6 restaurants pushing the envelope in New Orleans

A zero-proof cocktail at the Peacock Room in New Orleans’s Kimpton Hotel Fontenot. | Credit: Randy Schmidt

In a city known for dazzling cuisine and warm hospitality, setting an exceptional table is a given. What makes a Crescent City restaurant truly cutting-edge, though, is that extra something: a firm connection to its surroundings, a nose for innovation, or the ability to magnify a global trend.

In the French Quarter, a chef on a mission to reduce food waste butchers whole fish in-house. At a Central City institution known for some of the best gumbo in town, soulful Southern plates are paired with meaningful community outreach. A creative sommelier takes diners on a one-of-a-kind global wine tour at a chic New American spot in the Central Business District.

These restaurants elevate the dining experience by bringing extra-special traits to the plate and the surroundings. Read on for a list of six especially innovative New Orleans spots to check out right now.

Copper Vine (Central Business District)

The patio at Copper Vine. | Credit: Randy Schmidt

No time for a tour of Napa, a jaunt to Willamette Valley, or a trip through the vineyards of Bordeaux? Fear not. Wine country comes to the table at Copper Vine. Sommelier Emily Walker guides diners through the vineyards, varietal characteristics, and innovative cellar practices surrounding some of the best wines in the world. The tasty New American plates here, such as saffron and wild American shrimp risotto and gulf fish amandine, come courtesy of chef Amy Merhtens (who once served as sous chef at the iconic Commander’s Palace). The final product is an imaginative intersection of food and wine. Each experience, whether it’s a wine tasting or a private dinner, is carefully curated, resulting in a laid-back but exclusive atmosphere starring wine and good times.

GW Fins (French Quarter)

At GW Fins, chef Michael Nelson dry ages fish to intensify its flavor. | Credit: GW Fins

GW Fins’s executive chef Michael Nelson is obsessed with sustainability, butchering all the fish in house. His latest breakthrough involves dry-aging fish in a specially designed walk-in fridge that stays at 31 degrees. One hundred to 150-pound cuts age for up to two weeks, losing about 30 percent of their weight as the skin dries, the proteins break down, and the meat intensifies in flavor. That tuna chop for two channels a tomahawk ribeye—incredibly tender, with crisp skin and an unmatched flavor. GW Fins, open seven nights a week, regularly runs specials that might feature anything from Tyee salmon (the Kobe beef of seafood) to an all-lobster menu to Saints-themed dishes and cocktails. Even the regulars at this ever-evolving spot are used to being surprised—just another reason why this restaurant is one of New Orleans’s most cutting-edge spots.

Cafe Reconcile (Central City)

This vibrant outpost for soulful New Orleans cuisine, a Central City institution, pairs community outreach with some of the best catfish and gumbo in town. Founded in 1996, Café Reconcile’s Southern staples are prepared by at-risk youth receiving job training. The restaurant supports young adults aged 16 to 24 by encouraging personal growth and providing workforce development and training. To date, more than 2,000 young people have been through the program, leaving with skills and a sense of pride that makes having lunch here a huge win-win. The cafe menu ranges from po-boys on French bread to daily plate lunch specials and desserts such as peach cobbler and bananas foster bread pudding. The inviting interiors channel a home kitchen: The warm dining room is lined with photos of team members who have changed their lives through hospitality training.

Peacock Room at the Hotel Fontenot (Central Business District)

Skipping the booze is no reason to stay away from the Peacock Room, a sexy blue bar and lounge at the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot. Here, smart bartenders know that their creative muscles don’t entirely depend on spirits. Peacock’s stunning zero-proof cocktails showcase the team’s ingenuity and presentation skills. You won’t find a mocktail as unique or beautiful as the “fuzzy drama” (peach, chamomile, lemon, celery, fennel, and non-alcoholic beer) or the coconut water-forward “mocktale as old as time.” It’s a thoughtful lineup confirming that low- and no-alcohol drinks are here to play. Peacock Room delivers a vibrant vibe by day and a sexy, moody atmosphere come sundown, ideal for an afternoon aperitif, social dinner, or a nightcap—spiked or not.

Jack Rose – New Orleans (Uptown)

A jackfruit barbecue plate, one of the plant-friendly dishes at Jack Rose – New Orleans. | Credit: Jack Rose – New Orleans

Cajun Creole cuisine, heavy on the crawfish and Andouille sausage, isn’t necessarily known for vegetarian dishes. At Jack Rose, a whimsical spot in the Pontchartrain Hotel decked with Instagrammable accents such as vintage tile floors and eclectic chandeliers, sous chef Takara Hein, a vegan herself, showcases some of the most inventive plant-based plates in New Orleans. Cases in point: the vegan pozole, with woodsy mushrooms standing in for the usual pork, bathed in a chile broth with hominy and crispy fried tortilla strips, or the jackfruit barbecue plate. Eat on the hotel’s rose garden patio, in any of the restaurant’s dining rooms, or in the funky living room, adorned with an over-the-top portrait of rapper Lil Wayne.

Atchafalaya (Irish Channel)

Staying local is at the heart of this farm-to-table brunch hotspot serving boundary-pushing New Orleans cuisine. Locally sourced ingredients stay at the forefront on practically all the plates here: steak and eggs use Raines Farm sirloin; seasonal salad Lyonnaise is made with Covey Rise Farm’s frisée and French breakfast radish and topped with Bellegarde Bakery’s French bread croutons. The dishes are just a few examples of how Atchafalaya champions small local businesses. Helmed by chef Chris Lynch, a Commander’s Palace alum, the restaurant continues to be a standard-setter for local cuisine. Feast on it all in an inviting Creole cottage, filled with creations by area artists.

Beth D’Addono is a food and travel writer based in New Orleans. Her latest book is 100 Things to Do in New Orleans Before You Die.

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