By Melody Burson
As I write this, we are trying to emerge from the COVID restrictions on travel and gatherings. Many of us are trying to get out and see new places and revisit old, familiar sites. Although it may be too early to hit the road or skies for an extended vacation right now, it’s never too early to plan for later on.
I would suggest a spring to New Orleans. It is a great time to visit as the heat and humidity haven’t kicked in yet, the lovely gardens are in bloom, and it’s not hurricane season.
And the food is worth the wait! There are so many choices, so where to go? Here are some places that don’t often get mentioned with the restaurants often featured in travel articles or owned by famous chefs. But these are places the locals love and they have been around for decades and will probably be around a year – or ten – from now. They are all outside of the touristy and crowded French Quarter. It’s a grand opportunity to impress your friends and travel mates with your insider knowledge. I’ve been to all of these, and would go back in a heartbeat.
This diner opened in 1946 and serves the typical breakfast fare of pancakes, waffles, and eggs, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, chili, and other greasy spoon favorites. But this is no greasy spoon. Everyone sits on stools at the counter that snakes thought the restaurant and you can see your food being prepared on the back prep area. You are served by wait staff dressed in white shirts and black bow ties. Everyone is called, “baby,” as in, “do you want fries with that, baby?” Breakfast is a real treat if you order the (smothered) pecan waffle. And if that wasn’t enough pecan fun, order the slice of pecan pie that they grill on a pat of butter and serve with vanilla ice cream. No cocktails or other alcohol served here. Just shakes – they call them freezes – and other soft drinks. The Camellia Grill closed in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina, but reopened with a new owner in 2007 and is still going strong. Follow the St. Charles Streetcar line to the Uptown neighborhood to 626 Carollton Street. It’s a nostalgia trip back to a time when nearby Tulane University coeds wore poodle skirts and bobby socks.
Deanie’s Seafood Restaurant
There are now three Deanie’s Seafood restaurants in the New Orleans area, but the original, opened in 1961, is in the Bucktown area of Metairie, up by Lake Pontchartrain. They serve all kinds of fish and shellfish in a myriad of ways. Take shrimp. With a nod to the move “Forrest Gump” and Forrest’s friend Benjamin Buford Blue, aka Bubba, you can order barbecued shrimp, bacon-wrapped shrimp, boiled shrimp – with corn and sausage if you like, shrimp gumbo, shrimp in a seafood salad, shrimp on an iceberg lettuce wedge with remoulade dressing, shrimp po’ boy sandwich, a fried shrimp platter, a combo platter with shrimp included, a giant seafood platter that includes shrimp, oysters, catfish, softshell crabs with French fries (you can order a half portion of this and it will still feed an army), stuffed shrimp, and if that’s not enough, there is a seafood market alongside the restaurant where you can purchase raw or boiled shrimp by the pound and take home. 1713 Lake Avenue, Metairie.
My husband visited New Orleans before I ever did, and on one work-related trip, he was walking around town and stopped a stranger to ask him where he could get some great New Orleans food. The stranger said, “Follow me,” and off they went. When he was telling me this story, I was having visions of my often-times-clueless-of-his-surroundings spouse being led down a dark alley and being bonked over the head with a brick and divested of all things valuable. But the outcome of this story is, “He took me to Mother’s.”
The long lines down the block at lunch, and its run of being in the business 83 years, is a testament to the good food being served at Mother’s. It’s not fancy surroundings – grab a tray and slide down the cafeteria line to get your sides and beverages and order your main dish. They’ll find you to bring the main dish to your [not linen covered] table. You can envision the founders, “Mother” Landry and her family, serving po’ boys and fixings to the longshoremen, laborers, and other hard-working folks down by the docks on the Mississippi River. World War II brought another loyal following of Marines to her cadre of fans. Mother’s opens at 7 a.m. so they serve breakfast, but it’s known for its baked ham, red beans and rice, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, and Ferdi’s Special Po’ Boy that is packed with baked ham, roast beef, and the original debris (that the bits of roast beef that fall into the au jus in the pan while roasting in the oven). Mother’s is located on the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas Streets, just outside of the French Quarter on the edge of the Central Business and the Warehouse Districts.
Bonus: On their website, Mother’s includes recipes for some of their dishes (and not just for jambalaya): https://www.mothersrestaurant.net/jambalaya/ I think they purposely left out some specifics so they can keep their recipes well-kept secrets.
Pascal’s Manale Restaurant
We heard about this restaurant when we went to a gala fundraiser for local foodbanks. We were talking to some tablemates and mentioned we were headed off to New Orleans in a couple of days. They made sure we wrote down the name of their most favorite restaurant there and emphasized we had – just HAD – to order its Barbeque Shrimp.
And we are so glad we followed their advice. Pascal’s Manale is named after Frank Manale who opened this neighborhood restaurant in 1913 and his nephew Pascal, who took over when Frank died in 1937. It has a great oyster bar, but almost everyone orders the Barbecue Shrimp. You might want to slip in a few wet naps in your pocket or purse, because these shrimp are served with their head-on in a spicy, tangy sauce. They are not really grilled or barbecued, but they are so, so tasty and so, so messy. That’s some buttery, peppery goodness right there in a bowl. And don’t forget to dunk some of your bread into that sauce. 1838 Napoleaon Avenue in the Uptown District.
I know. This is not a casual, little heard of restaurant that is the premise for my article. This Garden District granddaddy of all New Orleans restaurants – it opened in 1893 – is hoity. Maybe toity, too. Jackets and collared shirts are required for the gents. No ripped jeans or shorts allowed. Reservations are a must. Legendary.
But what you might not know is they have 25¢ martinis on their lunch menu. One thin quarter will get you either their Classic martini, their Commander’s Cosmopolitan, or Ray’s Melon martini. Or try all three, but that’s your limit “cause that’s enough” according to their menu. You must order an entrée to take advantage of this special. Look for the restaurant’s striped awnings at 1403 Washington St., across the street from the Lafayette Cemetery. Suggestion: take Uber or a taxi.
Louisiana Crawfish Festival
OK, this too is not a restaurant. But if you have an opportunity to drive outside of New Orleans and find a festival going on, do it. There are literally hundreds of festivals all over the state, so grab local happenings pamphlet, choose your genre (food, music, arts and any combination of those) and head on out.
One year we went to the Louisiana Crawfish Festival and it’s a not-to-be-missed opportunity. This particular festival is held in Chalmette, about 10 miles east of New Orleans in Saint Bernard’s Parish. It’s a wonderful way to meet the locals, hear genuine Zydeco music, and taste Cajun and Creole preparations of crawfish in every imaginable way—fried, boiled, in an étouffée, bisque, boudin, pie or jambalaya, along with other Cajun favorites. Throw in some carnival rides, arts and crafts booths, and you got a party.
As they say in the Big Easy, “Laissez le bon temps rouler!”