By Leslie Kelly
August 16, 2015

Not usually a fan of PDA, but I love New Orleans so much I could give it a big, sloppy kiss. Sure, it's a food thing, but it goes deeper. There's just no place like the Crescent City when it comes to soul satisfying fare served with a heaping side of fascinating tradition and fierce regional pride. As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, wonderful stories explore the way the spectacular food industry helped get the city and the region back on its feet. Let me join that Hallelujah chorus by sharing these heartfelt recommendations of places you shouldn't miss when you visit, compressed into a very filling day and a half. Though you're not going to want to leave after eating and drinking all this.

Cochon Butcher's famous headcheese
Cochon Butcher in New Orleans is famous for its house-made charcuterie, including headcheese. Photo by Leslie Kelly

1) Breakfast at Brennan's

This historic venue in the French Quarter reopened recently after a major refresh and the landing of a hot chef. James Beard Foundation finalist Slade Rushing has infused clever updates into the classic menu while letting the fan favorites stand the test of time. You'll be so happy if you indulge in a Caribbean milk punch to start, braised pork grillades with Georgia grits and the legendary Bananas Foster, prepared tableside by the incredibly gracious staff, who will tell you how this dramatic dessert was invented at the restaurant way back when somebody in the kitchen wanted to get rid of some extra fruit. Ask for a peek of the private dining rooms upstairs, gorgeously decorated spaces where the city's movers and shakers dine.

Bananas Foster at Brennans in New Orleans
Bananas Foster at Brennans in New Orleans. Photo by Chris Granger via Brennans

2) Cafe au Lait and Macarons at Sucre

Skip the touristy Cafe du Monde and instead head to Magazine Street's sweetest shop, where the locals hang out, sipping excellent espresso drinks and those French-inspired sandwich cookies that come in a stunning number of drool-worthy flavors: Bananas Foster, Salted Caramel, Chicory and Pecan make up the New Orleans collection. This is the kind of place where you're going to want one of everything.

3) Lunch at Peche Seafood Grill

This sprawling tribute to Gulf Coast seafood feels like a party in the evening, and one you might not be able to get into if you haven't booked a table weeks in advance. There's a little more wiggle room during lunch, and the same incredible fare coming out of Ryan Prewitt's kitchen, much of it cooked in a wood-fired oven. You've got to try the steak tartar with oyster aioli from the raw bar, and do a deep dive on the whole fish special of the day.

Peche-Grill New Orleans
Wood-fired fish is a huge draw at Peche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. Photo via Peche Grill.

4) Second Lunch at Cochon Butcher

The winning team behind Pesce, Cochon and Herbsaint go super casual at this high-achieving deli, where the air's perfumed by smoky meat smells. Sandwiches like the Buckboard Bacon Melt are crazy good, but so is everything else on the small plates menu from the headcheese to the on-point boudin to the duck pastrami sliders. Savoring the house-cured charcuterie and sipping a local beer is very pleasant way to pass an afternoon until happy hour.

5) Cocktails at Cane & Table

Just a few blocks from the raucous Bourbon Street (home of the "World's Strongest Drink", strip clubs, jam-packed music venues as well as high-end gems like Galatorie's and the awesome Bourbon House) is a calm oasis populated by savvy spirits fans who appreciate a well-mixed drink and Next Level bar snacks. Make your way deep into the courtyard, which feels like another world, and order an updated version of a Tiki drink featuring a dazzling assortment of rums. You're going to want to linger, but don't be late for dinner. You can always come back for a nightcap.

6) Restaurant R'evolution's Death By Gumbo

In a city that embraces tradition, this collaborative venture from Chicago chef Rick Tramonto and Louisiana legend John Folse gently bend the rules and the results are dramatic. That's especially true for the signature gumbo, which features a boudin sausage-stuffed roast quail that's finished at the table when the razor sharp server pours a rich roux into the bowl. Just stunning, but best gumbo in the city? Everybody's got their favorites.

Death By Gumbo at Restaurant R'evolution in New Orleans
Restaurant R'evolution's Death by Gumbo stars a boudin-sausage stuffed quail. Photo by Ron Manville via Restaurant R'evolution

7) Nightcap at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone

No, it's not that you've had one too many. This bar really does spin, and it's the kind of place where the bartender will tease you if you try and order a nightcap before 11. "It's too early for that," one of them said to me on my last trip. It can be three-deep with tourists, but the people watching is so worth braving the crowds, and there's live music most nights.

Carousel Bar in New Orleans
The popular Carousel Bar in New Orleans is a hit with locals and visitors. Photo via Hotel Monteleone

8) Go Hear Some Live Music

There are hundreds of clubs with live music including the world famous Tipitina's, Rock-n-Bowl, Chickie Wah Wah, the Maple Leaf Bar and Snug Harbor. For the best local listings, check out WWOZ's Livewire calendar. Better yet, tune into this community-supported radio station online before your trip. Listening to Gentilly, Jr., on a Monday night is guaranteed to put you in a New Orleans state of mind.

9) Hangover Poor Boys at the Parkway Bakery & Tavern

Home of the original Poor Boy, this beloved landmark makes a killer Bloody Mary and some sloppy good sandwiches including one stuffed with French fries. Try the fried shrimp or the saucy roast beef and don't forget to grab a fist full of napkins.

10) Fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House

This iconic cafe in Treme represents the great sadness of that devastating aftermath of the storm and the power of the community spirit that helped rebuild it from the hot mess it was, post-Katrina, when then 80-something-year-old owner Willie Mae Seaton was evacuated, carrying very few possessions. One of those was a James Beard award she had received for being a classic restaurant. The Southern Foodways Alliance quickly rallied members to the efforts, and, after an extensive rebuild -- I am proud to have been one of the volunteers -- Willie Mae's reopened, with her great-granddaughter carrying on the fried chicken tradition. Watch the excellent documentary about that project, an award-winning film called Above The Line: Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House. For a sobering reminder of what a win that represents, check out this roundup of popular restaurants that did not make it back after the storm.

Southern Foodways Alliance volunteers to help rebuilt Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans
Southern Foodways Alliance volunteers to help rebuilt Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Louise Terzia

A recent media trip was hosted by New Orleans Convention & Visitor's Bureau