When lauded chef Justin Devillier opened his third New Orleans restaurant (following La Petite Grocery and Balise) in late January, the move was a major go-big-or-go-home moment. Among its sprawling layout of marble tiles, brass finishings, and 210 seats; its rich and artfully rendered French food (order the onion soup gratinée); and its engaging nightly entertainment (a rotating lineup that might include a magician, DJ, or a golden “Mirror Man” who can also breakdance), Justine is the loud and proud brasserie the French Quarter didn’t know it needed.
“We’re trying to put the French Quarter back on the map,” says Devillier. “For so long, locals would be like, ‘You’re going to the Quarter? For what?’ Like no one had really been doing anything drastically different. So we feel good about trying to help keep the creativity that’s taken hold in recent years going down there.”
Here’s where the James Beard “Best Chef: South” winner likes to make the most of his longtime home, a city that embraces change as much as its many iconic traditions.
Where to Eat
“Napoleon House is a super old restaurant that serves classic cocktails. You gotta get a Sazerac there, but it’s also home to a slamming beans and rice, and my favorite muffuletta. They serve it warm, make their own bread, and put a lot of care into selecting the best cuts—the best capicola, salami, and cheeses. And they make their olive salad in-house. The legend is that it was built by the mayor of New Orleans to house Napoleon in exile, but he died before he made it. It’s awesome—one of the oldest buildings in the French Quarter. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.
“Brennan’s is another place that’s at the top of its game after being in business for 50, 60 years. They experienced a refresh a few years ago, when Slade Rushing took over the kitchen. It’s night and day compared to what it used to be; the food’s amazing and on top of that, the renovation is so stunning. They brought grand dame dining back to life in a really good way. I like the house salad because Slade makes a classic American-style French dressing. You know, the one with ketchup in it. It was probably something left over from the old Brennan’s and he’s like, ‘I’m going to make this the same way, but super good.’ I love that salad, and of course you can’t leave without doing the bananas foster, where they light the pan on fire right next to your table. I like theatrics when I’m eating.
“I never didn’t like the Quarter. There were long stretches where I didn’t go down there because I never had a reason to, but at the same time, locals still love going to Bourbon Street. Like the Friday before Mardi Gras is basically all locals hanging out before everyone comes to town. It’s pretty awesome. Galatoire’s is a favorite restaurant of New Orleanians, too, and it’s smack dab in the center of Bourbon Street. The dining experience there has a celebratory, communal feel; it’s a gathering place where everyone feels like they’re part of the party. Some of my favorite dishes are the shrimp remoulade, lamb chops (if you can get them), and pompano.
“With beignets, I have to go with the classic: Café du Monde. That experience is part of the whole [New Orleans] thing; it’s worth it. Just get there early. Once the hangover crowd wakes up, it’s over. The line is all the way down the street.
“I’ve got a couple of favorite spots for po’boys. I like Guy’s Po-Boys Uptown for their pounded-out chicken breast that’s fried with Italian seasoning and bread crumbs, then dressed with everything: lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo. Anything there is good, though. And then Parkway Bakery for roast beef—absolutely. I think it’s the best, and I’ve had pretty much everything in New Orleans, po’boy wise. You definitely want to get sweet potato fries and a side of extra gravy for dunking. I haven’t been there for a long time, but there’s also a place in the Quarter called Killer PoBoys. It’s run by a couple of classically trained chefs. I remember it being very good and they had some different takes on the classics.
“New Orleans has a lot of great Vietnamese food. I go to Lilly’s Café for the spicy shrimp soup and the lemongrass chili tofu; Phò Tâù Bay for the wonton soup; and Nine Roses for bánh xéo, which is a coconut milk and rice flour crepe. That one’s right around the corner from Justine.
“Pêche Seafood Grill knocks it out of the park every time. Anything from the raw bar and whole roasted fish are the two go-tos there. But don’t overlook their rib eye, either. I’ve gotten it a few times and it’s awesome.
“In terms of contemporary Creole food, I would go with Patois. The chef, Jonathan Lomonaco, does a killer job. He’s super creative and has a really deft hand for technique. It’s always a good time there. He changes the menu quite a bit, but if there’s anything with sweetbreads, it’s going to be awesome. I love the oyster, bacon, and collard greens gumbo they do sometimes, too. It’s not really traditional, but it’s awesome. Their brunch is a total home run, too. There are these smoked lamb ribs with green tomato jam and a bunch of other real brunchy dishes.
“I would go to Brigtsen’s for the classics. It’s Uptown, and run by chef Frank Brigtsen. He’s been at it longer than any of us, and he’s always there, always cooking. It’s really remarkable how it tastes on-point every time you go there. He does this seafood platter called The Shell Beach Diet. Nothing on it is fried; it’s all these little two-bite compositions of Louisiana seafood that’s really awesome. The rabbit there is also one of my faves.
“I’ve eaten at a place called Marjie’s Grill the most over the past year. They do a kind of Southeast Asian, wood-burning grill with local ingredients, produce, and meats and seafood. So it’s really interesting and changes all the time. Some of my favorites have been curried hard crabs, and they do a really awesome sticky, slow-cooked pork knuckle. It’s ‘a meat and three’ so you pick your protein and sides. The food is super-high technique, and the execution is on point, but the place itself is really low-key. They have a back deck you can sit on, and the inside is kind of like a diner.”
Where to Drink
“I recently went to a really small brewery called Miel—the [French] word for honey. There’s a lot of breweries in that area—in the Tchoupitoulas Corridor. I’m not a giant beer drinker, but I thought that spot was pretty cool. They had just opened when I went. They had a little back patio and they made all the beer right behind where the bar’s at inside.
“Cane and Table is a nice place to drink rum cocktails. I lean towards their more tropical-inspired drinks. It’s a really creative place. And then after dinner, I like to go to Bouligny Tavern in the Uptown area for a nightcap. I like their scotch cocktail, Blood & Sand. They have a really good drink list, too, and they also have snacks; if you have a hunger itch late at night, it’s a good place to go.
“For more classic cocktails, Arnaud’s French 75 bar is awesome. And then there are some divier places for stuff like rum and Cokes. Pal’s Lounge is right on the corner in Mid-City and packed every night with locals from the neighborhood. They have killer drinks. When I was coming up and lived down there—about 12 years ago—they used to have dollar PBRs. For a poor line cook like me, six bucks got you a long way.
“Bacchanal in the Bywater is the place to go for wine. They have live music, different food programs on different days, and a nice backyard setup, with a garden and everything. They just expanded, too, so they have a bar and some indoor seating upstairs now. It’s awesome—so New Orleans, so unique.”
Where to Shop
“Coutelier sells kitchen gear and handmade knives from the U.S. and Japan. It’s amazing. Every time I go in there, I want to buy everything. I get all my chef stuff there now instead of ordering it online so I can check everything out firsthand, pick knives up, all that stuff.
“Keife & Co. is a wine and specialty foods store, with a great selection of spirits and aperitivos. I love it. It’s really unique and has unexpected items you’d have trouble finding elsewhere, like rice imported from Spain for paella.
“If you’re looking for gifts to bring home, there’s a really cool place called Lucullus. They’re the largest curator of culinary antiques from France and New Orleans. The place is amazing. They have so much stuff. You could spend hours there.”
What to Do
“You don’t even need a schedule to check out Frenchmen Street. You can just go down there and there’s someone playing awesome music every night. If there’s one best bet, it’s the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf. It’s a classic.
“The National World War II Museum is like nothing else. It’s amazing. If you’re not into museums, I’d recommend taking a streetcar all the way up to Audubon Park and walking over to the river. Maybe bring a bottle of wine with you and watch the boats go by and sit at The Fly. It’s a part of the park that’s right along the river—a great place to see a different side of the city.
“If you like the outdoors, there’s so much out there, including some fishing and good trails. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park has a really cool boardwalk hike through the marsh that’s fun to do. It takes about an hour. It’s nice, and you’ll see all kinds of crazy wildlife.
“Don’t hesitate to take a walking tour with a guide. There are many stories to tell in the French Quarter—so many fascinating facts. I’m not big into the ghost tours, but I think some of the history tours are pretty fascinating. I would try to hire a guide and do a private one, not a group. That’s the way to go. There are nights down there, especially when they open the older parts of the Quarter—down near Jackson Square—where you’re walking and it almost feels like you’re in the early 19th century because it’s so preserved.”
Where to Stay
“My favorite hotels are the Windsor Court and the Monteleone. I think those two are the best in the city. They hit on every note and have a lot of character since they’re designed as one-offs and are not part of a chain. What I love about the Monteleone is its carousel bar. If you spend enough time in one of the barstools, you’ll eventually orbit the bar a couple of times, which is really fun. The Windsor Court has a real classy, polo vibe, which makes you want to just hunker down at the bar for the night and drink a glass of scotch or bourbon.”
>> Next: Beyond the French Quarter: Discovering New Orleans’s Downriver Delights