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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

RSJ’s Top 10 New Orleans Dinner Spots

August 15, 2017

The following is the third 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.

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 dinner list. Ultimately, a top-10 dinner 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. It’s a snapshot in time. Shaya— one of the hottest restaurants in town for the past couple of years— is not on the list. That’s not because I don’t like Shaya. Save the email. Carrollton Market is on my to-do list, everything I have heard is excellent, and a former chef from one of our restaurants is Chef de Cuisine, but I have yet to visit.

Narrowing a list to 10 is tougher than one might think. Again, this is not a list based on critical analysis and professional evaluation standards. It’s personal. I look at the list this way: If I only had 10 dinners left to eat in New Orleans, where would I go?

10. Ming’s Chinese | Pontchartrain Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70124

I love Chinese food. For years, Five Happiness was my go-to in this segment. If we’re on the North Shore we eat at Trey Yuen. I could have easily put the uber hip Red’s Chinese in this slot based on the Kung Pao Pastrami, alone. But ultimately the shrimp toast at Ming’s won the day.

This place doesn’t have the atmosphere of Trey Yuen, the local tradition and menu size of Five Happiness, or the hipster vibe of Red’s Chinese. But it has good, solid, Americanized Chinese food, and the absolute best shrimp toast I have ever eaten from New York to San Francisco.

9. Pizza Delicious | 617 Piety St, New Orleans, LA 70117

I love a restaurant that appears to have started on a shoestring. Turkey and the Wolf is hot right now for a lot of reasons. One of the things that impresses me the most at Turkey and the Wolf is that they seemed to have opened the place on the cheap, seemingly out of a thrift shop. I love that.

The opening of a restaurant is typically an expensive proposition. Like Turkey and the Wolf, the Pizza Delicious guys opened in, what looks like, a converted garage with concrete block walls, concrete floors, and the best pizza in town. Pizza Delicious is the embodiment of the American dream— two college roommates began making pizzas and selling them on Saturday nights. The business grew into what it is today. The pizza is very good. The prices are reasonable, they offer pizza by the slice, and the line is out the door.

8. Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse | 716 Iberville St, New Orleans, LA 70130

My son and I share a lot of similar interests, but one of our favorite events is sharing a steak dinner. There are a lot of steakhouses in New Orleans— local and national— but our favorite is Dickie Brennan’s. To my tastes, the prime beef at the national chain (even though it originated in New Orleans) Ruth’s Chris’ is the same as prime beef at the national chain Morton’s and the others. Crescent City Steak House is full of tradition. But the only place where it all comes together for me is Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.

The beef is top notch, the atmosphere is “clubby” and feels like a first-rate steakhouse, the service is 100% Brennanesque, and— most importantly—my son says it’s his favorite restaurant in the entire city. This choice is for him.

7. Coquette

coquettenola.com2800 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70115

Of all of the restaurants on this list, the chefs at Coquette seems to have the best “touch.” The menu is limited but covers all of the bases, the space is small, the dishes are light and refined, and the atmosphere is casual. On each visit, it has struck me that the chefs, Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, practice a lot of restraint in their cooking. That is not always an easy feat, but it is always appreciated. The dishes are refined and, at the same time, approachable. A recent crab stew was a perfect example of “excellent touch”

6. Italian Barrel

online menu | 430 Barracks St, New Orleans, LA 70116

In 2010, when I was in the recipe-testing phase of opening our Italian concept, I asked our Italian importer, Rusty Perrone, where to eat a good Italian meal in his hometown of New Orleans. Without hesitation, he said “The Italian Barrel.”

It has been my Italian go-to ever since. We haven’t been a lot lately because we have spent two months out of the last nine in Italy, but this is a place our Italian friends would describe as, “Coma casa,” (like home). It’s the real deal.

5. Lilette | 3637 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70115

As a kid, I grew up eating in all of the old line New Orleans restaurants— Galitoire’s Antoine’s, Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace. In the 1980s, when my culinary career was launching, The Grill Room at Windsor Court was at the top of the New Orleans food chain. To my tastes, Lilette is the best of the new generation fine-dining restaurants that have popped up in the past decade. It “feels’ like Uptown/Garden District/Touro New Orleans, to me.

4. La Petite Grocery | 4238 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70115

I have always believed that the most interesting items on restaurant menus can typically be found in the appetizer section. I live in the top half of the menu at La Petite Grocery. The appetizers and sides are excellent.

This is a New Orleans restaurant with a southern soul. La Petite Grocery serves the best grits I have ever eaten. The crab beignets— a dish I first ate at Restaurant R’evolution, now served all over—  are the best in that category.

3. The Franklin | 2600 Dauphine St, New Orleans, LA 70117

I love everything about this small restaurant in the Marigny. The steak frites is spot on, the fried-oyster starter and the tuna crudo tostada are two of my favorite appetizers in town. I have never eaten in The Franklin without ordering the lamb short ribs with fig barbeque sauce and always tell myself I am going to eat appetizers only, though I have never walked out of there without a belly full of steak frites.

The servers seem overwhelmed on occasion, and that might bother me in a restaurant that I wasn’t so fond of, but it’s not like they’re standing around. Everyone is hustling and they seem to believe in the concept.

The only negative about The Franklin is that it is a short walk from my apartment, and I enjoy it so much it keeps me from dining in other places on my restaurant to-do list

2. August | 301 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans, LA 70130

John Besh has been riding a winning streak for over a decade. I first met Besh when he was cooking on the North Shore at Artesia and was attending the Aspen Food & Wine Festival as part of the Top 10 Best New Chefs in America Dinner. That was the late 1990s, I think. It’s impressive how much he and his team have accomplished in a relative short amount of time.

Besh is an extremely talented chef, a great marketer, and a philanthropist, but more than any other chef in town, he is a very good businessman. He has risen to the top of the New Orleans food chain, and he’s worked for it.

August, the flagship, and his first as an owner, is still my favorite among his restaurants. There have been several chefs who have led that kitchen staff since Besh stepped out from behind the line, and the quality has never missed a beat. That is the sign of a good operator and a great restaurant.

1. Brigtsen’s | 723 Dante St, New Orleans, LA 70118

Frank Brigtsen is the man! I could actually stop right there. In a town with a history of great chefs, Brigtsen currently sits at the top of the list in my book.

Brigtsen got my attention in 1988 just after I had opened my first restaurant. He had just been named one of Food & Wine magazines “Best New Chefs in America.” I was a self-taught chef who was soaking in everything I could. There were three restaurants in New Orleans at that time that had garnered a perfect five-bean rating from Gene Bourg in the Times Picayune— Commander’s Palace under Emeril Lagassee and his kitchen team, The Grill Room at Windsor Court under Kevin Graham and his classically trained staff, and Brigtsen’s with Frank Brigtsen a six-burner stove, a sous chef, and a dishwasher who also did prep work.

I will never forget the first time I walked into Brighten’s kitchen. My wife and I had just enjoyed an excellent meal, and I asked if I could go back and say “hi” to the man I idolized. I am sure I expected to be greeted by a team of chefs and back waiters, prep cooks, line cooks, pastry chefs, and stewards. There was just Frank and his humble, charming- and low-key demeanor. It blew me away.

Brigtsen manned that six-burner stove on his own for more than a decade. During that time, he once served 196 covers during a Jazz Fest weekend when soft-shell crab was featured three times on the menu. Stay with me here. One man, six burners, three soft-shell crab features (no deep fryer), in addition to a dozen other entrees, appetizers, salads, and desserts. Trust me, it’s impressive.

He’s still in the kitchen. More than 30 years later (he’s added four more cooking eyes, and a chef or two), though he’s still touching every plate. You can’t find passion, dedication, and quality like that anywhere.

Brigtsen’s is a restaurant that will surely go down in history as one of New Orleans’ all-time best. It’s already there in my book.

View today’s recipe: Crabmeat Beignets

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