New Orleans is one of the oldest cities in the United States with a history that traces back to 1718 when it was founded by a French Canadian by the name of Claude Trepagnier. A few years later in 1721, the design for the city was laid out and construction began around a central fairground that was meant to the by the city’s central hub. This fairground went out to become Jackson Square, currently one of New Orleans most famous and frequently visited landmarks. Jackson Square, as well as the rest of the French Quarter has grown and evolved since its original founding but many of the original buildings remain in place and have since been repurposed for a variety of uses, including becoming some of the city’s most popular restaurants. There are several reasons for this repurposing. New Orleans locations along the Mississippi River and surrounded by swamps made the total area available to build out from limited so the city had to continually repurpose its existing landmass to adapt to the city’s needs. This includes transforming historic buildings into restaurants that are currently still in use today. While the city and the French Quarter was originally a trade port connecting commerce from up and down the Mississippi River with the Atlantic Ocean, it has since transformed greatly and now the French Quarter is known far more for tourism than for industry and trading. This is part of the charm of New Orleans. Not only are tourists able to sit and enjoy amazing meals in one the world’s highest ranked culinary capitals, but they are also able to do so in buildings with incredible historic value and stories that go along with those meals.
Muriel’s at Jackson Square
The first restaurant I’d like to bring up that fits this criterion is Muriel’s, located within Jackson Square. Shortly after the city’s began being constructed, the royal treasurer of the French colonies of Louisiana decided to take up residence in a cottage on the corner of modern Jackson Square. Once he took ownership, he tore down the original cottage and built a very large and elaborate house for himself, which at the time was second only to the city’s governor in terms of lavishness. The building spent most of the next two centuries being owned by various members of the city’s wealthy political elite until its purpose began to switch to a commercial purpose in 1916 when it was converted into a pasta factory and grocery store. It took another half century before it was turned into a restaurant for the first time in 1974 when it became the Chart House Restaurant with the bottom floor function as the Heritage Hall Jazz Band. Finally in 2000, it became Muriel’s restaurant and remains so to this day.
Today, Muriel’s offers a great dining experience where patrons can also take in a terrific balcony view overlooking Jackson Square and nearby St. Louis Cathedral. Muriel’s serves many local dishes such as shrimp and grits, seafood gumbo, turtle soup, and pecan crusted drum among other local favorites. It’s historic significance, elegant ambiance, great menu, and terrific balcony views makes Muriel’s an excellent option for visitors to New Orleans to enjoy a lunch or dinner while enjoying the street performers and musicians that frequent nearby Jackson Square.
Napoleon House is a short walk from Jackson Square and offers a great casual lunch experience where visitors can find gumbo, poboy sandwiches, and jambalaya among the menu but the main culinary attraction here is the muffaletta sandwich. Napoleon House is one of the locations within New Orleans that is said to be the original proprietor of this iconic sandwich. While many know this restaurant for its muffalettas, fewer people know of its history and how Napoleon House got its name. Following Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s defeat and subsequent exile; he attracted a large group of loyal followers that became known as Bonapartists. One of these was Nicholas Girod, the first occupant of this building. When Napoleon was exiled, Nicholas offered this building to Napoleon as a place of residence. Although Napoleon was never able to arrive in Louisiana to take up residence, the name Napoleon House still stuck and remained once the building was transformed into the Napoleon House grocery store in 1914 before transitioning into its modern-day diner.
Antoine’s is also located within the French Quarter and has the distinction of being the oldest restaurant within New Orleans as well as one of the five oldest restaurants in the United States. First established in 1840, Antoine’s has remained a staple of the New Orleans culinary scene ever since, providing a French fine dining cuisine experience. Although there are several menu options that offer patrons a selection of local favorites such as blackened salmon and oysters Rockefeller; there are plenty of menu options for those who want a more traditional French cuisine or at least a taste of something that they cannot find in many other restaurants in New Orleans. One appetizer that stood out to me is Oyster Foch, oysters fried in yellow cornmeal served with foie gras and a Colbert sauce. Oysters are also available at Antoine’s in charbroiled, Rockefeller, and Bienville options but these can be found in several other French Quarter restaurants, the Koch is a rare treat worth experiencing at Antoine’s. Another appetizer that is unique here is the Escargot Bourguignon, which are snails served with parsley and garlic; brought in a hot serving tray to the table. A final appetizer option of note that is also popular as a side dish are the souffle potatoes, fried potato puff that go incredible with any of the entry options.
Not to be outdone, the entries at Antoine’s also offer a combination of New Orleans and French cuisine. One popular option for visitors to try at Antoine’s is the Réveillon Dinner, a pre-determined 4 course dinner that is complete with a fine dining service experience. The courses are a soup or salad option, an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. While the courses offered change, to provide an example of the kind of meal one may expect, I’d like to share what was on offer during my most recent visit. The first course was a bacon boursin vol au vent, which was a bacon topped puffed pastry course topped with spiced cane sugar and pecans. The next course was a smoked oyster velouté served with crispy potato. The main course was a panned gulf fish that was topped with blue crab, asparagus, and truffle sauce. To end the mean, a dessert of satsuma pot de crème was served which was a white chocolate cream desert. This dinner is an excellent option for visitors overwhelmed by the menu options and would instead like to be surprised by the chef’s selection.
Taking a step away from the French Quarter, our next restaurant is in the nearby neighbor of Tremé. Dooky Chase is known for an incredible variety of local Cajun and creole cuisine. Many consider this establishment to have the best gumbo in the city. Almost all the staples of New Orleans cooking can be found here: crawfish etouffee, seafood platters, and BBQ shrimp among others. There is also an incredible selection of seafood dishes served here. Another popular item at Dooky Chase is their fried chicken, which is also often regarded as the best of its kind in the city. In addition to the amazing food, Dooky Chase is well known for its historic significance as the meeting places for many prominent members of the US civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and Al Davis among a host of other activists. These renowned historical figures would often meet to discuss courses of action for the civil rights movement in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky Chase; all while enjoying some of the great food this establishment offered.
The combination of amazing food and history is one of the things the makes New Orleans one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. Since its founding, it has grown from a vital trade hub to a tourist heaven that offers visitors parades, history, a unique nightlife, and premier food. These restaurants are just a taste of what visitors have when they choose to visit this unique treasure of the United States. I hope these ideas provide motivation and inspiration for my readers who are considering adding New Orleans to their travel plans. This unique culinary city offers many more amazing restaurants to try out and I look forward to sharing these with you on upcoming posts. But that will have to wait for another day…