Photograph by Brittany Conerly
Ana Castro is a James Beard Award–nominated New Orleans chef. Here she shares her absolute favorite restaurants in the city.
When I was living in New York City, my little sister, Lydia, visited and told me that I looked really exhausted. She suggested I come down to New Orleans to stay with her a little while. “No pressure,” she said. That was seven years ago—and I’m still here. What drew me to New Orleans was the ease of the city. It’s a place that invites you to slow down to its speed, a pace that allows you to stumble into somewhere special whenever you smell something delicious.
Now I’ve got a few James Beard Award nominations for my cooking in this city—and what keeps me here is the culinary scene. I love the classic spots that uphold tradition, resisting change at all costs; chefs and restaurateurs who embody community not in buzzwords but action; and spaces where I feel at home and can eat something nourishing. There’s always something to celebrate in New Orleans, not just during Mardi Gras. And for me, that’s these restaurants.
What to Bring Home: Andouille sausage from Cochon Butcher: It’s my favorite locally made version—just pack it with ice before you travel.
Where to Stay: Hotel Saint Vincent for the fabulous food, gorgeous rooms, and lovely pool.
Book now to plan your stay.
$.00, Hotel Saint Vincent
Visiting this Ethiopian restaurant in the 7th Ward is an experience. As soon as you step through the door, you’re surrounded by catchy Qeñet music that’ll make you wiggle and the sweet smell of berbere. You eat with your hands and use the spongy injera like a utensil—which means you should head to the hand-washing station before pulling up to a communal messob table. I feel at home here, and it’s great catching up with the family behind it: founder Dr. Biruk Alemayehu and her son Prince Lobo and husband, Jaime Lobo, who are the chef-owners. I love the spiced and stewy lamb wot, sautéed rib-eye tibs, flaky sambusa, and rainbow-hued veggie plate with lentils, yellow split peas, collard greens, cabbage, and beets—all paired with house-made honey wine. If you can reserve a coffee ceremony, consider yourself blessed.
Po’boys are supposed to be simple, affordable, and satisfying—and that’s Guy’s. It’s my go-to— often to-go—spot. Grab a fried shrimp po’boy dressed, which means with lettuce, Blue Plate mayonnaise, pickle, and tomato (when in season), and round it out with potato salad, red beans and rice, and a Barq’s root beer. Keep an eye out for the daily specials, and if you’re not feeling shrimp, the ham-and-cheese or fried oyster ones are also great. Guy’s is very old-school New Orleans, meaning it’s small with a dining room of about four tables and zero outdoor seating. It’s better to eat outside standing on the street, or take your po’boy on a leisurely walk to nearby Audubon Park—just remember to generously shake Crystal hot sauce all over it before you head out.
Whenever I go to Kelly Jacques and Samantha Weiss’s bakery in the Faubourg Marigny area, I like to get coffee and a box of pastries that match my vibes that day. Oftentimes that means the cured-meat-and-cheese-flecked muffuletta breadsticks, jalapeño cornbread cookies, and kaya buns, a Singaporean-inspired morning bun set with a fragrant coconut milk and pandan leaf custard. Jacques and Weiss are such creative bakers, and everything they make is executed perfectly. I’m terrible at baking, so I love watching them do it so gracefully and successfully in the airy open kitchen. Whenever I’m there, I make sure to order a few things for later. You know who’s not gonna be upset about having a cookie at midnight after going out drinking? You.
Mondays are my only day off from the restaurant, and it’s definitely a “me” day. My ritual is to get a pedicure at my favorite nail shop in the Lower Garden District, then pop next door to Lilly’s for lunch. New Orleans has a huge Vietnamese population, and in turn, a lot of Vietnamese restaurants, but Lilly’s is one of very few non-fusion Vietnamese restaurants in this walkable section of New Orleans. My chef friend Nini Nguyen told me that đặc biệt means “extra” or “special,” as the word lagniappe does here in New Orleans. So I always get Lilly’s Pho Combo (đặc biệt), which is full of beef flank, brisket, and meatballs, along with the crispy Saigon spicy rolls brimming with grilled pork and shrimp.
Fried chicken is the fuel of Carnival season for my friends in the restaurant industry. That’s when they introduced me to the famed fried chicken at McHardy’s: thighs heavily seasoned in a mystery spice mix (I taste garlic, onion, paprika, and thyme) that permeates the juicy meat and cooked in fresh oil for the crispiest skin. The 7th Ward restaurant is run by owners Kermit and Alvi Mogilles and their son, Rahman. And while their fantastic fried chicken is a must-order, their dirty rice and thin fried catfish (served with Crystal hot sauce and lemon, naturally) are just as much of a draw. This Black-owned business proudly displays its culture with Black art on the walls, a news rack of Black periodicals, and purple decor everywhere to show its ties to St. Augustine High School, a historic Black Catholic all-boys school whose colors are purple and gold.
At chef Melissa Martin’s Uptown restaurant, everything is served family-style, so come when you have plenty of time and friends to share the meal with. The last time I was here, we sat for five beautiful hours, enjoying Martin’s delightful seasonally minded cooking. (The restaurant’s name might have already tipped you off, but if you plan on being outside, you absolutely must bring mosquito repellent.) She cooks the food she grew up eating in Chauvin, on the southern Louisiana coast, in the best and most respectful way. And she’s serious about sourcing, getting her ingredients from mostly local purveyors. During that recent dinner, I loved the shrimp boulettes, sweet potato biscuits with cane syrup butter, and the best crawfish bisque I’ve ever had.
I grew up with super-fresh Mexican seafood that was prepared with a light touch and lots of acid. That’s why I’m so into chef Nicole Cabrera Mills’s menu at this Warehouse District seafood institution. Under the mentorship of chefs Donald Link, Ryan Prewitt, and Stephen Stryjewski, Mills pulls from her Filipino background, pairing grilled tuna with things like pickled papaya. I’m always grateful for a break from richer seafood dishes often served in Louisiana, like fried fish and étouffée. The best way to take in Mills’s food is to sit at the raw bar and order the spicy crab noodles, Royal Red shrimp with kimchi butter, and the off-menu fish collar special.
I absolutely love chef Ryan Murphy’s Lower Garden District bistro and boutique grocery. In the morning I get the egg on a roll with bacon, cheddar, and aioli. In the afternoon it’s a lemony chicken salad sandwich or a two-patty smash burger. Any time of the day I always order a dirty chai with house-made pecan milk (I’m all about substitutions). But a lot of what I love about the Rabbit’s Foot goes beyond the food and vibes. Murphy is a champion of the small business community. He uses his space to teach culinary entrepreneurs about business essentials, from permitting to packaging. Lots of places give small businesses shelf space, but he actually helps vendors succeed, like South of Eden and its health-focused products (a current fave).
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit
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