It’s spring, the time when even the most hard-hearted recluses leave their apartments to enjoy sunshine, sweet magnolia breezes and caterpillar carcasses littering the landscape. Beyond those blessings, springtime ushers in a playful spirit that draws us all to the outdoors.

For those of us lacking a true Louisiana Sportsman’s intrepidity, the outdoors are best enjoyed in small doses; a meal at an open-air café, for example, provides all the sunshine of an afternoon at the levee without of fire ant bites. Ours is a climate meant to make out-of-state relatives jealous, so why not double the whammy and enjoy a fantastic meal?
As a sign of respect, one must start any discussion on this particular subject with the granddaddy of New Orleans coffee shops, Café Du Monde, an establishment that has been the New Orleans standard for open-air cafés since 1862. The beignets are delightful, powdered sugar enhances any ensemble and nothing says party like 5 a.m., pastries after a long night of drinking Hurricanes.

Though it’s tough to grow in the French Quarter shadow of Café Du Monde, smaller establishments such as La Boucherie Coffee House and Croissant d’Or Patisserie keep coffee drinkers on their caffeinated toes. La Boucherie has a small courtyard that provides an intimate alternative to the hustle and bustle of the larger cafés.

Croissant d’Or has a cozy courtyard as well and a fine assortment of pastries for the parched and peckish passerby. Offerings at Croissant d’Or include croissants (the name gives away the surprise), soups, delicious tarts and berry treats.

For those of you with my budget and a single girl’s inclination to cook, the casual dining establishment isn’t only a place to gather socially and discuss the afternoon’s polo match, it’s an essential source of sustenance.

Most people think of the Bulldog as a bar, not an eatery but this establishment serves some tasty eats and has a very nice outdoor patio, which makes it a fine choice for a casual bite. Of the two New Orleans locations, I prefer the Bulldog on Canal Street because the courtyard is lush and quite pretty when it’s lit up at night and the crowd is mostly comprised of young professionals in the evenings.
As for the food, casual is definitely the word; orders are placed at the kitchen window and there’s no table service. The simplicity of the process is delightful. The menu is more extensive than might be expected. While the Bulldog does make a mean bacon cheeseburger, they also offer dishes including Red Beans and Rice, Tsingtao Lettuce Wraps (some assembly required), Grilled Mahi Mahi sandwiches and waffle fries you could daydream about.

Café Rani is another casual courtyard gem that, in spite of its prime Magazine Street location, features a very peaceful street-side patio. The trees and plants dotting the outdoor dining area create the perfect mini-oasis for a weary shopper.

Café Rani is best known for their amazing salads, which are made with fresh, crisp vegetables and served in hilariously large portions. The burgers here are pretty tasty too, as are the hearty baked potatoes they’re paired with. (Mmmm … toppings …)
Though the menu features less fixin’s, Café Degas is a fantastic choice for open-air dining. This French restaurant features charming décor and a delectable (and affordable!) selection of dishes.

Lunch at Café Degas is, simply said, an enjoyable experience. I could be biased because the weather was perfect the day I went and my party was seated comfortably toward the sunny side of the patio.

Weather aside, the meal was delicious. The escargots came with decadent garlic toast, and the L’Onglet de Bouef presented tender slices of hanger steak served with seasoned pomme frites. The whole experience was so enjoyable that I insist you too skip out of work for a leisurely Friday lunch. (You can tell your boss I said it’s OK.)

Upscale Casual
If Dante’s Kitchen only served its buttery molasses cornbread, the restaurant would still be packed every night. That may sound overzealous but I assure you, it’s just that good.

The courtyard at Dante’s Kitchen is cozy and especially intimate in the evening, with flowers and foliage woven in and around the tables, but it’s beauty pales in comparison to the Trois Mignons entrée.

This dish is comprised of three petite filets, each prepared in a different way; the filet topped with Pork Debris (a fancy name for pulled pork) could be the most delicious pairing of animals I’ve ever eaten.

The upscale casual restaurant genre is growing in popularity because it allows diners to enjoy fancy meals on a not-fancy budget. Martinique Bistro is another such restaurant, though admittedly more toward the “upscale” side.

Martinique Bistro’s unassuming façade gives way to a surprisingly spacious courtyard and a menu featuring unique dishes and bold flavor combinations.

The Macadamia Nut Crusted Goat Cheese Salad with Lychee Nut Vinaigrette is one such dish, combining sharp and mellow flavors and textures, as well as a relatively obscure Asian fruit. The flat iron steak lunch entrée is bold as well, as the dish combines two uniquely complementary flavors, wild dried blueberry and bleu cheese.

There are definitely some readers of New Orleans Magazine that already know about this next restaurant. In this magazine’s recently published (January 2008) New Orleans’ Best reader survey, Feelings Café placed in categories ranging from Cleanest Restaurant to Best Creole Restaurant (I know because, sigh, I tallied those votes).

Feelings Café offers open-air dining in the form of a petite, red brick atrium with foliage-covered walls. Savory, yet understated, entrées include Pork Tenderloin with potatoes and asparagus, and, the most expensive entrée on the menu at under $25, a six-ounce filet stuffed with bleu cheese.

Fine Dining
Fine dining is an institution of near-religious status in New Orleans. Few cities celebrate dining as a holistic experience the way New Orleanians do. For this reason, the finest restaurants in New Orleans are amongst the finest in the country.

But that’s hardly a secret. Commander’s Palace has been a hot spot for fashionable diners for over a century, with a long-standing reputation for delectable dishes and attentive service. The restaurant’s lush, subtropical garden is almost as much of a draw as the legendary cuisine. If you’re looking for a “See and Be Seen” occasion, dine at Commander’s during their 25-cent Martini lunches.

Another local legend, Brennan’s, presents dining as a cultural experience; from the art of setting bananas ablaze for Banana’s Foster, to the construction of a proper Milk Punch cocktail, Brennan’s wraps diners in the best pomp and circumstance the culinary arts have to offer.

All this, plus an extensive selection of rich and delicious dishes and a courtyard made for mimosas in the morning, proves why leisurely dining in New Orleans isn’t just an activity, it’s an art form.

Café Du Monde
800 Decatur St., 581-2914

La Boucherie Coffee House
339 Chartres St., 581-6868

Croissant d’Or Patisserie
617 Ursulines Ave., 524-4663

Bulldog Mid-City
5135 Canal Blvd., 488-4191

Café Rani
2917 Magazine St., 895-2500

Café Degas
3127 Esplanade Ave., 945-5635

Dante’s Kitchen
736 Dante St., 861-3121

Martinique Bistro
5908 Magazine St., 891-8495

Feelings Café
2600 Chartres St., 945-2222

Commander’s Palace
1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221

417 Royal St., 525-9711