Atchafalaya

901 Louisiana Ave., (504) 891-9626; atchafalayarestaurant.com

A restaurant that balances the soul of a casual, anytime spot with the spirit of a modern chef-driven bistro is a coveted, if elusive, find. But Atchafalaya gets there without feeling forced. Chef Chris Lynch brings artful precision and robust flavors across the menu, with a global sensibility that shows up in lamb ragu over gnocchi or a smoked steak with chimichurri. Meanwhile, proprietor Tony Tocco makes the dining room and bar feel like an extension of its oak-shaded neighborhood. Brunch served five days a week answers the need for a feast of crabmeat, poached eggs and build-your-own bloody marys on mornings beyond the usual weekend schedule. Dinner daily, brunch Thu.-Mon. $$$$

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Crepes Fitzgerald, a classic dish from Brennan's, is still prepared tableside at the landmark restaurant.

Brennan’s Restaurant

417 Royal St., (504) 525-9711; brennansneworleans.com

People who love New Orleans dining but don't necessarily keep up with food news might see Brennan's as a storied, old restaurant that has evolved with the times, not a landmark that underwent a sweeping change. An air of old school grandeur still pervades the dining rooms and courtyard, even though they’ve been completely revamped. Executive chef Slade Rushing had a deep trove of dishes to start from, with Creole classics and distinctive Brennan’s creations. These have been modernized, some gently, some thoroughly, and they join contemporary additions. They feel right at home in a restaurant that’s carefully mixing tradition and modernity. Breakfast (or brunch, or whatever you choose to call it) is an adventure to build a day in the Quarter around. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. $$$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - The seafood platter at Brigtsen's Restaurant changes frequently but has no fried items.

Brigtsen’s Restaurant

723 Dante St., (504) 861-7610; brigtsens.com

Chef Frank Brigtsen’s take on Creole cuisine was a break from the norm when he first got started in the Riverbend back in 1986. As trends have rolled ahead, his style now connects us back to the fundamentals that gave Louisiana such a rich food culture in the first place, with the skill and patience to build in deep flavors. This comes through in soft shell crabs under the dark burnish of brown butter pecan sauce, a shrimp remoulade with guacamole and mirliton slaw and the luscious savor of true cochon de lait crowned by curls of cracklin’. Across the small rooms of its shotgun cottage, Brigtsen’s exudes warm hospitality with zero pretension, and consistency across the entire meal. Dinner Tue.-Sat. $$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - Whole, soft shell shrimp are a recurring specialty at Cava, a Creole restaurant in Lakeview.

Cava

789 Harrison Ave., (504) 304-9034

This Lakeview bistro is still fairly new (circa 2014), but the composed presentations, the menu fundamentals, even the glittering settings and sharp white tablecloths all offer a departure from the increasingly casual bistro trend. Bursting-fresh seafood, fishing dock exotica like soft-shell shrimp and just a few smart, restrained twists give the classics new currency here. For a spur-of-the-moment visit, the bar is a great dining perch with a wine list that goes on for days. Dinner daily. $$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - The patio at Commander's Palace is a popular al fresco dining spot.

Commander’s Palace

1403 Washington Ave., (504) 899-8221; commanderspalace.com

The Commander's Palace name has its own brand power, and whether for couples marking anniversaries or doctors visiting on a convention, that translates directly to the big deal dinner. What’s more immediately important when you actually arrive for one of these big-deal dinners is how chef Tory McPhail and team keep things so lively. A kitchen that can issue hundreds of cups of turtle soup a day and produce bread pudding soufflés without pause also keeps pace with the contemporary Creole vanguard. This kitchen can push the limits with decadent, sometimes experimental dishes and then take you right back home again for classics of its own making. Lunch remains a steal. Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner daily, brunch Sat. and Sun. $$$$$

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Chocolate doberge cake gets a modern revamp at Emeril's Restaurant in the Warehouse District.

Emeril’s Restaurant

800 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 528-9393; emerilsrestaurants.com

The great thing about Emeril's is the way dinner here delivers on the full promise of fine dining while reminding you that fun should always be part of that equation. Chef de cuisine David Slater melds his own evolving ideas with the style his famous boss set long ago. Lately, he’s been working more Mediterranean flavors through this lens (like hanger steak with tahini-streaked potatoes). A romp through his menus has room for both a grown-up riff on nachos (with lamb neck and pineapple salsa) as well as Emeril’s modern classics (andouille-crusted fish, banana cream pie). Maintaining the standards and reputation of this restaurant is serious business, but it always feels like the people behind it all are having a blast doing it and that shows throughout the meal. Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner daily. $$$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty -- House-made spaghetti with seasonal chanterelle mushrooms starts a meal at La Petite Grocery from chef Justin Devillier.

La Petite Grocery

4238 Magazine St., (504) 891-3377; lapetitegrocery.com

Chef Justin Devillier’s meticulously professional Uptown bistro mixes highly compelling modern cuisine with an inviting upscale neighborhood vibe that feels right from start to finish. The menu defies easy categorization, but these days Devillier’s approach takes the form of tuna with bone marrow melting over each slice, a shellfish stew with collards and potlikker, a completely original alligator Bolognese, and the creamy, puffy crabmeat beignets that adorn practically every table. This can be the romantic neighborhood place, the bustling, urbane hot spot or the warm den to gather a diverse table for a culinary romp. It’s an easy recommendation when you want to impress. Lunch Tue.-Sat., dinner daily, brunch Sun. $$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty -- Chef Brian Mottola serves oysters from the wood-burning oven at NOLA, the Emeril Lagasse restaurant in the French Quarter.

NOLA

534 St. Louis St., (504) 522 6652; emerilsrestaurants.com

Emeril Lagasse’s French Quarter eatery has always kept things loose, with its industrial chic design, open kitchen and dining bar facing the glowing wood-burning stove. On busy nights, the dining room can feel like an extension of the ad hoc action on the streets around it. Chef Brian Mottola gamely plays along, adding dishes that feel freewheeling and fun, like an open-faced Reuben built on waffles or fried chicken with pepper jack mac and cheese and gravy. The modern Creole house signatures still endure, like the regally portioned pork chop, aromatic flat breads and a smoky duck just waiting for cool weather to set in. When you want an after-hours destination, NOLA turns out some the best desserts in the Quarter, too. Lunch Thu.-Mon., dinner daily. $$$$$

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Built in the former Werlein's music store on Canal Street, Palace Cafe has been a destination on Canal Street for more than 25 years.

Palace Café

605 Canal St., (504) 523-1661; palacecafe.com

From the tables outside to the theatrically high ceilings, the sweeping staircase and busy, glass-fronted kitchen, this attractive, sprawling restaurant looks like a French bistro tribute act. In fact, its building is steeped in local history as the one-time home of the legendary Werlein’s music store, and in its modern configuration it's a true Creole original. A year into a major revamp, this stalwart from Dickie Brennan’s group feels re-energized, with more seasonal dishes in rotation and a major specialty in charcuterie (including seafood and even vegetarian varieties). As before, there are still enough signature dishes to fill a smaller restaurant’s menu, like the oysters pan roast or the white chocolate bread pudding. Breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly, brunch Sat. and Sun. $$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - The Snickers dessert, with salted caramel and chocolate, at the Uptown restaurant Patois.

Patois

6078 Laurel St., (504) 895-9441; patoisnola.com

Chef Aaron Burgau’s menu is about Southern flavors cut loose from any Southern shtick and twinned instead with modern bistro aesthetics. Dishes like his almond-crusted fish, gnocchi with crawfish and grilled lamb ribs with green tomato relish show a style that’s locally relevant but not a rehash. That matches the understated contemporary design in this one-time barroom well, though to appreciate the social buzz here you do need a tolerance for close quarters. Come here for a casually romantic dinner, for a laid-back Friday lunch way Uptown, or just for a drink with the bar crowd. Lunch Fri., dinner Wed.-Sat., brunch Sun. $$$$

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Chunks of cobia are skewered and grilled at Peche Seafood Grill in the Warehouse District.

Pêche Seafood Grill

800 Magazine St., (504) 522-1744; pecherestaurant.com

Gulf seafood is a pretty easy sell in New Orleans. But Donald Link’s upscale-casual seafood house is pitching something different from the familiar standards, and that’s what makes coming here so exciting. Crudo creations dressed with oil and herbs or a side of catfish smothered under a wondrously flavorful bayou-style gravy show the range that chef/partner Ryan Prewitt works with here. Go with a group to get the most of the whole fish presentations, or find a spot at the raw bar when dining solo. With a wood-fire grill at the center of the kitchen, this is a seafood restaurant where the steak or chicken is just as sound a choice. Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. $$$$

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty -- Ralph's on the Park serves contemporary Creole cuisine near City Park in New Orleans.

Ralph's on the Park

900 City Park Ave., (504) 488-1000; ralphsonthepark.com

The most ambitious restaurant in Mid-City is also the most inventive. Ralph's on the Park, part of Ralph Brennan's group, is certainly Creole. The menu starts with turtle soup after all, and it always has a barbecue shrimp rendition in rotation. But chef Chip Flanagan's menus get more contemporary, and more global, than you might expect from the luxe setting of the dining room. The fact that you can draw from such a diverse menu while looking over the green tableau of City Park just across the street makes it seem all the more original. The bar is a great setting for casual fine dining in the neighborhood. Lunch Tue.-Fri., dinner daily, brunch Sun. $$$$

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Saffron honey and peaches surround the goat's milk cheesecake at Restaurant August.

Restaurant August

301 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 299-9777; restaurantaugust.com

August was John Besh’s first restaurant, and as he’s built an empire on more casual concepts this one still feels like the throne room. Soaring ceilings and glittering chandeliers set the stage for a high-touch approach, while executive chef Todd Pulsinelli’s menus are exquisitely composed and beautifully presented. Crucially though, all the bells and whistles on display do not overshadow the main act, as with a fat, crisp-skin snapper augmented with a garland of grilled and charred seasonal vegetables. Desserts are consistently stunning. August is a restaurant for elegant interpretations of Creole flavors on the regular menu, or more advanced studies on the tasting menus (including a vegetarian one). Dinner nightly, lunch Fri. $$$$$


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.