The following is the second in a four-installment summer-column series covering my top 10 dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch in New Orleans.
There are a few items to note: This list purely subjective. Everyone has varying tastes and preferences. This is not a ranking of overall quality from a critical/review standpoint. This is my personal list. These are my personal favorites. Everyone has personal connections to restaurants. These happen to be mine.
According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, there are more than 1,400 restaurants operating in New Orleans today. That’s an impressive number for a city with a population of only 390,000. There are obviously hundreds of restaurants I have yet to visit, though there are dozens of others in each category that I have dined in, that didn’t make the list.
The primary guideline I followed while making this top 10 list was that I had to have visited the restaurant at least once in the past five months. Most restaurants that are listed involved three or more visits. It wasn’t a requirement, but after finishing the list, I noticed that all of the places are casual, which is certainly no surprise to those who know me. I have never held a lot of love for formal lunches.
I keep a lot of food notes in my phone. Restaurants continually move up and down in the order of my personal rankings. Those listings are always a snapshot in time. There are no “musts” that are required to be on the RSJ lunch list. Ultimately, a top 10 lunch restaurant must be one that I would gladly visit again and again, and one which would be highly recommended to friends who might be visiting New Orleans.
Again, this is my personal list, today. Galitoire’s— one of the most classic lunch spots in the country— is not on the list. That’s not because I don’t like Galitoire’s. I have great memories of dining in that restaurant from the time I was five-years old. Friday lunches in Galitoire’s are the ultimate New Orleans’ dining experience. I know that. Save the email. I look at the list this way: If I only had 10 lunches left to eat in New Orleans, where would I go?
10. Verdi Marte
So to respond the above question posed, “where would I go?” The answer for #10 would be, “nowhere.” I would stay in my apartment and call Verdi Mart to deliver my lunch. Tourists might pass Verdi Mart a dozen times and never consider scoring a meal from the small, cramped and cluttered convenience store on Royal and Governor Nicholls.
To me, Verdi Marte is 100% pure New Orleans. Where else can one get a can of cat food, a roll of toilet paper, killer gumbo, and a fried oyster po-boy? The place is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the menu is massive. I’ve never been in the kitchen, but it has to be substantially larger than it looks from the outside to be able to support a menu that sizable.
I first started eating at Verdi Marte in the early 1990s when the Soniat House was the go-to hotel for my wife and me. The Soniat cottage was one block away from Verdi Marte. Not much has changed since then. It burned and was rebuilt, but to me it looks— and tastes— the same as it always has, and that’s a good thing.
9. El Gato Negro
One might ask, “What is a Mexican restaurant doing on a New Orleans dining list?” The answer would be: Because this is my list and I love and appreciate good, solid Mexican cooking. There are only three “True New Orleans-style restaurants” on this lunch list.
There are three locations for El Gato Negro, but the mainstay for me is at the French Market. I don’t care if a restaurant’s guacamole is prepared tableside or in the kitchen (tableside here), I just care that it’s good, and the guacamole here has always been spot-on. The skirt steak is my go-to, but I have enjoyed lamb and pork here, too. I return, often.
8. Camellia Grill
This has been a mainstay in my rotation since the mid 1970s when my mother first took me there on an early Thursday visit into town to attend the Jazz and Heritage Festival. I continued to visit during my college years on late-night road trips to Tipitina’s. In 1988, my soon-to-be wife and I ate lunch there on our first date to New Orleans. She ate a chili-cheese omelet, and I thought to myself, “I will marry this woman one day.” I did.
My go-to is a cheeseburger, fries, with chili on the side. I love the waffles and make use of the fake butter (likely a product called Butter-It. Trust me, I can’t explain it, but it works in this application) in a small pitcher, and the syrup. The pecan pie— cooked on the flat-top upside down in a small pool of that fake butter— and the chocolate freeze with ice cream are a perfect finish to a classic diner experience.
7. Bon Ton
Though it might have slipped slightly over the years, this is still a casual, classic Creole lunch spot. A recent bowl of crawfish bisque (they are still stuffing crawfish heads) solidified its spot on this list.
6. Company Burger
Outside of my establishments, there are two burgers in the country that I would have no problem deeming “the best burger in America.” The burger at Au Cheval in Chicago is one, and the Company Burger is another. This is burger perfection.
They don’t have lettuce and tomato, and that is fine with me, because I don’t put lettuce and tomato on my burger. I go for the single with American cheese, pickles, and a condiment from the mayo bar (I alternate). The fries and hot dogs are good, too.
5. Juan’s Flying Burrito
I find that a lot of the modern-day burrito shops lack a lot of depth in their dishes. I think what I love most about Juan’s is that the flavors are authentic and there is a lot of depth and breadth in the flavor profiles of the offerings.
I like the South Carrollton Street location, best. I have yet to order anything that I didn’t love, and the service has always been spot on. Certain restaurants have a culture that was organically formed, and Juan’s always seems like one of those places where the servers believe in the concept, are happy to be working there, and are proud of the offerings. The latter is indispensable and can’t be bought or trained. If the employees love the food and mission, it’s almost always a great dining experience.
4. Central City BBQ
I have always held a prejudice against New Orleans barbeque joints. I don’t know why. I have never had a problem eating Mexican, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Chinese food down here, this city has always seemed more cosmopolitan and not “Deep South” enough—to me at least— for barbeque. When I noticed barbeque joints opening in the years after Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t pay much attention.
In May, I was down with my family and was craving barbeque. I gave Central City a shot, and was extremely pleased. The barbeque there is legit. The pulled pork, ribs, and brisket have all been excellent on every visit.
A lot of barbeque joints get it right in the smoked meat category (and that is obviously a must), but so many drop the ball when it comes to sides. Not Central City. The beans, potato salad, spoonbread, and macaroni are all worthy of best-in-category side item classifications.
This is the holy grail of oyster houses for me. It’s also my son’s favorite New Orleans restaurant. I eat fried and raw oysters here nine months out of the year, and am anxiously anticipating the small tile-lined café’s September re-opening, after the annual summer break. Cassamento’s is the real deal and a true, authentic New Orleans original.
This little spot is hard to find, between Audubon Park and the River Bend. This was Cara Benson’s first restaurant (her breakfast joint Toast was #1 on my breakfast list last week). It’s easy to tell that this place was opened on a shoestring, and I love that. The quiche holds rank as the absolute best quiche I have ever eaten. Anywhere. Period. The breakfast sandwich is also available at lunch, and the eggs baked in bread is very, very good. Tartine is the type place that makes me want to overuse glowing adjectives. I’ll restrain myself here and just say: Eat at this little jewel of a hidden restaurant, if you can find it.
I am not, in the least bit, hesitant to put a Philly/New York-inspired Jewish deli at the top of my New Orleans lunch list. The Sam sandwich— hot pastrami, Cole slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on seeded rye has surpassed the Deli Deluxe at Martin’s Wine Cellar as my go-to sandwich in the Crescent City.
I love po-boys. I truly do. Po-boys are going to put my kids through college. But as good as the fried oyster and fried shrimp po boys at Domelise’s, Parkway, or wherever your go-to po-boy spot is, if I am sitting at a table and someone puts an oyster po-boy, a shrimp po-boy, and a Sam from Stein’s in front of me— and tells me to only choose one— I’m going with the pastrami on seeded rye, every time.
Newt week: RSJ’s Top 10 Dinner Restaurants in New Orleans