New Orleans restaurants are among the most distinctive and famous in the world, living up to Mark Twain's 1884 assessment that "New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." The city's Cajun and Creole food and the food found all over southern Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta takes advantage of a unique blend of traditions and cultures that were brought here from peoples as diverse as the aristocrats of France, Germany, Spain and Italy; the slaves from Africa and the freed slaves from the islands of the Caribbean; and the Mound Builders and Natchez Native Americans who taught the emigrants all about local vegetables and spices like sassafras and bay leaf.
New Orleans Dining
It is the French Quarter restaurants that provide some of the most elegant of this cuisine, but you will find great restaurants everywhere in the area—from the little cafés of Slidell on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain to the nineteenth-century paddle wheel steamboats that offer New Orleans river cruises to the gracious riverside plantations of Baton Rouge and LaPlace.
New Orleans culture is a blend of all these, though not everyone really understands their origins. The Creole people are descendants of the wealthy of Europe who gave New Orleans food their rich tastes, including roux and sauces from France; spicy sausages from Germany; rice and spices from Spain; and pastries from Italy. Unlike elsewhere in the South, these Europeans freely mingled and intermarried with Africans and freed slaves (creating the unique Creole people), who brought with them some signature foods and cooking methods. They brought slow cooking methods, beans, tomatoes, and rice as well as a thickening vegetable we call okra but they call "gumbo."
The Cajun people are quite different from the Creoles. These are the people who came from Nova Scotia in Canada after being exiled from Acadia and settled in inhospitable swamps where they learned to live off what was available, including crawfish, crab, shrimp, and even alligator—all often cooked with local spices such as cayenne. Each group also had their own music and dance. Combine all this and you have the rich tapestry that has produced the great blues, Mardi Gras, jazz, and even the region's Voodoo Experience. Just about all New Orleans restaurants other than national chains and fast food joints will serve up the signature dishes that have made the city's food famous.
It is the French Quarter restaurants that are the most famous. Virtually every tourist will visit and dine here at least once, and this area was fortunately not seriously damaged by 2005's Hurricane Katrina. The Café du Monde on Decatur Street on the Mississippi River bank dates to 1862. It is open 24-hours a day and closed only on Christmas and during the occasional hurricane. It is famous for is café au lait (spiced with chicory) and beignets (from the French word meaning fried dough). These deep fried "doughnuts" are sprinkled with powdered sugar and are the official state confection of the state. Brennan's on Bourbon Street is not quite as venerable as Café du Monde (it was founded in 1946), but is as much of a city fixture. Both of these French Quarter restaurants are often on the itineraries of New Orleans vacation packages as a coffee and beignet stop during tours of the "Vieux Carre."
Another of the New Orleans restaurants in the French Quarter for fabulous French-Creole food is Antoine's (less than a block from Brennan's). Established in 1840, this is the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States. Tujuague's (less than a block from Café du Monde) was established in 1856 and is another city fixture serving superb Creole cuisine. Many of the pastries and desserts for which the city is known came from Italy. In 1905, a young immigrant from Sicily who had worked from a time on the area's sugar cane plantations, opened a little parlor selling traditional Sicilian ice creams and pastries like biscotti, spumoni, and cannoli. Angelo Brocato's descendants still run the Mid City parlor, catering to tourists as well as to people around the world with its mail order business. During Christmas and Mardi Gras, you can order the Louisiana King Cake that is part of the city's history even if you live in Alaska, but place your orders well in advance.
Look for traditional New Orleans food with Andouille spiced Acadian sausage, very French crème brulee, and bouillabaisse fish soup. If you go upriver to visit the plantations of LaPlace, you'll find yourself in the andouille capital of the world—be sure to try the local specialty here. A wonderful lunch meal while sightseeing is the hefty Po'boy sandwich made with French bread and stuffed with any number of fillings. It's the leftover bread from these sandwiches that is used to make authentic New Orleans bread pudding, a baked custard with raisins and a sugary sauce heavily laced with rum or whiskey. And, of course, don't forget to try jambalaya, dirty rice with giblets or sausage, and gumbo with a variety of fish, seafood, and sausage.