Eating at the right places in New Orleans often comes down to awareness. It can be difficult to discern the best destination when staring down two, or six, restaurants with identical concepts. There are over 1,400 restaurants in New Orleans, and that’s honestly too many choices for anyone to make.
You need to examine the landscape. Use all five senses. And it starts from when you walk up to the building.
Paint and Signage
New Orleans has a long tradition of hand-painted facades. The famous Lester Carey’s work extended beyond restaurants and let everybody know someone helpful would be on the other side.
The subject of the paint is important because it’s the first indication of what the restaurant, or store, wants you to know about. They’re hoping you’re paying attention.
However, this is not to tell you to find and eat where the paint is for paint’s sake. If there are more than 4 or 5 offerings you should remain suspicious. Any number above that can be described as ‘Daily Specials’—more on that later. In a best-case scenario, you find 3-4 items on a sign accompanied by a narrative scene or posing iconic figures.
Photographs and Paper Towel Dispensers
Paper towel holders, and signed photographs are two overlooked interior touches that show you you’re in the right place. When these are around you know that people eat here are respected. The dispenser being homemade is always a plus, and prepares you for a meal that will require your participation.
A signed photograph on the wall is a moment in time. It lets you know when this restaurant had the juice. Signed photographs with stars from the last four decades lets you know the have the recipe for the sauce. If the guy who seats you on a Friday night put the picture of him and Sylvester Stallone next to the host stand, it’s because that’s where it belongs.
That signed promotional poster from the Faith Hill music video they shot down the road a couple years ago? It’s taking up half a wall next to the alligator gar skull because this spot was hot then and hot still.
Daily Specials and Hot Lunch
This is make or break for the restaurant. They’re telling you what’s good that day and it’s up to you to listen, and on them to deliver. New Orleans is filled with great restaurants that honor the daily special. Neyow’s, Stein’s, and Betsy’s are only a few of the countless restaurants that feature a steady rotation of favorites.
Often noted as HOT LUNCH, a plate of rice and cabbage with fried catfish, chicken, or a pork chop with a side of sweet potatoes will gather a crowd. A stuffed bell pepper with mac and cheese and cornbread dressing at Neyow’s will make a number of people get to lunch early on a Saturday. A daily special lets you know that they care, and that’s more than you need most days.
A Place You Can Ask
The people who staff the restaurants of New Orleans are a special group of people. Their professionalism, skills, and capacity to care are unmatched. This is an incredible asset you can take advantage of.
Take a look at the menu. Enjoy it. If you aren’t certain about your order, cook up some questions. Ask them which items they’d choose if they wanted to keep it light, or what you shouldn’t miss if it’s your first time. It’s easier on everyone when people get what they need. Helpful people want you to enjoy yourself and they’ve got nothing to hide. The question in your head can often be answered better by someone who’s seen the food and knows what people like.
All The Signs Are Here
These signs should give you the confidence to enjoy yourself. Paper towels provide the composure that hungry people need to relax and know they’ll be clean when they need to. That picture of Sly on the wall isn’t for the host to look at, it’s there to motivate you to get on the wall—daring you to be great. Eating smart in New Orleans requires you to activate all your senses and not to let an assumption blind your path. But if you know where you want to go, all the signs are there.
Places You Can Check Out
C & A Seafood — A large menu, with most anything you’d want at this Broadmoor staple.
The Buttermilk Drop — Great donuts and hot breakfast options at this 7th Ward spot.
Taqueria Guerrero Mexico — Hearty Mexican classics available on Carrollton.
B&C Seafood Riverside & Cajun Restaurant — If you’re ever in Vacherie, stop by B&C for some fresh seafood and a photo-op with Faith and the Gar.
Betsy’s Pancake House — A Mid-City spot that’s always moving, unless it’s Saturday, or after 2 p.m.