Of all the facets of local life that have been up for re-evaluation lately, the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant might seem an unlikely candidate for change. Long on tradition, beloved and generally successful, the great stalwarts are distinguished by their own style and character but share a common approach New Orleans knows by heart and menus that have remained the same for a generation or more.
And yet, a new perspective on the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant has emerged over the past few years as new restaurants have joined the scene and others have retooled. It’s one that looks and functions like the old classics but brings a different edge to the food. Crucially, they don’t reinvent the form but represent its next-generation evolution with a fresh take on what can constitute casual New Orleans dining.
The four examples below represent the best of this trend. All of them function first and foremost as neighborhood restaurants — reasonably priced, ready for families and loaded with local flavor. While they are restaurants that serve their neighborhoods, each is worth a visit from across town, too.
High Hat Cafe
4500 Freret St., (504) 754-1336; highhatcafe.com
High Hat Cafe combines Creole flavor, to the tune of deep dark gumbo and barbecue shrimp, with a Deep South angle, such as catfish baskets with hush puppies and pimento cheese platters. The critical third part of the equation, however, is the way the kitchen and even the bar embrace the fresh and seasonal. Sweet crabmeat over juicy watermelon with mint and lime vinaigrette gushes with the flavors of summer, and a finely fried soft-shell crab might be paired with multicolored bursts of cherry tomatoes or a cool corn salad. The room feels like the town square diner for busy Freret Street. Add the kids menu, and you have an anytime cafe with a sense of place that responds closely to modern tastes. That also applies to the bar, where even the soft drinks are interesting. Lunch and dinner daily. $$
Katie’s Restaurant & Bar
3701 Bienville St., (504) 484-0580; katiesinmidcity.com
Though it first opened in 1984, the Katie’s that reopened in Mid-City a few years after Hurricane Katrina was much different from the one that preceded it. Classic New Orleans fare is still done well, but this kitchen is constantly adding to its repertoire. That translates to broiled oysters dotted with shrimp and bacon under tangy Provel cheese (the oysters Slessinger) or a recent special that planted a familiar serving of smothered chicken and rice over a sheet of lightly charred flatbread with melted mozzarella. The flatbread is related to the single biggest post-Katrina change here — the addition of a pizza menu. There are some standards, and some not-so-standards, like the Boudreaux pizza with pulled pork and garlic cream sauce. The newly opened second-floor dining room helps accommodate the crowds that understandably flock here. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; brunch Sunday. $$
The Munch Factory
6325 Elysian Fields Ave. (504) 324-5372; munchfactory.net
At his modern Creole cafe, chef Jordan Ruiz applies reverence where it belongs — namely with the Creole gumbo, the shrimp remoulade, the blackened redfish with crabmeat. But the menu also acknowledges the cravings for other types of comfort food that might compel a visit. That could be waffle-cut cheese fries with debris or beignets crisscrossed with condensed milk and chocolate sauce. Uncle Jo’s pasta, a frequent special, brings the crunch of fried chicken chunks and smoky sausage slices to a rich, creamy seafood pasta. As easygoing as you’d expect, it’s nice enough for a special dinner in the neighborhood. The multifaceted approach has proven savvy for a restaurant that answers different needs and cravings in a corner of town with scant dining options. Lunch Tuesday through Friday; dinner Tuesday though Saturday. $$
279 Hickory Ave., Harahan, (504) 738-1116; seithersseafood.com
The oyster shell parking lot and the beer trays of boiled seafood whisked around the tiny dining room set a familiar scene at this unassuming, tucked-away seafood spot in Harahan. But while the boiling pot, the oyster bar and the Creole Italian set pieces hold down one end of things, proprietor Jason Seither has been making unusually creative, even eye-popping dishes the new calling card here. With a palpable sense of fun and a flair for presentation, he melds elements of the Tex-Mex taqueria and sushi bar for a spicy “taco salad” of soft-shell crab and shrimp remoulade or the seared (and mostly raw) tuna “volcano” heaped with crab stick and dotted with Sriracha. Roast beef normally bound for the po-boys also fills a quesadilla, and the soft-shell crab with a sunny-side egg over a burly salad of potatoes, spinach and buttery corn (the “Rocky Balboa”) is a timely rethinking of a standard platter. Lunch Monday through Friday; dinner Monday through Saturday. $
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.