Think the Nola is all about beignets and hurricane cocktails? Think again. Southern hospitality extends to an air of refinement when it comes to the jackets-encouraged dining scene, and there’s no shortage of fine French fare in the Big Easy, especially in and around the aptly named French Quarter. Check out these top French restaurants in New Orleans for an elegant experience that’s full of flavor.
With platings every bit as stunning as August’s crystal chandeliers, soaring ceilings, and lush fresh floral arrangements, the setting is every bit a feast for the eyes as what comes out of chef John Besh’s kitchen. The Louisiana native and James Beard Award winner — whose staff has also has been nominated for outstanding service — wows those who come here for special occasion dinners with locally-grilled peach salad, the most refined of shrimp etoufees, and, from the degustation menu (items from which can be ordered a la carte), the charred lamb with grilled eggplant, which may be worth the trip to New Orleans alone. Make a reservation at Restaurant August.
Want to get a taste of one of the city’s most famed toques without a hefty price tag? Stop in at Willa Jean’s, where Kelly Fields and Lisa White, who design all the baked goods for John Besh’s restaurant empire, have put together a menu with both unforgettably fluffy biscuits but also a few healthy nibbles to start the day off right, like avocado toast and grain bowls with poached eggs. There are also juices and slushies to temper the toasty NoLa temps, but the desserts here are the real superstars — don’t miss the cookies with vanilla-infused milk and key lime and strawberry shortcake with pistachio and cornmeal. Make a reservation at Willa Jean.
Looking for an alternative to the heavier, sauce-laden cuisine for which Nola is famed and a more modern space? Pêche’s locally caught, sustainable seafood, all artfully embellished with colorful herbs and zesty accoutrements, fits the bill. Jumbo Gulf shrimp get a reboot with a chili glaze and butter beans, and grilled tuna steak with olive relish wins over the locals who frequent here for either a sit-down meal or to enjoy the breeze at the first-come, first-served bar. Oysters (rotating daily) are also a popular treat for those who want to grab a quick bite before strolling through this charming neighborhood and its art galleries. Make a reservation at Pêche.
Crescent City may be all about the service, but at SoBou (South of Bourbon Street), the self-service wine bar is worth cheers’ing for. The all-star team of the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants here likes to say, “Food is always center stage, but stage right are the cocktails and stage left is the wine,” and there’s no shortage of visual or edible treats here. Don’t miss your chance to indulge in sweet potato beignets with foie gras fondue, stuffed quail, or bourbon-braised short ribs. Of course, anything in the Commander’s family needs to include brunch, and SoBou’s adds an extra kick in the form of (artful) burlesque with live music. Make a reservation at SouBou.
Criollo at Hotel Monteleone
It’s tricky to figure out whether to keep your eyes peeled inside to the indoor merry-go-round that makes for the city’s only revolving bar at Carousel Bar & Lounge or peek outside at the tourists streaming by on Royal Street here. But it’s all a feast for the senses, with live jazz music at night and noshes at Criollo, where Louisiana seafood takes the crab cake. Think baked, stuffed Creole redfish, shellfish pot au feu pasta, and grilled grouper with a warm tomato and bean salad. You’ll need something to line your stomach for a Sazerac at the bar — New Orleans’ (and the Carousel Bar’s) signature whiskey cocktail. Make a reservation at Criollo at Hotel Monteleone.
Brennan’s is one of the few that could make bacon better, especially when it’s coffee-cured for brunch, a simple morning becomes a party. It’s difficult to decide but this centerpiece of the Eggs Hussarde, with hollandaise, marchand de vin sauce, and housemade English muffins is a close second to the made-tableside black truffle soft-scrambled eggs with black truffles and crème fraîche. The Bananas Foster also carries a “wow” factor, with a flame-filled presentation setting brown sugar, cinnamon, rum, locally made ice cream and fruit aglow. Don’t miss the chicory coffee, a New Orleans staple roasted just for Brennan’s. Or those here for an evening can check out one of thousands of bottles of vintages from the restaurant’s extensive wine catalog. Make a reservation at Brennan’s.
DTB may stand for “down the bayou,” but the craft cocktails and composed small and large plates are anything but backwoods. Andouille pâté, cornmeal gnocchi, and crispy duck confit with pecan vinaigrette all scream Louisiana but are as artfully plated as the atmosphere, where Spanish moss hangs from modern light fixtures and the shotgun-style building pays homage to owners Jacob Naquin’s and chef Carl Schaubhut’s Cajun roots. Worth the trip alone are Lu Brow’s creative cocktails, including the brown-butter-infused bourbon for the Old-Fashioned and the Silver Dollar’s fresh watermelon juice with tequila, ginger and lime. For those looking for their “party city” fix, check out the industry brunch Friday-Monday, with the aforementioned tipples on the “day drinking” list, along with blue-crab benedict and delectable fried cornbread. Make a reservation at DTB.
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Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at email@example.com.
Photo credits: Ross Jangoe (Willa Jean); Chris Granger (Brennan’s); Randy Schmidt (Restaurant August).