Marvin Day leaned across the marble counter at Camellia Grill and gave my buddy an animated post-meal fist bump.
“Good energy transaction,” Day said with a smile as wide as the Mississippi River.
It was also a welcome mat. A brotherly hug. Reassurance that no matter what you’ve got going on, as long as you’re at Camellia Grill throwing down a bacon cheeseburger and a trademark freeze, everything’s going to be alright.
New Orleans just has a way of making you feel at home.
In the words of charismatic New Orleans band leader Kermit Ruffins, “If you’re feelin’ down and out, and you feel there’s no way out, you get dropped off in New Orleans.”
The city infuses you with a resilient energy that comes in many forms: music, dance, drink, food. Always food.
Day and his junior high classmate Leon Martin have worked at the uptown diner for more than 30 years, entertaining customers with their indefatigable enthusiasm while line cooks crank out juicy burgers, gargantuan omelets and mind-numbing freezes — frothy drinks made with ice, ice cream and milk or juice.
The double-horseshoe counter allows staff to interact with each customer — a floorshow for good energy transactions. Try and leave that place without a smile on your face.
It was my first trip to the 68-year-old restaurant that, with its four columns, resembles a Greek temple devoted to gluttony and bonhomie. By the time we jumped in the cab to head back downtown, I had added another place to my can’t-miss list. It’s no small roster.
As much as any town I’ve visited, New Orleans elicits the evangelist in people when it comes to dining and drinking. Tell a friend familiar with the Big Easy you’re headed that way and sit back and let the suggestions roll in like a summer storm: brunch at Commander’s Palace; that garlic-packed pasta dish at La Petite Grocery; cocktails at Bar Tonique. Here comes the rain.
On my most recent trip, I decided to hit places I’d never visited. Well, mostly. My past few trips all started (and ended) with a visit to Cochon Butcher. It’s a new tradition I have no interest in abandoning.
Chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski opened the modernist take on the Old World butcher shop in the Warehouse District in 2009, around the corner from their restaurant Cochon. They took down a wall and expanded the shoebox deli to a full dining room and bar earlier this year, but you can still expect a wait for one of their sublime sandwiches at lunchtime.
As you wait, you can admire a refrigerated case stuffed with house-cured meat and homemade sides like duck confit, boudin blanc, andouille, smoked hot dogs, cole slaw and pimento cheese.
Pillowy and crunchy powdered ciabatta envelop three types of salami (coppa, cotto and sopressata) and tangy and peppery arugula on the Gambino, the Butcher’s take on an Italian hero and one of my favorite sandwiches in the country.
Housemade pastrami and pork belly sandwiches boast big flavor and artisanal attention to detail, but for a taste of classic New Orleans po’boys, we took a 15-minute cab ride from downtown to R&O’s in Metairie.
Making your way through Lakeview, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina echoes off the pristine new houses that dot the rebuilt community. R&O’s was spared by a matter of a few hundred feet. The A-frame restaurant is located across the road from the Bucktown Marina Harbor, just a couple of blocks west of the 17th Street Canal, where a breached levee led to historic destruction.
The restaurant that started as a little 10-table operation across the street in 1980 is owned by Roland and Ora Mollere and operated by several of their children. A menu of veal parmesan, spaghetti and red gravy and pizzas is a testament to the Italian influence of the area, and you can find crunchy soft-shell crab or fried oyster po’boys, but you need to try the roast beef. They dip half of the sesame-seed flecked loaf into a rich beef gravy that laps up against the sides of the bread and then pile a messy heap of slow-roasted, lean beef bits onto the other. You want that bad boy fully dressed (shredded lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise). It tastes like culture, hard work and love.
Service snaps with a sweet conversational whip, and no matter who’s waiting on you, your name is gonna be “baby” and hers will be “yes, ma’am.” Decorated in neon beer signs and fleurs-de-lis, the busy restaurant offers a great opportunity to wade in the unique sounds of the New Orleans accent — where vowels puff and round before snapping off at the end. R’s get swallowed, syllables get elongated or eliminated and consonants in the middle of words drape their arms around each other and disappear into one sound. It is part Bronx, part Boston, part nasally Midwestern and all New Orleans — a squawked trumpet played atop the bellowed slide of a trombone.
With its handsome wicker chairs, art deco flooring and white tablecloths, chef John Besh’s Lüke in the Central Business District has a more genteel feel than R&O’s, but the seafood gumbo will make you roll up your white Oxford sleeves and drop your elbows to the table. The sumptuous roux, packed with shrimp, spicy sausage and crabmeat, flexes with brawny soul, and the croque monsieur sandwich disappears behind a melted drape of Emmenthaler cheese. But if you want to feel like a seersuckered trial lawyer, it’s best to start lunch with a scotch and the grand seafood platter, a tiered spire ringed with oysters, shrimp, clams, crab and mussels.
The kitchen at the restaurant that opened in 2007 puts delicate grace notes on a robust dish of pâté — nutmeg, smoked paprika and allspice in a dish that tastes like pork chocolate — with refined touches of pickled watermelon rind and a layer of sweet Moscato gelée.
Besh, who has built a seven-restaurant New Orleans empire, beginning with August in 2002, is part of a long line of celebrity chefs who have brought national acclaim to New Orleans. Another member of that lineage is Link, the Cochon Butcher co-owner, whose flagship restaurant, the impeccable Herbsaint, is located just a few blocks from Lüke.
Link and partner Stryjewski’s latest hit, Pêche Seafood Grill, opened in April 2013 on Magazine Street between Cochon and Herbsaint. The airy, high-ceilinged restaurant won the Best New Restaurant in America award from the James Beard Foundation this year and also garnered the restaurant’s chef, Ryan Prewitt, the Beard honor of Best Chef in the South.
The restaurant, with its bare pine ceilings, concrete floor, distressed wood columns and construction lamps, lends an air of hip urbanity to the window-wrapped seafood restaurant. A raw bar that sits at the opposite end of the restaurant of an overcrowded bar delivers ruby slabs of tuna with rich and piquant aioli and Louisiana oysters the size of an elephant’s ear.
A wood-fired oven turns out a plate-erasing whole flounder, charred and flaky on the outside and tender and meaty inside and drizzled with an emerald salsa verde that shimmers atop the smoky fish. Bronze hunks of fried catfish remained crispy in a spicy chili broth, with pickled greens giving a tangy finish to an Asian-influenced dish. The international flare subsides on a dish of catfish smothered in a deep, complex roux that reminds you exactly what city you’re in.
While Pêche takes a refined approach to seafood restaurant as gastropub, with an aesthetic that would be as fitting in Chicago or Portland as it is in New Orleans, the old guard remains resilient, representing the Acadian and Creole cuisine most associated with the city. Chef Frank Brigtsen opened his eponymous restaurant with wife Marna in 1986, and I imagine the menu has seen few changes since. I would venture the unparalleled hospitality and dated interior of the restaurant built inside a 150-year-old former bargeboard cottage are about the same, as well. Sometimes there’s no need for change.
Brigtsen spent the early part of his career working for chef Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen before bringing Brigtsen’s to uptown with Prudhomme’s help.
The food comes at you with the delicacy of a bear doing a second line dance and wraps you in its warm embrace, from a filé gumbo studded with rabbit and andouille sausage to a cochon du lait surrounded by a sea of rich gravy and topped with rafts of crackling skin. The dinner was highlighted by a massive roasted duck with crispy skin, the gamey meat enlivened by a tart dried cherry sauce and grounded with humble dirty rice. The only way to finish a meal like that is with a slice of decadent pecan pie floating on a glistening pool of caramel sauce.
It was my first visit to Brigtsen’s, but I felt as if I’d been there before. And I knew I wanted to go back. New Orleans has a way of doing that. It’s a place full of ghosts that welcome you home. A place that feeds your body and soul. A place to hide and to recharge. A place to shake off pretense, drop out and relinquish yourself to a cultural current that’s been flowing for hundreds of years. It’s a place where you can find something new and have it still feel familiar. It’s the reason there’s no place I’d rather be dropped off than New Orleans.
Featured New Orleans restaurants
723 Dante St. 504-861-7610, Brigtsens.com
626 S. Carrollton Ave. 504-309-2679
930 Tchoupitoulas St. 504-588-7675, cochonbutcher.com
333 St. Charles Ave. 504-378-2840, lukeneworleans.com
Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine St. 504-522-1744, pecherestaurant.com
216 Metairie Hammond Highway. 504-831-1248
It’s always happy hour in one of the world’s best drinking cities. I could list 50 places to drink in New Orleans, but we will keep it to five.
1732 St. Charles Ave. theavenuepub.com
This place offers about 50 beers on tap, with styles from all over the world. Hole up downstairs or head up to the balcony at the weathered spot that’s open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
The Columns Hotel
3811 St. Charles Ave. thecolumns.com
Enjoy a cocktail in the Victorian Lounge or on the front patio at this grand 131-year-old hotel in the Garden District.
French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s
813 Rue Bienville. Arnaudsrestaurant.com/French-75
Mingle with fine Southern gentlemen and ghosts in this elegant bar where you can get a Ramos Gin Fizz in the middle of the land of Jell-O shots.
337 Chartres St. cocktailbarneworleans.com
Head to this clean, bright French Quarter bar when the weather is nice and the doors are left open and enjoy a Prohibition-era cocktail on the edge of the madness.
1431 Royal St. royalstreetinn.com/r-bar
“No crying. No stupid drinks.” The signs tell you all you need to know about this fun and moody dive located in the Faubourg Marigny just outside the Quarter.
Places to stay
W Hotel-French Quarter
316 Chartres St. 504-581-1200, wfrenchquarter.com
This refined oasis in the French Quarter features a beautiful courtyard pool, gym, chic themed guest rooms and a swanky restaurant, SoBou, from the Commander’s Family of Restaurants. Rooms start around $299*.
214 Royal St. 504-523-3341, hotelmonteleone.com
The grande dame of French Quarter hotels, this massive and ornate beauty is home to 600 rooms, a rooftop pool and the famous Carousel Bar & Lounge, the 64-year-old revolving merry-go-round bar where the Vieux Carre cocktail was invented. Rooms range from $129 to $399.
936 St. Charles Ave. 504-962-0900, thehotelmodern.com
Located on Lee Circle, this modestly priced boutique hotel sits at a nice middle point between the Garden District and the French Quarter, and its elegant Bellocq bar serves some of the best craft cocktails in the city. Rooms start around $89.
*Prices vary depending on season, day of week and availability.
Restaurant critic Matthew Odam takes his culinary adventures on the road in his occasional travel series, The Feed to Go.