What I Ate on My First Trip to New Orleans (Besides Beignets)

New Orleans had been on my list of foodie travel destinations for a long time. I planned a whole trip around the must-eat restaurants in New Orleans, classic southern dishes, and the best bites in the city for first timers.

Charbroiled oysters at Drago’s

At first, I was skeptical about going to Drago’s, which is located inside the Hilton. How good could a hotel restaurant be? 

But the charbroiled oysters are as good as they say. Loaded with breadcrumbs and herbs, the actual oysters are almost more a vehicle for garlicky carbs than the star ingredient. These oysters are the signature dish at Drago’s. They have been often imitated, but not successfully.

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Ain't bad being surrounded by oysters

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Since it was our first meal in New Orleans, we also tried a few classic NOLA dishes, including jambalaya and gumbo. Aside from the oysters, the food at Drago’s is very skippable. It’s not bad, just not great. Eat your fill of charbroiled oysters for happy hour and find another spot for dinner.

The original muffuletta at Central Grocery

The muffuletta was created at Central Grocery in 1906. It is New Orleans’ essential sandwich. Today, Central Grocery still serves the original and best muffuletta in the city. Layers of ham, salami, and provolone piled high between two slices of thick focaccia-type bread. The olive spread, one of the defining features of a muffuletta, cuts through all those rich layers of fat. It’s like a tapenade, but with more acid and brine, causing my mouth to pucker between chews.

Be warned that a whole sandwich is huge. We split it among four of us (it’s already cut into quarters) and still couldn’t finish. We took the muffuletta to go and brought it for a picnic lunch before a swamp tour, which I recommend. It’s a very sturdy, portable sandwich, and taking it to go means you can wrap multiple New Orleans experiences in one.

Jambalaya with a side of sass at Coop’s Place

Coop’s Place consistently appears on lists of the best jambalaya in New Orleans, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I say that not for the food, but for the atmosphere. If you’ve ever been to a Dick’s Last Resort, you know what I’m talking about.

The vibe at Coop’s Place is one of banter. Waiters and bartenders are sarcastic, and will poke fun at you anytime an opportunity arises. Case in point: there’s a jukebox in the corner, and after much egging on from our group, a friend decided to sing for all of us (she had recently been taking voice lessons). Her mistake was choosing a song by Evanescence. As soon as the song started playing, choruses of “booooo!” sounded from everyone, and our waiter marched right up to the jukebox, stopped the song, and gave my friend her dollar back. We all laughed, but she was mortified. If this is the type of thing that would embarrass you, skip Coop’s Place and have jambalaya somewhere else. 

The food was solid all around. The jambalaya supreme is what they’re famous for, with rabbit, sausage, seafood, and tasso ham, but what I remember most was the gumbo. Very peppery, it stands out to me because it’s made from a dark roux, which made the flavors seem much deeper and more developed than other gumbo I’ve had.

Be prepared for crowds and lots of noise. The atmosphere is like a dive bar crossed with a restaurant. It’s so loud in there you’ll barely hear the people sitting across the table from you.

Bananas foster and brandy milk punch at Brennan’s

After brunch at Brennan’s, I was too stuffed to move, but I came here for the bananas foster and I had to order it.

Some time ago, New Orleans became a major hub for banana imports into North America. Owen Brennan, the owner of Brennan’s, challenged his pastry chef to come up with a dessert that highlighted the fruit. Bananas foster was born.

The bananas are flambeed in rum tableside. Although coated in a brown sugar caramel and served with ice cream, the bananas foster is surprisingly balanced in sweetness. The presentation is admittedly kind of drab—beige bananas in beige sauce next to white ice cream. Boring to look at, fun to eat.  

Brennan’s is famous for this dish, and has capitalized on it as a result—it’s $10, with a minimum of 2 people per order. It wouldn’t be absurd to eat elsewhere and come to Brennan’s just for the bananas foster (and might be a good way to stretch your funds, because the food is not cheap).

The brandy milk punch, another popular order at Brennan’s, is more brandy than anything. It’s boozy and decadent in a way that makes any brunch or dessert feel like a special occasion.

Po’boys at Parkway Bakery & Tavern

President Obama ate here! But that’s only one reason why I went.

Popular with locals and tourists alike, Parkway serves the absolute best po’boys I’ve ever had. Fried shrimp in an airy, crunchy crust, on a bread bed “dressed” (the only correct way to order a po’boy, I’m told) with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayo. It did not fall into the dryness trap of breading upon bread that po’boys often do—well dressed, it was juicy in every bite. 

I still think about this po’boy all the time.

The best fried chicken of my life at Willie Mae’s Scotch House

James Beard award winner, voted America’s best fried chicken…the accolades Willie Mae Seaton has earned for her signature fried chicken recipe have piled up over the years. Although the matriarch has passed, the restaurant is still run by her family. Aside from the line snaking around the building, the vibe genuinely feels like being invited to a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal.

The fried chicken at Willie Mae’s is completely worth the hype. Even if you think you’ve had all kinds of fried chicken before, this one is different. The crisp, crunchy shell flaked right off into tiny shards with each bite. The chicken inside was juicy, moist, and piping hot. It was buttery and almost light, for fried chicken.

fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cornbread muffins, and butter beans
fried chicken, butter beans, cornbread muffins, mac & cheese at Willie Mae’s Scotch House

While the fried chicken is the reason to come here, the dish that surprised me most were the butter beans—lima beans, served New Orleans style. They were cooked enough to start disintegrating, like the early stages of a puree, but still had intact beans to retain some texture and chew. They were so creamy and satisfying, and changed my views of what lima beans could be.

Luckily for me, Willie Mae’s now offers a fried chicken sandwich available at HiHo Cheeseburger in Los Angeles. It’s not too far to drive for the best fried chicken of my life.

Pralines at Leah’s Pralines

The perfect stop for anyone with a sweet tooth, Leah’s is also a great place to pick up a few confectionery gifts for friends and family. They have traditional pecan pralines as well as modern, more adventurous flavors, like bacon pecan brittle and spicy Cajun brittle.

Beignets at Café du Monde

beignets on a plate at Cafe du Monde
eating beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans

You can’t visit New Orleans without trying its iconic donuts. Go at an odd hour to avoid the biggest crowds (we went for a midnight snack at 11pm). Each order of beignets comes with three huge, pillowy dough puffs covered in a thick layer of powdered sugar, so you can easily split an order with a friend. Pro tip: don’t wear black.

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