This is not your standard Top 10 restaurant list.

This is a list to get to the heart of why New Orleans restaurants are so compelling, so integrally tied to this singular place and so valuable to the people who call that place home.

It also reflects how that relationship is playing out right now, in that dynamic of history and change, continuity and personal expression that is the soul of New Orleans culture.   

The city's dining scene has never been more diverse. You'll see that reflected across our larger Essential 100 dining guide, of which these 10 are part.

But, while we now have more flavors from across the globe, what makes New Orleans a great restaurant city is the flavor that it has given the world, and the New Orleans people who safeguard it, invest in it with their own personality and values, and keep it vital and evolving.

That plays out in countless ways across the city. Here is my top cut to experience what it means in restaurants, and the reasons why each is here


For showing how to keep a tradition vital while adding its own voice:

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Buffalo shrimp are topped with blue cheese for a specialty po-boy at Avery's on Tulane.

Avery’s on Tulane

2510 Tulane Ave., (504) 821-4110

Old school po-boy shops are rooted in New Orleans as deeply as the oaks. But, what if all we had left was the old guard? Avery’s on Tulane, around since 2012, is one of the places making sure we won’t have to find out anytime soon. Christy and Justin Pitard didn’t open Avery’s to change the sandwich game. They just saw an opportunity to work for themselves with a lunchroom serving local staples. They found a spot on a changing, if still-edgy, stretch of Tulane Avenue, because that's how you start a business in New Orleans these days when you're on a family budget. Today, I can’t pass by without craving their Buffalo shrimp po-boys, roast beef with horseradish sauce and fried pickles and the dueling gumbos (seafood, chicken and sausage — both legit). New Orleans flavor lives in small, family-run, everyday places like this, and Avery's does double duty by adding to the ranks of po-boy shops while also adding its own personality and creativity to the mix. Lunch Mon.-Sat., dinner Mon., Thu.-Sat. $


For bringing a New Orleans legend back and into the next century:

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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

When it returned a few years back under a different branch of the family and with a new direction, Brennan’s felt like a revival, a restoration. Today, it feels like a statement about modern New Orleans. The setting is suitably grand. This address has been a high-profile landmark restaurant for generations. Under the direction of Ralph Brennan’s company, it has carefully, brilliantly navigated the intricacies of recalibrating a classic to the styles and tastes of the present. Chef Slade Rushing’s cuisine is modern, sometimes playful and still rooted in the Creole equation. The wine list is increasingly deep and interesting, and not just for the big spenders. You can smell sizzling butter around Brennan’s dining rooms as waiters flambé desserts from wheeled carts. You can hear the din of party conversations drifting down from second-floor rooms, which occupy their own place in local social rituals. You can look around the courtyard and feel transported to old New Orleans. And maybe, between it all, you can feel something in tune with the convergence of tradition, change and renewal so evident around New Orleans today. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. $$$$$


For extending a legacy of regional flavor and genuine hospitality through generations:

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The Coolinary menu at Brigtsen's Restaurant brings three courses for $39, with options including Italian salad, seafood stuffed eggplant and strawberry shortcake. Sazerac sold separately.

Brigtsen’s Restaurant

723 Dante St., (504) 861-7610

Frank Brigtsen is fond of saying that “brown is the color of flavor.” Today, I think "Brigtsen’s" is a byword for a particular type of flavor, one that's affectionately robust, satisfying and utterly of Louisiana. The bistro the chef and his wife Marna run is also a testament to what character and generosity mean in our city’s restaurant community. Brigtsen’s backstory is forever tied to the late, great Paul Prudhomme, who was instrumental in helping his protégé get his own start here. The Brigtsens pay that forward in their dining room and kitchen, in the long, inter-generational reach of education and mentoring and by example. Regulars have come to their Riverbend bistro through three decades for soft shell crabs in brown butter pecan sauce, velvety shrimp bisque, blackened tuna and cochon de lait under curls of cracklin’. I think we’ll be seeing their influence play out through others for many years to come. Dinner Tue.-Sat. $$$$


For forging a path for progressive, sustainable restaurants in New Orleans:

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Dana and Christine Honn, co-chefs of Carmo, sit outside their restaurant in New Orleans. The plant at right is an ancient grain amaranth that grew from a seed that Dana tossed into a small patch of dirt.

Carmo

527 Julia St., (504) 875-4132

One of the city’s most unique and compelling restaurants is also its most progressive, and it started as a simple deli. Carmo began with sandwiches, healthy salads, a bit of Brazilian flavor from chef Christine Honn‘s homeland and a conviction for sustainability that she and her chef husband Dana share. It has grown room by room to become an unlikely grassroots culinary hub in the middle of the increasingly chic Warehouse District. The menu tells a story of tropical foodways across the globe, from Africa to Southeast Asia to the Gulf of Mexico. The raw bar serves a variety of local fish you might not ever see otherwise, thanks to a dedication to direct sourcing. The staff and clientele are together as diverse as they come, thanks to the restaurant’s culture, its open ambiance and its accessible prices. Sometimes, I still come here just for a quick salad. But I always come away with an appreciation for what Carmo has achieved. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. $$


For giving highly contemporary dining a natural place at the New Orleans table:

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Grilled baby carrots get an artful and contemporary treatment at Coquette in New Orleans.

Coquette

2900 Magazine St., (504) 265-0421

There are restaurants where experiencing the upper reaches of contemporary cuisine can feel like standing on your toes — you get an elevated perspective, but it’s no way to live. Then there’s Coquette. This is a great restaurant that still manages to be subtle about it all. It’s been around for more than a decade, which seems incredible since it always feels so freshly inspired. Co-chefs Kristin Essig and Michael Stoltzfus serve a cuisine that is ambitious, artful and sometimes dazzling while the restaurant overall remains as approachable as an upscale neighborhood bistro. The menu changes constantly, not just seasonally. But you can count on a house style that mixes a wide-ranging culinary imagination with the plain dealing of exuberantly fresh ingredients. It’s stylish, modern cuisine rooted by down-to-earth sensibility, and it leaves no doubt that this particular patch of earth is New Orleans. Dinner daily, brunch Sat. and Sun. $$$$$


For raising the bar for the New Orleans neighborhood joint:

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High Hat Cafe opened on Freret Street in New Orleans in 2009 with a mix of classic Creole and Deep South flavors and a fresher, more modern perspective.

High Hat Café

4500 Freret St., (504) 754-1336

This is the restaurant I recommend more than any other in New Orleans. That’s because it represents a timely reinvigoration of the type of restaurant most people want — the affordable, accessible, consistent neighborhood spot with a sense of place. The busy, neighbor-filled dining room feels like the town square diner for Freret Street, and the menu bridges Creole standards with down-home Deep South flavor. The key to High Hat is that it all feels classic and modern at the same time, thanks to an embrace of the fresh and seasonal. It’s like your classic neighborhood joint that took up a farmers market habit. It’s actually much newer than it feels, opening here in 2011 as a needed addition to the vital but often overlooked mid-range, anytime niche. Chef Allison Richard’s kitchen fields a dark gumbo, bright salads and daily fish, boudin and burgers and irresistible pies to end it all. The first-class cocktails get this treatment too, and even the soft drinks are interesting here. Lunch and dinner daily. $$


For giving Creole soul the pulse of the next generation:

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Jordan and Alexis Ruiz started their restaurant the Munch Factory in 2011 and relocated it to the Lower Garden District.

The Munch Factory

1901 Sophie Wright Place, (504) 324-5372

The tradition of black Creole cooking runs through families, and you can taste that in chef Jordan Ruiz's gumbo, as fine an example as you'll find in any New Orleans home. Across the menu he and Alexis Ruiz serve at their low-key Lower Garden District spot, you can also taste how the next generation applies the Creole palate to comfort food. This is a modern, mid-range restaurant where you can get crabcakes, shrimp remoulade over fried green tomatoes and blackened redfish next to nachos with debris-style roast beef, tuna tartare tacos and hot sausage patty melts. In its short history, the Munch Factory has grown, struggled, relocated twice, endured and served food with heart and soul all the while. It shows how a restaurant can surpass the neighborhood cafe standard without discarding the Creole culinary legacy that first set the local template, and how to be playful while still bringing local flavor. Lunch and dinner Tue.-Sat., brunch Sun. $$


For carrying the Creole Italian torch, and birthday eggplant sparklers too:

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Beef brisket is paired with tomatoes and greens at Nephew's Ristorante in Metairie.

Nephew’s Ristorante

4445 W. Metairie Ave., Metairie, (504) 533-9998

From the minute it opened last year, this was a restaurant many knew by heart. The menu is the very definition of Creole Italian cooking, though the familiarity goes much deeper than a dining category. The nephew referenced by the name is Frank Catalanotto, whose uncle was the late Tony Angello, of the now-gone landmark Lakeview restaurant. Nephew’s carries on its format, with a veritable Sunday supper of small dishes brought out if you ask. It also keeps up the peculiarities of the old place. The crab gravy, the brisket and tomato salad, the barbecue shrimp and oysters Bienville, the rosemary grilled chicken and the braised rabbit with carrots — it’s all here, and for birthdays, you might even see a whole raw eggplant appear in place of cake, stuck with snapping sparklers and igniting the same delight as before. It’s hard to imagine another new restaurant arriving with a menu just like this. It’s hard to imagine someone with this chef’s experience and family story doing anything else. Dinner Tue.-Sat. $$$


For giving our region’s most important foods a brighter stage:

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Raw oysters, tuna crudo and smoked fish salad fill a table at Peche Seafood Grill in downtown New Orleans.

Pêche Seafood Grill

800 Magazine St., (504) 522-1744

The Gulf gives us so much, and Pêche has been giving it the chance to shine like it really should. Donald Link‘s restaurant group opened Pêche with a splash in 2013, turning heads with an approach to the New Orleans seafood house that revolved around the wood-fired grill and whole fish to share around the table. Ever since, chef Ryan Prewitt has been upping the ante, leveraging its immense popularity to become a showcase not just for different ways to serve Gulf seafood but different ways to source it, and even different ways to understand it. It’s certainly not alone in this pursuit. But Peche, with its full embrace of the local catch, with the taste and style it applies, with its ability to influence as an industry leader, is a game changer for Louisiana seafood. Lunch and dinner daily. $$$$


For creating an original restaurant from a New Orleans family story:

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The Vilkhu family, (from left) Ashwin, Arvinder, Pardeep and Pranita, at their  restaurant Saffron NOLA on Magazine Street. 

Saffron NOLA

4128 Magazine St., (504) 323-2626

It’s obvious from its menu, its design and even its cocktails that Saffron NOLA is a modern Indian restaurant. Since its 2017 debut, however, it’s also become clear this is a New Orleans family restaurant. That family, the Vilkhus, have created a truly unique culinary expression of their story as Indian immigrants becoming New Orleanians. Roasted oysters aromatic with curry, rum-soaked lamb chops and crabmeat-stuffed lentil pancakes did not just materialize out of creative whimsy. They grew from the family’s own long history melding their Indian heritage and the food culture of their adopted home, immersing themselves in a realm this city prides itself on. They developed their ideas over years as caterers and as a pop-up. Saffron NOLA is upscale and ambitious. It’s also hospitality-driven and built on relationships that began long before the doors first opened. When a restaurant can add something new to the dining scene by drawing from its own story, that’s genuine innovation. Dinner Tue.-Sat. $$$$



Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.