items are stellar, from the Fat Cat (seafood stuffed catfish) to the Gorda Vaca (a cheese burger with chili, salsa, guacamole and jalapeños) and many in between. The menu is one of the largest ones you’ll see for such a small venue.
Samurai is a to-the-point sushi establishment on the Canal end of Decatur which is none too fancy, but also consistently good, and the menu prices haven’t increased in a few years. When you don’t feel like driving to Mikimoto, Hana or Wasabi, it’s a dependable spot to get your sushi fix.
The last restaurant of this list is the farthest away from the CBD, but worth every second of your time to get there: Sukho Thai on Royal St. The drunken noodles, dirty noodles, pad Thai, waterfall beef, basil chicken – and, really, everything on the menu – are all amazing dishes. It’s easily the best Thai food I’ve had in New Orleans, and a lunch there will not break the bank.
Feel like I’ve left a place off the list? Let me know below!