Published on December 7, 2021

 The variety and quality of New Orleans restaurants alone makes it one of the best reasons to visit this vibrant, historic city. With Creole, Cajun, Acadian, Caribbean, First Nations, African and French culinary imprints left behind by various explorers, ruling governments and people simply looking for a new home at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans restaurants are some of the most lauded in the country. Here are the best, stretchy-pants-worthy local dishes, along with where to get them when traveling through this uniquely American culinary capital.

By The Sea

Given its proximity to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, NOLA loves its saltwater and freshwater fish and shellfish. Good thing, too, since some of the city's most beloved dishes are seafood based, including their delicious BBQ Shrimp. The dish's name comes not from being actually fire-grilled, but from the spicy, Creole flavor profile that enrobes these Gulf-caught shrimp. At local favorite Mr. B's Bistro in the heart of the French Quarter, Chef Michelle McRaney uses local, fresh shrimp served in their shells with a peppery butter sauce and, of course, a wedge of French bread for sopping up all that mouth-watering sauce. Or you could head to Pascal's Manale, the 100-plus-year-old restaurant that claims to be the original inventor of the dish.

New Orleans BBQ Shrimp with French Bread
New Orleans BBQ Shrimp with French Bread

Soft-shell crabs are another local specialty, and while other states serve them, most get them from Louisiana. Crab season stretches from February to December, and this state catches about 45 million pounds of them every year, according to Louisiana Seafood. Around town, you'll find the traditional fried version nestled inside a crusty loaf of French bread and drizzled in a creamy dressing in a sort of po' boy sandwich preparation.

Or try the more formal meunière presentation in which the soft-shell crab is cooked and topped with a rich toasted slivered almond or pecan sauce. Locals swear by Brigsten's Restaurant, seven miles from Canal Street and the French Quarter. Chef/owner Frank Brigsten makes his meunière crab dish with local pecans, but note, he's been known to pull the dish from the menu if the crabs are not up to his exacting standards.

Always wanted to try oysters but you're wary of trying them raw? Good news, food lover; NOLA is known for chargrilled oysters, a local specialty in which melted butter, breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese are added on top of the oysters while they get their flame-licked char off the grill. Visit the "granddaddy" of this dish for a terrific rendition at Drago's Seafood Restaurant. On a busy day, Drago's grills over 900 oysters, and they lay claim to the creation of this particular NOLA specialty. It's so popular, they even sell a chargrilling kit should you move away and want that "taste of home" to come with you.

You know it's crawfish season in New Orleans when you can smell the savory scents coming from backyard crawfish boils. These fresh water crustaceans that look like little lobsters are in season from January to June and are usually boiled with corn and potatoes, along with a raft of delicious spices.

Given its proximity to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, NOLA loves its saltwater and freshwater fish and shellfish. Good thing too, since some of the city's most beloved dishes are seafood based, including their delicious BBQ Shrimp.

Why choose just one restaurant when you can hit the Crawfish Mambo Festival every May in NOLA? Crawfish boils, a competition to crown the best crawfish boil maker, live music, dancing and drinks — what more could a visitor ask for? Or try this local specialty in an étouffée, a thick stew-like dish made with a blonde roux, crawfish and Creole spices that harmonize into an almost sweet-tasting dish. Served over rice, it's another NOLA favorite.

You can't dine in NOLA without trying a brimming bowl of gumbo, one of the state's signature dishes — especially if you're visiting in fall or winter months when it's most enjoyed. The name of this dish is derived from the Bantu word for okra, suggesting it's made with okra as a thickener, which it often is. It's cultural pedigree spans Creole, Choctaw and likely other local First Nations tribes, with roux hailing from the French culinary canon.

Gumbo takes on many forms, depending on who is making it, but the most common version includes chicken, andouille sausages and seafood, of course, which might be a mix of crab, shrimp, oyster and/or crawfish. The key to a good gumbo lies in its savory seasoning, which should have a spicy, balanced kick to set the whole dish alight, usually served over white rice.

Head to the historic, James Beard Award-Winning Commander's Palace in the Garden District for an upscale, locally sourced seafood gumbo with a rum barrel hot sauce that won't disappoint. If you're looking for authentic Creole cooking, head to Dooky Chase's Restaurant where the recipes of the late "Queen of Creole Cuisine" Leah Chase — including her gumbo — live on. If it's good enough for a few former U.S. presidents, you should be pleased.

New Orleans Jambalaya Red Beans and Rice Traditional Plate
New Orleans Jambalaya Red Beans and Rice Traditional Plate

Landlubbing Favorites

The second cousin to gumbo would be jambalaya, a rice dish with some resemblance to paella, which is a blend of rice, veggies, stock, seasonings and meat. It's said this French Quarter invention by the Spanish was their attempt to recreate their beloved paella, with a French Provençal accent. Like gumbo, jambalaya is highly adaptable depending on what's in season, handy or preferred by the chef. Popular during Easter, at weddings or any other excuse for a fête, a sautéed Creole trinity of green bell peppers, celery and onion form the base of this dish, which then gets cooked down with tomatoes, garlic, vegetables, meats and seasonings. Locals head to Coop's Place on Decatur Street for what we're told is some of the best jambalaya in the city — in this case, made with rabbit and smoked pork sausage. Go supreme and add shrimp and tasso, or Cajun seasoned ham, if you'd like to go all out.

Thanks to its French roots, Southern Louisiana and NOLA have a signature sausage, the boudin (pronounced boo-dan). Unlike the French version, this is a Cajun dish which means the pork is well seasoned, a bit spicy and includes a "dirty" rice filling. You'll find links sold hot, steamed and sometimes, rolled in balls, breaded and deep-fried. Locals are known to drive far and wide for their favorite boudin. You can find a terrific example of this classic at the Warehouse District's restaurant, Cochon, where James Beard Award-winning chefs use old-school techniques with modern interpretations in their version of the Cajun sausage.

While New Orleans has long been associated with various French-speaking migrants, did you know that Sicilians have also been arriving since the 1800s? It was Sicilian transplant Lupo Salvatore who created a sandwich for his countrymen using the original Sicilian muffuletta bread. Packed with cured Italian meats, mozzarella and provolone, Salvatore came up with a unique olive, chopped salad to top it all off at his Central Grocery & Deli in 1906. It's still open — so grab an original muffaletta and take away a jar of the olive salad while you're there to replicate the sandwich when you get home.

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

The Crescent City loves its sweets, and if you do too, you'll be happy to know there is no shortage of options. Take beignets, which are synonymous with New Orleans. We have 18th-century French-Creole colonists to thank for introducing these pillowy, square fluffs of fried dough to the area. While beignets can be found at pretty much any self-respecting breakfast or coffee house, you'll find mounds of them dusted with icing sugar at the oldest one of them all, Café du Monde, in the French Quarter — along with tins of the iconic chicory coffee for taking home.

Pralines are also hugely popular here. These nutty, fudgy treats are traditionally packed with pecans to give you the perfect amount of sweet crunch in every bite, and while they can be found all over the city, Southern Candymakers have a stellar reputation and a number of praline varieties on offer.

New Orleans Beignets Coffee
New Orleans Beignets Coffee

And if it's never-ending sweets you crave (kind of) then look no further than the king cake. So called for the Biblical story of the three kings who brought the baby Jesus gifts, this cake is a happy meeting of coffee cake and cinnamon rolls, which also hides within it a small plastic baby. The lucky person who discovers the baby is on the hook for buying the next cake — and so it continues during Mardi Gras until Ash Wednesday. Find yours during the season at most cake shops, though you surely can't go wrong if you can land one from James Beard Award-winning Dong Phuong Bake Shop. Hot tip: while you're there, grab one of the city's best Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches filled with French cold cuts, Chinese roasted pork or Vietnamese sausage, topped with the house made aioli, pickled carrots, daikon, carrots and cilantro.

 And last, but certainly not least, you'd be remiss if you left the city without trying one of its most famous and often imitated sweet creations, bananas Foster. Story has it that in the 1950s, this port city brought in shiploads of bananas from South and Central America. Brennan's restaurant in the French Quarter decided to use the tropical fruit in a simple yet brilliant dessert of lengthwise-sliced bananas flambéed in dark rum, sugar, cinnamon and a banana liqueur that's then served blisteringly hot over a few scoops of good vanilla ice cream.

A star was born and remains a perennial hit, like many of the dishes previously mentioned; especially with visitors looking to travel on their taste buds. In our estimation, there's no better or more delicious way!

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