[Full disclosure: I was graciously provided a copy of this book for review, but all opinions are my own.]
It’s been nearly two years since we went to New Orleans, and maybe it’s a function of the recent frigid weather and watching old Top Chef episodes set in the city, but I’ve definitely found myself craving some Gulf oysters and some barbecued shrimp and a Sazerac or two, so when the opportunity arose to review a new travel guide on the restaurants and bars of the city, I immediately said yes.
25 Definitive New Orleans Restaurants (Plus A Dozen Damned Good Places To Drink): One Novelist’s Notes on a 40-year Spree of Gluttony & Guzzling by Steven Wells Hicks (that’s an affiliate link) aims to go beyond an average restaurant guide, because instead of “a glorified telephone directory sprinkled with capricious star ratings” (his words from the introduction), you’re instead presented with a series of essays on restaurants that will likely provide a good meal but also lend some insight as to the spirit and the history of the city and its culture. History is a huge part of this book: the essays I read are packed with everything from restaurant origin stories to apocryphal tales of dignitaries being sent back to the line at Galatoire’s to wait for a table like everyone else to the evolution of the Hand Grenade and its many spawn-like concoctions. The book is also divided into sections ranging from classic must-visits to neighborhood restaurants, and one section is devoted to the origin of specific dishes like Antoine’s Oysters Rockefeller to Central Grocery’s muffaletta, and his descriptions are so rich that even an olive-eschewer like myself could hear her stomach growling as he described the city’s signature sandwich.
While Hicks and his wife recently relocated to the city, he spent the prior forty years as an ever-increasingly frequent visitor, and so you get the perspective of someone who knows the city and its restaurants extraordinarily well but also recognizes the limitations of being a tourist. His recommendation to avoid the famous Friday lunches at Galatoire’s because the main dining room is filled with mostly local movers and shakers glad-handing each other was a detail that established a firm foundation of trust in my mind, because here is a guy that really wants you to make the most of your time there without succumbing to travel guide cliches. When friends ask me for recommendations when they find themselves going to Barcelona, I try to take a similar approach because you never know when imparting that information is the difference between a humdrum or an extraordinary experience.
There is at least one instance in which the attention to detail and history eclipses the description of the place itself, and that’s for the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s. Hicks mentions the history of the restaurant as a whole but spends less time on the bar itself aside from mentioning its beautiful interior and that it was a good place to get a classic cocktail. To not mention Chris Hannah and his team of excellent bartenders and their seasonally-changing menus of creative and potent cocktails is a bit of a disservice to the place, but I do admit to having a bit of a bias when it comes to it as it was one of our favorite places to go the last time we were there. I hope Hicks has the chance to remedy this down the road in future editions of this book because I’m genuinely curious to read his thoughts on this particular bar’s libations.
If I must be completely honest, this is a guide for anyone who loves New Orleans and more importantly loves its culinary delights, but it’s not a book to read unless you are actively planning a trip there in the future. I had to stop reading the essays because I kept getting angry that I wasn’t physically in the city and eating and drinking all of the things I was reading about, and instead I want to make Michael read the first essay on Galatoire’s and agree with me that we need to plan a trip there sooner rather than later and then save the rest of it for reading on the flight itself. The city would be wise to include this as part of its tourism marketing campaign, as few things have prompted me to price out flights from the Baltimore-Washington area as quickly as reading this guide.
In the meantime, I might have to console myself with these barbecue shrimp for dinner sometime this week.