Self-guided French Quarter Food Tour
It may sound hard to believe, but it is difficult to put together a tasting tour of the French Quarter. Yes, we have a concentration of some of the world’s best restaurants within walking distance of each other, but as an experienced tour operator, I can tell you that these restaurants are not always amenable to large groups coming through with a tour guide talking loudly, taking up several tables, and asking to be served only small tasting portions. Often, the tour companies have to settle for a “good enough” sample of a local dish to give their guests.
Additionally, New Orleans food culture is very different than other American cities. We had a cuisine BEFORE we had restaurants, so our dishes are rooted in comfort, flavor, and the experience of sitting at a table with friends and ENJOYING the meal. Very few dishes were created with convenience in mind. We love hot dogs, pizza, Philly cheesesteaks, hamburgers, and knishes as much as our fellow Americans, but you just can’t rush down the street eating gumbo or red beans and rice. In most cities you have to go inside to drink but you can eat on the street. In New Orleans, the opposite is true. You can stagger out of a bar with your cocktail in a plastic “go cup,” but you will wander for hours looking for something good to eat to carry in your other hand.
However, a group of two or four or six friends can, if you know where to go, hop from fabulous restaurant to fabulous restaurant for a great sampling of our local favorites. Usually, the trick is just to sit at the bar or take your order “to go” and sit in a scenic area to enjoy it.
NOTE: This tour is meant to be taken during the day. A few of the places are only open during the day, and at restaurants that offer dinner, sometimes the menu items change. If you try to take this whole tour, it will probably be way too much food and will take up most of a whole day. You will probably want to break it up over a few days. Bon Appetit!
Popeyes (621 Canal Street) for red beans and rice. Please do not be discouraged that I am starting you at a fast-food restaurant. I did this for a couple of reasons: first, many visitors are staying on or near Canal Street so this is a good starting spot. Second, this is “real New Orleans.” Soak up the atmosphere while you’re waiting in line, listen to the accents, and get a feel for this unique city. Popeyes got started in New Orleans in the 1970s and has been a local favorite ever since. Visitors always say, “This doesn’t taste like my Popeyes back home,” and it’s true. The main reason you’re here, though, is for the red beans and rice – the quintessential New Orleans comfort food, the Monday special on every menu, and the reason Louis Armstrong signed all his letters, “red beans and ricely yours.” Popeyes version is smoky, creamy, and just right. While you’re at it, get a biscuit too.
Walking out of Popeyes, turn right. Walk to Royal Street and turn right on Royal (WARNING: this is the French Quarter’s ugliest block. It will get better in the very next block I promise). Continue down Royal Street to Conti. Turn right on Conti to
9 Roses (620 Conti) for banh mi. I like the grilled chicken bahn mi, which New Orleanians called “Vietnamese po-boy” until about 2013. We have had a large Vietnamese community in New Orleans since the Vietnam War but until recently our visitors rarely had the opportunity to taste New Orleans –style Vietnamese food. The PBS television show “No Passport Required” did an excellent episode about the many reasons Vietnamese cooking works so well in Louisiana. 9 Roses has been a local favorite for decades and we are so happy that they now have this simple and delicious French Quarter location. If your group is four or more, add an order of the pork and shrimp spring rolls.
Walk out of 9 Roses and turn right. On the next corner, Chartres Street, turn right. Go get your first dessert at
Laura’s Candies (331 Chartres) for pralines. First, get a whiff of this place! Laura’s makes all their candies in the back room. This is the oldest candy store in New Orleans, in business since 1913. They are very generous with their samples, but you still may want to buy a few pralines to get you to your next stop. The original French praline was a sugar-coated almond, but the Louisiana praline is a creamy, sweet pecan candy that was created because of a lack of almonds and a humid climate that made candy-making a challenge and made the addition of cream and butter (that’s right, cream AND butter) necessary to bring all that sugar and nuts together. Also, try their Mississippi Mud.
Exit Laura’s and turn left. Walk 1 ½ blocks to St. Louis Street. On the corner of Chartres and St. Louis is
Pierre Maspero’s (440 Chartres) for the fried green tomatoes with shrimp remolaude. Fried green tomatoes were not found in New Orleans restaurants until after the release of the movie by that name in the 1990s, but shrimp remolaude – spicy, cold and abundant with tasty Louisiana Gulf shrimp – is a perfect addition to this farmhouse favorite.
Walk out of Pierre Maspero’s on the St. Louis Street side. Turn right and at the other end of the block, across the street is
Johnny’s (511 St. Louis) for boudin balls (and maybe a roast beef po-boy). Originally, I had you getting both a roast beef poboy and boudin balls at Johnny’s, but, in keeping with the “tasting” aspect of this tour (and there are more poboys in store for you), I want to emphasize the boudin balls. Boudin is usually described as a sausage because it is stuffed in sausage casing and sold in links, but it is more aptly rice dressing stuffed in a sausage casing. In the case of boudin balls, however, it is taken out of the casing, rolled into bite-sized balls, and fried. It is rice, ground pork, and seasonings and its a Cajun staple. It is hard to find good boudin outside of Cajun country and nearly impossible in the French Quarter, but these are really good! If your group is big or you’re breaking this tour up a bit, get the roast beef poboy,too. If you are taking it to go, get lots of extra napkins. A New Orleans roast beef poboy is loaded with gravy and always very very messy. Johnny’s has been in business and in the same family since 1950, it’s a little grungy, and its cash only and no-nonsense. But it’s so so good. I recommend getting it dressed – that means mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and pickles- for the authentic New Orleans experience. You can eat in Johnny’s, but the river view just one block away is lovely, and there are benches and grassy areas for picnicking, If you go to the river to eat, return to Johnny’s to resume the tour.
Walk out of Johnny’s and turn right. Continue away from the river up St. Louis till you reach Royal Street. At the corner of Royal and St. Louis is
Royal House (441 Royal) for raw oysters. Louisiana oysters are plump, delicious, cold, and just the right amount of salty. And at Royal House, the long marble bar, behind which the shuckers crack open oyster after oyster right in front of you, is the perfect place to watch the bustle of the French Quarter through the open French doors. If you have the room, try the chargrilled oysters too.
Exit Royal House. Turn right on Royal Street and walk half a block to
Brennan’s (417 Royal) for Bananas Foster. You can sit in the bar or, if it’s not during the dead-heat of summer, on the patio and enjoy their signature dessert any time Brennan’s is open. It’s sliced bananas tossed with rum, brown sugar, butter, banana liqueur, and cinnamon, set on fire next to your table long enough to carmelize the sugar on the bananas, then served to you with vanilla ice cream and it is heavenly. This is the place where Bananas Foster was created in the 1950s and there is no better version in the city.
Exit Brennan’s and turn left ( you’re retracing your steps) and walk to St. Louis. Turn left at St. Louis and go to
Antoine’s Hermes bar (725 St. Louis) for Oysters Rockefeller and soufflé potatoes. Oysters Rockefeller was created at Antoine’s in 1889 and the original recipe has never been revealed. They are served three or six to an order so they are perfect for your tasting tour. Plus, you are at the oldest restaurant in New Orleans so if your grandmother came here, she could have eaten the same thing you are eating right now. Same goes for the soufflé potatoes – Antoine Alciatore brought the recipe from France and they take 2-3 days to prepare. When the potatoes are fried, they puff up like little potato balloons and are served to you with a little béarnaise sauce for dipping.
Exit the Hermes bar and go directly across the street (look both ways!) to
Leah’s Praline’s(714 St. Louis) for bacon-pecan brittle. I still recommend Laura’s for their pralines (see above) but Leah’s is another family-owned New Orleans classic that has been in business for over 70 years. They make all their own candy in this unassuming little shop, and our favorite is the bacon-pecan brittle. If you go into Leah’s in the morning, you can smell the bacon frying. A bag of this magnificent candy costs 10 dollars, but get two because you will want to eat one now and take one home.
Walk out of Leah’s and turn right. On the corner(Royal Street), turn left. Walk two blocks to St. Peter Street and turn left. In the middle of the block is your next stop:
Cafe Beignet at The Old Coffee Pot Restaurant (714 St. Peter) for calas and jambalaya. Rice is a major crop in Louisiana, brought by the Africans in the 1700s and grown today by the Cajuns and Vietnamese. Early colonists in New Orleans got creative with one of the few grains available to them, and jambalaya and calas are two of the best examples. Their chicken and sausage jambalaya perfectly combines the flavors of spicy andouille sausage, shredded chicken, spices, and tomatoes, all gathered together in a soul-satisfying helping of rice. This is the humblest – and most versatile – of Louisiana dishes. Next order the calas – cooked rice, egg, sugar, cinnamon, fried golden brown and dusted with powdered sugar. This is one of the first foods consumed in New Orleans, a dish brought here from Africa and sold in the town square by female vendors called marchandes, who balanced baskets of homemade calas and other treats on their heads as they called out, in French of course, “hot calas! Beautiful hot calas!” If the only calas on the menu comes with grits, get them, but if they are offering “calas bites” when you visit, get them.They are small versions of calas and perfect for sharing on a tasting tour.
When you leave Old Coffee Pot, turn right. On the corner of St Peter and Royal, cross the street and go into the grocery store. Trust me.
Rouse’s Market (701 Royal) for Zapps Voodoo potato chips. As you walk into the world’s tiniest supermarket (not really but it feels that way), you will see several local items along the first aisle on your right. If you are visiting around Carnival season, you will see king cakes. You will always see fresh French bread, Haydel’s Hand Pies and Gooey Cakes, and, further up, Crystal hot sauce, jars of pickled okra and olive salad, jarred roux, cans and bottles of Steen’s cane syrup, dried shrimp, and Zatarain’s seasonings. These are all items you may want to get to bring home, but what you are here for right now is a few aisles over in the chip selection. Get a bag of Zapp’s Voodoo Chips to enjoy as you walk to your next stop. The legend that was originally printed on the back of the Voodoo chips bag stated that one day in the Zapp’s chip factory,all of the seasonings for all of the different flavors of chips were accidentally dumped into the same batch. They decided to make the best of the mistake and the new Voodoo flavor was born. I don’t know if that is true, but it is my favorite potato chip – slightly sweet, a little spicy, tart, and super crunchy.
Walk out of Rouses and make a left (downriver, away from Canal Street)on Royal. Enjoy some street music and dance a little, walk a little more, then go down Pirate’s Alley (turning right at the lingerie shop). At the end of this charming alley, you will emerge in Jackson Square, the heart of New Orleans. Turn left, then right at the corner of the square ( you are now on St. Ann Street) then walk straight head toward the green-and-white awnings of
Café du Monde (800 Decatur) for beignets and café au lait. This spot has been open since 1862, so chances are if you have any relative who ever visited New Orleans, they ate beignets and drank café au lait right where you are today. Beignets are fried dough – perfect, simple fried dough with powdered sugar on top – and are the only menu item at Café du Monde. The coffee you must drink here is café au lait, which translates to “coffee with milk,” but to be the real deal in New Orleans it must be chicory coffee with boiled milk. They do it the right way here and almost nowhere else in the city. No weak coffee and no steamed milk, just a rich, tasty, creamy, thick cup of coffee the way we have had it since the Civil War. Café au lait is low in caffeine, so go ahead and drink it late into the night, and give the kids a sip, too.
Leave Café du Monde and cross Decatur Street at the traffic light at Decatur and St. Ann. Turn right on Decatur and continue to the corner of Decatur and Madison and enter
Tujagues (823 Decatur ) for gumbo. Stand at the bar (or sit at one of the small tables in the bar but I do recommend standing at the bar for the timeless experience) and order the gumbo du jour. Whatever it is, it will be stellar. The roux is dark, the ingredients perfectly distributed, just the right thickness with a clump of rice to stir in and served with a crusty loaf of Leidenheimer French bread wrapped in a white dinner napkin and a little dish of wrapped pats of butter. Tujagues is the second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans (Antoine’s being the oldest) and the bar has never had barstools. Patrons have stepped up to the bar and put a foot up on one of the brass rails since 1856. Try it. It feels right. Depending on the day you are visiting and the time of day, you may be able to order brisket dirty rice, duck and goat cheese crepes, or any type of savory beignets. You wont regret any of them.
Walk out of Tujagues and turn left. You are continuing down Decatur Street as you were before. Go to Dumaine Street and turn left. Not far into the block, you will see
Newton’s Hot and Cold (509 Dumaine ) for gelato. Newton’s is a brand new adventure from former employees of Little Vic’s, a great place that sadly closed in 2017 and sold great authentic Sicilian gelato and street food. 100 years ago, this neighborhood was called “the Italian colony” because 85 percent of the population was Sicilian. Vic Carracci, the owner of Little Vic’s, was dedicated to providing authentic Sicilian treats and when he closed in 2017, his staff pitched in to open Newton’s. Flavors of gelato change, but I recommend combining a nut flavor like almond or pistachio with a citrus flavor like lemon, orange, or lime. It is a refreshing way to clear your palate for the last leg of your culinary adventure.
When you leave Newton’s, turn left. Return to Decatur Street and make a left. Look for Central Grocery on the left side of the street, facing a golden statue of Joan of Arc.
Central Grocery (923 Decatur) for marinated mushrooms. I know that everyone else in line here is getting the muffuletta, because this is the home of the muffuletta and that amazing sandwich is a true New Orleans original. I do recommend the Central Grocery muffuletta as a picnic sandwich, to be eaten hours after it was made (do yourself a favor and get one on your way out of town to enjoy when you get home), but on this trip get the mushrooms. They are left whole, marinated in a tangy vinaigrette and sold by weight. A quarter pound is about a cup of mushrooms. Appreciate the atmosphere and make a note to come back for your muffuletta before you leave. But I have another muffuletta in store for you.
Exit Central Grocery and turn left and head toward the French Market. You will stay on Decatur till you reach Ursulines Street, then turn right. On your left, you will see the arched entrance to the French Market. Go in, pass the first few stalls ( I recommend strawberry lemonade to drink and alligator jerky and fried peanuts for take-home souvenirs) till you reach Alberto’s Cheese and Wine Bistro on the right.
Alberto’s (French Market Bay #11) for a muffuletta. The muffuletta sandwich began as a handy meal for Sicilian immigrants working in Louisiana sugar cane fields and the French Market, but soon became a local favorite, The family who runs Alberto’s is from Spain, so they took the classic muffuletta and swapped out the Genoa ham for chorizo, doubled the cheese (provolone AND mozzarella) and they make their own olive salad. The meats and cheeses are next to the bread, and the olive salad is in the middle. And they heat it up. Get a quarter of a muffuletta for less than 6 dollars, and they will cut it in half for you, so two people can each enjoy the perfect tasting-tour size.
Continue further into the French Market till you reach the snowball stand on your left.
Mother Nature’s Cupboard (French market Bay #35) for snowballs. Please don’t think this is the same as a snow cone from an outdoor fair. In New Orleans, we take our snowballs seriously, with each New Orleans resident being able to tell you immediately their favorite Snowball Stand and why it is their favorite. The machine used here to shave (not crush) huge blocks of ice creates a texture that most people describe a “fluffy,” and never crunchy. Mother Nature’s Cupboard has a variety of flavors, but I recommend the king cake snowball with condensed milk, or the nectar with condensed milk for a genuine New Orleans experience.
It’s time to leave the French Market. Right after Mother Nature’s Cupboard is an opening. Turn left at this opening and cross the street and turn right. You’re on a street called French Market Place. A bit further than one block down is St. Cecilia Restaurant.
St. Cecilia (91 French Market Place) for BBQ Shrimp and Grits. New Orleans’ bar-b-que shrimp has nothing to do with grilling or BBQ sauce. Large Louisiana Gulf shrimp are cooked in a sauce of butter, lemon, worstershire, garlic, and seasonings in skillet or in the oven. They are usually served with their shells still on and you have to just dig in and get your hands dirty, then sop up all that extra delicious sauce with crusty French bread. At St. Cecilia, they leave the tail on but otherwise peel the shrimp for you, and serve the shrimp with creamy stone-ground grits, a perfect complement to the shrimp and sauce. We did not traditionally eat shrimp with grits. We ate shrimp, and we ate grits, but when this lowcountry combination of the two was introduced we realized what we had been missing and made it our own with our New Orleans BBQ shrimp sauce.
Toddle out of St. Cecilia and turn right. Walk up to the next corner (Governor Nicholls Street) and turn right. Walk all the way to Governor Nicholls and Royal. You will see a little deli/grocery on the corner of Royal Street and Governor Nicholls called Verti Marte.
Verti Marte (1201 Royal) for an All That Jazz Po-boy. I know. This is your second po-boy and third sandwich on this tour. But first of all, you’ve got to have it. And second of all, I doubt anyone will ever finish this whole tour in one day, so you need another sandwich (if you do this whole tour in one day, PLEASE send me an email!). Verti Marte is a local favorite and they deliver all over the French Quarter. Their menu is huge, but you really need to get the All That Jazz. It is a huge sandwich of grilled ham, turkey, and shrimp, Swiss and American cheeses, grilled mushrooms, tomatoes, and their “secret sauce.” It is truly a magnificent combination. Verti Marte has no seating (it’s sometimes even difficult to find a place to stand), so grab a couple of drinks (and lots of napkins) and proceed to Jackson Square to picnic and people-watch.
Walk out of Verti Marte and turn right. Continue up Royal to St. Ann Street. Turn left on St. Ann and in one block you will emerge onto Jackson Square. Bring your sandwich and drinks into the square, find a great bench, and sit and enjoy. If it’s a nice day, you will get a free concert of great live music to accompany your meal as you watch the scene around you and fall deeper in love with New Orleans.
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