Eating and drinking rank as fine arts in New Orleans and the traveler finds the flavor of the past kept vitally alive in its restaurants. Year after year the older institutions go on, in the same buildings and the same atmosphere, serving the famous Creole dishes in undiminished excellence; and even the newer restaurants conform to the tradition of good food and service.
New Orleans Creole cuisine, evolved many years ago, had as its basis French delicacy piquantly modified by the Spaniard's love of pungent seasoning, the Indian's use of native herbs, and the Negro's ability to mix and bake. Into its evolution, too, went a singularly abundant and diverse food supply, with not only a wide variety of fish, game, and vegetables at the very door and exotic products available from the nearby tropics, but a steady flow of delicacies imported from the old country. A traveler to New Orleans in 1803 commented on the astonishing import of luxuries, 'out of keeping with so small and new a place: Malaga, Bordeaux, Madeira, olive oil (a most important article of consumption), brandied fruits, liqueurs, vinegars, sausages, anchovies, almonds, raisins, prunes, cheese, vermicelli.'
New Orleans restaurateurs still scour far countries for certain important ingredients of their dishes; and, although game, long the piece de résistance of restaurant cuisine, has been made contraband by recent laws, and many of the flavorous old herbs have disappeared, much remains. The Gulf pompano, which Mark Twain called 'delicious as the less criminal forms of sin'; the sheepshead, a fish almost equally as popular; redfish, red snapper, oysters, shrimp, crabs, crawfish, and frog legs; chicken or poulet, cooked in a hundred different ways, each one better than the last; avocados, burr artichokes, fresh pineapple, fresh mushrooms, and fresh asparagus -- these are only a few of the products available to local chefs today as in the past.
New Orleans, having taken the trouble to concoct its delicious, manytasting foods, may raise a quizzical eyebrow at the occasional spinach and lettuce-leaf devotee who happens along, but to the appreciative gourmet she extends a joyous welcome. This spirit of gracious catering, found alike in the noted restaurants and in many of the humblest, is a sort of noblesse oblige deriving from the fine tradition of the past; for the city boasts of a long line of distinguished old hostelries.
The first restaurateurs were largely Spaniards, who laid small emphasis on food and featured rather delectable drinks, Spanish music, and Spanish dancing. Fashionable Creole gentlemen, when they foregathered to sip their wines and discuss the price of indigo, the imminent duel, or the latest news from Europe, preferred, however, the quieter and more elegant cafés: Maspéro's, Hewlitt's, or John Davis's. If a man required good, solid food and was unfortunate enough not to be able to eat at home -- the prevailing practice -- there was only the Restaurant d'Orléans, the exclusive Le Veau Qui Tète, and the somewhat rowdy Hôtel de la Marine, haunt of the Lafitte pirates and other colorful characters.
With the period of phenomenal wealth which began about 1830, the habit of dining out really began. Many brilliant banquets were given under the frescoed dome of the old St. Louis Hotel, or at the St. Charles, whose famous gold service was brought out on state occasions. Suppers and after-the-theater parties took place at those rival city restaurants, Moreau's and Victor's, who vied in the excellence of their dishes and the distinction of their guests. And the Gem sprang into fame with its fabulous free lunches.
But it was at the suburban inns that the most skillful chefs presided and memorable feasts occurred. At Carrollton Gardens, near the levee where today the St. Charles street-car turns into Carrollton Avenue, inviting meals were served on the broad verandas of the hotel overlooking the grounds, with their summer houses and pagodas, their jasmines and honeysuckle vines. The 'lake end' restaurants at Milneburg, Spanish Fort, and West End were popular. These were quaint wooden buildings with large rooms and many porches, set on piles over the lake, with welltended parks and flower gardens in front. It was at Milneburg, and under the supervision of the noted chef Boudro, that a dinner was tendered in 1856 to Thackeray. 'At that comfortable tavern on Pontchartrain,' Thackeray commented afterward, 'we had a bouillabaisse than which a better was never eaten at Marseilles -- and not the least headache in the morning, I give you my word.'
At a later date, came 'Léon's,' a resort of both high-class gamblers and fastidious epicures; the unique market restaurants, Begué's, Maylié's, Tujague's; and the innumerable little French restaurants, with names like Les Quatres Saisons (The Four Seasons), Le Pèlerin (The Pilgrim), etc., of which Lafcadio Hearn said, 'Each one, like those of Paris, has some particular specialty, and the chicken, shrimps, mushrooms, and wines are universally excellent.'
Today, the restaurants are largely French and Italian, but it is also possible to get good German and Mexican food.