If the sizzling restaurant scene in New Orleans, Louisiana accurately reflects the city’s tenacity and enduring spirit, then the Big Easy is most certainly back in the game, reinventing itself through ingenuity and culinary artistry.
Vibrant menus infused with new savory delights speak volumes about this city’s successful on-going gastronomic revitalization. Although tourism has dipped since hurricane Katrina and the recovery has not been swift for many businesses, iconic establishments are still drawing the crowds, and new restaurants with innovative ideas are springing up throughout various neighborhoods.
The city’s restaurants are as diverse as the crowds they draw. Hot spots like Cochon attract attention from locals and globetrotting foodies alike, while the classic Upperline restaurant consistently provides delicious selections in an intimate setting. Casual, tiny luncheonette-style eateries like Mena’s Palace and the New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery are unpretentious gems – and thriving. Not surprisingly, each restaurant has something in common: The contagious spark emitted from an extremely energetic staff working together to redefine New Orleans. It’s the resurgence of the NOLA dining revolution.
Traditionally known worldwide for its exceptional cuisine that blends unique flavors and cooking styles, NOLA is influenced by a melting pot of cultures, including Creole, Cajun, French, Spanish, German, African, Haitian and most recently, Vietnamese.
JoAnn Clevenger, owner of the bustling Upperline restaurant, is passionate about New Orleans’s relationship with its ethnically diverse food, and discusses this topic with the exuberance of one who is truly devoted to keeping her loyal customers happy. She says, “New Orleans cuisine is continually evolving because we take the many different cultural influences and then add in our own zesty signature flavors -- therefore creating an added layer of complexity.” Clevenger continued, “At the Upperline, we recognize that restaurants are not just about taste of the food. After all, a real dining experience stimulates all of the senses.”
At the laid-back, welcoming Mena’s Palace, the focus is all about the home cooked comfort food and ensuring the customers keep coming back. Manager (and owner’s daughter), Ellie Christakis, believes the success of her family-run restaurant centers on relationships. She explains, “We appreciate our clientele, and often get to know them on a personal level. They are the reason we are still viable today.”
On the cusp of the French Quarter lies the Warehouse District, where Cochon’s smoke-scented contemporary-style dining room with clean lines and warm wood tones serves up tantalizing fare that appeal to all palates.
Simply put, Cochon is the real deal. Born and raised in Louisiana, Chef Donald Link and Chef Stephen Stryjewski introduced this “boucherie” in 2006 to produce authentic Cajun flavors that can only be achieved by preparing in-house charcuterie, such as boudin, andouille, smoked bacon and rillettes. Small plates feature rustic Cajun cuisine with a modern flair, like fried alligator with chili garlic aioli; and spicy grilled pork ribs with crispy watermelon pickle. A house favorite is the Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins, but the menu is not only for the carnivores, as the fisherman’s special redfish is pleasantly roasted with mild and light flavors. Dessert is nearly impossible to pass up, as pastry chef Brittany Waters’s sweet temptations (with accompanying wine pairings) will leave you powerless, like the fluffy poppy seed angel food cake with citrus salad and Satsuma sherbet. This hip restaurant’s open kitchen features counter seating, where guests can experience the bustling culinary activity and the smoldering wood-burning oven.
When filming in New Orleans, the Hollywood crowd hangs here, so don’t be surprised if you spot a celebrity enjoying a taste of peppery boudin.
New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery
How far would you go for a cupcake? This tiny café in the gentrified Faubourg Marigny section of town is positioned under-the-radar, but has caught the eyes of many loyal fans. Owner Steve Himelfarb, A.K.A. "The Cake Man" is a fixture in this up-and-coming neighborhood, and together with business partner and pastry chef Allison Gorlin bakes heavenly cakes and cupcakes with flavors like red velvet, chocolate mint and pineapple upside-down. With its upbeat atmosphere and impressive down home comfort food, New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery invites guests to linger leisurely over chicory coffee or simply dash in for a quick bite. A friendly, hard-working staff warmly greets hungry visitors from all walks of life to this cozy, homey café -- but don’t let the cuteness fool you. Albeit space can be a bit cramped here, an eclectic crowd of hipsters enjoys delectable breakfast and lunch specials next to long-time neighborhood residents, along with a few tourists seeking a little adventure. Loyal customers may come for the sublime cakes, bagels, croissants and cupcakes, but return for the salads, omelets, sandwiches -- and even crab and oyster specials. The French toast with fresh challah atop homemade orange-pecan syrup is a sure bet, as well as the shrimp and organic grits with sautéed tomato and onion.
Miles away from the French Quarter is the artsy Upperline whose unpretentious townhouse restaurant exudes a quiet authenticity. Real foodies willingly make the trek to experience this little oasis situated in the residential Uptown neighborhood. Diners are delighted by the array of whimsical, dazzling artwork adorning the walls, and impressed by the quality of the classic Cajun and Creole flavors.
The Upperline captures the essence of New Orleans with chef Kenneth Smith’s inventive Southern menu. House specialties include tasty turtle soup with a dollop of sherry; spicy shrimp served with light, moist jalapeno cornbread; and sumptuous duck etouffée. The popular fried green tomato with shrimp remoulande was first introduced years ago by owner JoAnn Clevenger. Another tasty seafood dish, the crispy oysters St. Claude, was named in honor of another area restaurant that unfortunately did not reopen after hurricane Katrina.
The hospitable, knowledgeable staff brings an added element of style to the dining experience, as they frequently offer wine pairing suggestions from their award-winning list. In fact, their collective talent obviously transcends the food world. Where else might you hear a rendition of “Happy Birthday” that rivals a Broadway chorus? (Well, maybe off-Broadway, but the song still sounds great!)
Around the corner from the lavish Hotel Montelone lies the casual, low-key Mena’s Palace, with a familiar ambiance that’s like stepping into your best friend’s living room. Home-cooked comfort food takes center stage at this welcoming, family-run icon that has been a mainstay in the French Quarter for 34 years.
Frequently filled with locals chowing down on their lunch breaks, Mena’s also attracts tourists with their reasonable prices and big menu bursting with rich soul food and Creole favorites – all made with a distinctive Greek accent. Owner and chef Leo Christakis whips up different fresh specials every day (except Sunday) while his daughter, Ellie, manages Mena’s staff of accommodating, devoted employees. Christakis personally creates varieties of tangy seafood gumbo, fried spicy catfish or oyster po’boys on thick fresh rolls, and a satisfying red beans and rice with sausage. The Greece influence shows up in items like the chicken gyro, two different Greek salads and special seasonings. Menu favorites include Cajun tasso, a homemade delicately seasoned ham that is intensely smoked overnight, and chicken fried steak with a side of fiery jalapeno fries.
In a nutshell, Mena’s is an optimal breakfast or lunch spot for those budget-conscious visitors seeking a quick meal and speedy service with a helping of that famous NOLA style.
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930 Tchoupitoulas Steet
New Orleans, LA 70130
1413 Upperline Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery
2440 Chartres Street
New Orleans, LA 70195