In the early 1990s, when Louisiana's state legislature approved the construction of a huge casino in New Orleans, the city's restaurateurs had a fit. They were convinced that the millions of people who come to the city each year to eat and drink and generally make merry would now do so exclusively in the 100,000-square -foot temple of slots and blackjack planned for the foot of Poydras Street, and they lobbied like crazy against the bill. The restaurateurs lost, but they needn't have worried. The casino has been on the brink of bankruptcy more than once; the restaurants, of course, are still thriving.
The legislators and casino operators should have known better. Why would anyone want to start the day in a charmless casino when they could be lingering over hot biscuits and strawberry preserves in an antiques-filled suite at the Soniat House hotel or biting into a melt-in-your-mouth beignet at Café Du Monde? (Yes, Café Du Monde is full of tourists, but with good reason.) And while it's true that the very talented John Besh has opened a fine steak house in the casino, I much prefer dining a few blocks away at his lovely August, where I invariably order gnocchi with crab and white truffle, or whatever wonderful thing he is doing to his impeccable house-smoked salmon. It's not that I don't love to gamble; it's just that when I'm in New Orleans—and I've lived here on and off for the past 12 years—I'd rather bet on stuff like the exact date crawfish season will finally open (it usually starts in December and lasts at least through May) or whether Anthony Uglesich will deign to open the doors of his restaurant on any given Saturday (Uglesich's offers the briniest and sweetest oysters on the half shell, the best Bloody Mary and the fattest fried soft-shell crabs in the city—but only for lunch, Monday through Friday, unless Anthony decides otherwise).
- Hometown Favorites: Bayou Binge | New Orleans
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As it turns out, I'm not alone. People go to Las Vegas or Monte Carlo to gamble. When they're in New Orleans, they generally don't want anything, except maybe a little music and shopping, to interfere with their eating time. I've had plenty of requests for advice on where best to spend that time, and I'm happy to report that mine is an ever-expanding list.