New Orleans is world-renowned for its mouthwatering cuisine that reflects the city’s multicultural history and unique geographic location. Situated near the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River and once ruled by French and Spanish colonists, New Orleans has developed a one-of-a-kind culinary tradition over centuries of cultural blending. From hearty Creole dishes to sweet beignets drowned in coffee, the Big Easy offers an incredible array of flavors for visitors to savor.
When strolling through the historic French Quarter or lively Garden District, you’ll be tempted by the aromas wafting from acclaimed restaurants and hole-in-the-wall eateries alike. Local specialties not to miss include gumbo, a thick stew loaded with seafood or chicken and sausage.
Jambalaya is another iconic rice dish mixed with spicy creole seasonings and your choice of meat and seafood. Po’ boys – loaded sandwiches on French bread – are a satisfying lunchtime bite. For breakfast, beignets – fried doughnuts covered in powdered sugar – have been a New Orleans specialty for over a century.
The city’s location on the Gulf of Mexico means fresh seafood stars on many menus. Oysters are served raw, baked, broiled, or in po’ boys. Shrimp, crawfish, soft-shell crab, catfish, and redfish find their way into countless dishes. The Louisiana climate also supports spice cultivation, seen in flavorful hot sauces and zesty creole seasonings used liberally in the local cuisine.
With options spanning refined Creole dishes at upscale restaurants to grab-and-go po’ boys at seaside shacks, New Orleans offers an incredible diversity of flavors. From indulgent breakfasts to seafood laden lunches and dinners, the remarkable cuisine provides a delicious taste of this one-of-a-kind city.
Creole and Cajun Classics
At the heart of New Orleans’ cuisine are the city’s famous Creole and Cajun dishes. While Creole cuisine shows influences from French, Spanish, Italian, and African cultures, Cajun food originates with the Acadian immigrants who settled in Louisiana in the 18th century. However, in New Orleans the two styles have blended together over the years. Some staples to try include:
No list of New Orleans’ best dishes is complete without gumbo, the hearty stew that is practically the city’s signature dish. Usually containing seafood or sausage, gumbo features a thick, dark roux-based sauce served over rice. Gumbo is so beloved in New Orleans that the city even hosts an annual Gumbo Festival each fall.
Another New Orleans classic, jambalaya is a one-pot rice dish loaded with meat and vegetables. Traditional versions contain the “Holy Trinity” of onion, celery, and green pepper along with tomato. Chicken, sausage, shrimp, or ham provide the protein. The rice soaks up all the delicious flavors making every bite packed with Creole goodness.
Buttery and rich, etouffee features seafood like shrimp or crawfish smothered in a smooth sauce containing the Holy Trinity vegetables and cayenne pepper. The sauce is poured over rice for a comforting yet refined Creole experience. Etouffee comes in many variations, from simple shrimp to crawfish or even alligator etouffee.
Red Beans and Rice
Humble red beans and rice may not sound that exciting, but it’s a Monday tradition in New Orleans. The simple, budget-friendly meal of red kidney beans cooked with pork bone and served over white rice is surprisingly satisfying. Easy to make but full of flavor, red beans and rice is a true Big Easy comfort food.
These overstuffed sandwiches are a quintessential New Orleans lunch. Traditionally made with fried seafood like shrimp, oysters, or catfish, po’ boys are served on a crunchy French bread called Leidenheimer loaf. The bread is crammed full with meat, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo or spicy remoulade sauce. Po’ boys can be dressed up or kept simple, but they’re always delicious.
If you love sandwiches, don’t miss trying a muffuletta in New Orleans. Originating at Central Grocery in the French Quarter, a muffuletta consists of round Sicilian sesame bread layered with cured meats like ham, salami, and mortadella along with provolone cheese and garlicky olive salad. The massive sandwich is perfect for sharing.
Situated right on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no wonder New Orleans excels at preparing fresh seafood. From grilled fish to simmering stews, there are many excellent ways to enjoy the fruits of the sea in New Orleans:
Slurping raw oysters freshly shucked from the shell may be the ultimate New Orleans food experience. Gulf oysters are in season during months with an “R” in their name and locals love pairing briny, ice-cold raw oysters with hot sauce and beer. Oysters also shine in classics like oyster po’ boys, Rockefeller, or Bienville. Don’t miss trying them chargrilled with butter at spots like Acme Oyster House.
From simple peeled shrimp to fried popcorn shrimp and sizzling barbecued shrimp, the versatile crustacean is prepared perfectly throughout New Orleans. Seasoned boiled shrimp make appearances in gumbo, etouffee, po’ boys, and pasta dishes. Going out for shrimp is a must – be sure to try them with spicy, buttery sauce at classic restaurants like Pascal’s Manale.
Tiny, spicy crawfish are synonymous with Louisiana cuisine, especially in the spring. A crawfish boil with spiced, boiled mudbugs dumped on newspaper-covered tables is one of New Orleans’ best communal dining experiences. Don’t forget to suck the rich fat and juices from the crawfish heads! Beyond boiling, crawfish also star in etouffee, bisque, and pie.
Another Gulf Coast delicacy, crab comes in many forms in New Orleans. Succulent lump crabmeat is deliciously showcased in crabcakes and seafood stuffings. For crab lovers, soft shell crab is a real treat – the entire molting crab is lightly fried for a crispy delicacy. And for sheer decadence, there’s crabmeat ravigote from Galatoire’s, jumbo lump crab topped with rich sauce.
Fried catfish is up there with gumbo and po’ boys as a classic New Orleans dish. Harvested from the nearby Mississippi and served at restaurants across the city, catfish is fried in a light cornmeal batter to a perfect golden crisp. Fried catfish, often topped with tartar sauce, makes frequent appearances alongside hush puppies and coleslaw.
Indulge your sweet tooth in New Orleans with these decadent desserts and snacks:
Warm, pillowy beignets are synonymous with New Orleans. The French-style fritters are piled high with powdered sugar and best enjoyed with a cup of cafe au lait. Lines are long, but it’s worth the wait to get beignets from the famous Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. The sweet sensation of powdered sugar on deep fried dough can’t be missed.
This ring of rich brioche dough is intricately decorated in the Mardi Gras tri-colors of purple, gold, and green. King cakes contain a small plastic baby or bean said to bestow good luck on whomever gets the slice with the trinket inside. King cakes are eaten every day during the Carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras.
New Orleans has transformed what may sound like a boring dessert into something magical. Creole-style bread puddings contain soft challah bread soaked in a rich vanilla custard, with additions like raisins, chocolate, or whiskey. Topped with bourbon sauce, bread pudding is so popular it’s even served for breakfast here!
Creamy, sugary pralines are a signature of New Orleans’ French heritage. The brown sugar fudge contains pecans and has a melt-in-your-mouth texture when fresh. Street vendors sell pralines throughout the French Quarter, where you can watch the candy being made. Taking home a box of pralines is a perfect edible souvenir.
This boozy, flaming dessert was invented right in New Orleans at Brennan’s restaurant. Bananas Foster features sliced bananas sautéed in butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, then doused in rum and banana liqueur before being lit on fire and served over ice cream. Performing tableside Bananas Foster is a flashy finale to a New Orleans dinner.
Where to Eat in New Orleans
Tasting your way through New Orleans requires working up an appetite! Here are some of the top restaurants to hit for classic NOLA food:
- Commander’s Palace: This Garden District destination offers refined Creole dishes like turtle soup, redfish with mushrooms, and bread pudding soufflé. The dining room’s white linens and dress code hearken back to an earlier era of fine dining.
- Galatoire’s: With roots dating back to 1905, Galatoire’s venerable French Quarter restaurant pioneered many Creole classics still served today in an old-school setting. Jackets are required for the full experience.
- Mother’s Restaurant: Tourists flock here for huge portions of fare like the “Ferdi Special” po’ boy loaded with roast beef and gravy. Mother’s does breakfast through late night dining.
- Willie Mae’s Scotch House: Tucked away in the Treme, Willie Mae’s unassuming yet legendary spot fries up some of the city’s crispiest, juiciest fried chicken. Be prepared to wait in line.
- Cafe Du Monde: There’s no wrong time for beignets at this open-air French Quarter cafe. Grab a table or just belly up to the counter for hot beignets buried in powdered sugar 24 hours a day.
New Orleans satisfies every food lover’s fantasy with its mouthwatering cuisine deeply rooted in history and cultural fusion. The city’s one-of-a-kind location and multicultural heritage have fostered culinary traditions found nowhere else. From savory gumbos and etouffees to sweet beignets and king cake, the diversity of flavors reflects waves of influence – from French and Spanish colonists to African, Caribbean, and Native American inhabitants.
Seafood plucked fresh from the bountiful Gulf of Mexico stars in local favorites like boiled crawfish, raw oyster plates, and shrimp po’ boys. Hearty Creole-Cajun specialties include jambalaya, a rice-based dish with spicy sausage, chicken or seafood. Gumbo’s rich broth with okra or filé powder and meat or seafood is quintessentially New Orleans. Red beans and rice, fried catfish, and muffulettas – an Italian cold cut sandwich on crusty bread – are other staples.
Don’t leave without trying bananas foster, a dessert of bananas flambéed in rum and brown sugar. Cafe au lait and beignets at Café Du Monde are a classic breakfast. For a sweet treat, grab king cake, ring-shaped coffee cake decorated in Mardi Gras colors. From upscale restaurants to neighborhood corner shops, New Orleans offers an unforgettable culinary adventure like no other. Be sure to come hungry to fully savor the rich diversity of flavors born from this melting pot city’s colonial heritage and unique place in history.