The first time that I ever encountered Southern food I was in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d been living in the United States for less than a week, and up to that point I hadn’t thought that much about what distinctive cuisines might reside below the Mason-Dixon Line—I was too busy trying to comprehend a country that seemed too big and beguiling to ever make sense. But my first encounter with Southern food, which occurred on a balmy Sunday afternoon in a red brick home with white columns, was both direct and unforgettable: Virginia-style pulled pork (with a yellow sauce), corn bread, collard greens, and the creamiest mac and cheese I’ve ever tasted. It gave me a true sense of a place and its taste.
This first Southern food experience reaffirmed the importance of that intersection of a territory and its food, something that’s only become more pronounced living here in New Orleans. This city’s food was born out of and continues to be shaped by a cosmopolitan synthesis of culture, and one of those strands is tied to the region from which New Orleans grew—the American South. Keep reading to find some of the best Southern food in town.
Where to Find Southern Food in New Orleans
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House is one of those restaurants you’ll hear about time and again, and when you get around to going you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. While the fried chicken is perhaps Willie Mae’s most famous dish, the combination of Louisiana and Mississippi cuisine make this one of the city’s great Southern dining experiences. The Smothered Veal consists of a prime, succulent pork chop topped with a perfect (and very Southern) brown gravy; the Baked Chicken gives you the choice of white or dark chicken. But, as with all Southern cuisine, the sides are an integral part of the dish. Amongst a plethora of options, there’s fried okra, cornbread muffins, seasoned green beans, and, if you so desire, a side of fried chicken (three delectable pieces).
Aside from the food, the history of the restaurant makes it a particularly fascinating part of New Orleans’ history. Willie Mae Seaton, who was born in Mississippi and moved to New Orleans with her husband during World War II, fulfilled her dream of owning a bar almost 60 years ago when she converted her beauty shop on St. Ann and N. Tonti streets into Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Soon after, she commandeered the small kitchen, and in 1957 started churning out the fried chicken, which many have claimed is the city’s best, along with the rest of her Southern comfort food. Although Seaton passed away in 2015, Willie Mae’s has cemented its place as one of New Orleans’ most distinctive places to eat.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant
2301 Orleans Ave.
Leah Chase, who is the driving force behind Dooky Chase’s, may be known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” but the restaurant also reaches out to the wider South with a menu that changes daily but remains rooted in the region. Take, for example, a recent Tuesday lunch at Dooky Chase’s that included two wonderful Southern options: a double-cut pork chop with citrus glaze served over a medley of greens and with sweet potatoes on the side. But the best Southern treats may have been saved for last. The dessert options included peach cobbler, praline pudding, and strawberry shortcake. What’s more, the restaurant also displays an incredible collection of African American artists, a number of whom were born, raised, and created art in the South.
Lil’ Dizzy’s Café
1500 Esplanade Ave.
Lil’ Dizzy’s Café may be younger than the aforementioned Southern restaurants, but it has a lineage that goes back to the middle of the 20th century. The owner of Lil’ Dizzy’s, Wayne Baquet, has a familial connection to great Southern food: his father, Eddie, was the namesake for the 7th Ward restaurant. Eddie got his start in the business working at the Paul Gross Chicken Coop with his aunt, Ada Baquet Gross. With Lil’ Dizzy’s, Wayne has continued his renowned family name into the 21st century. Breakfast offers a number of superb ways to begin the day including eggs and ham with grits; the ever-popular crabmeat and cheese omelets; or, if you’re particularly ravenous, the eggs, grits, and T-bone steak. But it doesn’t matter too much what you order, because you’ll certainly be back before long.
Brown Butter Southern Kitchen
231 N. Carrollton Ave.
While other restaurants readily incorporate Louisiana cuisine (jambalaya, shrimp etouffee) into a wider Southern menu, Brown Butter Southern Kitchen focuses on delivering a direct wallop of down-home classics. For starters, there’s the hot fried fish with green garlic tartar sauce, a “Brussels Bowl” with citron salt and lemon, a hearty serving of mussels and fries (with tasso, tomato, white wine, and garlic), and a fried oyster salad (frisee, radish, grilled pickled okra, and horseradish). But it’s at supper where the restaurant shows its deep Southern roots: pork and beans (bone-in chop, pork belly, house made boudin, and red beans), and the beef short ribs, which are vinegar-braised, grilled, and served over stone-ground yellow grits with peanut salad and crispy onions. And with all that, there’s a great bar to check out for a pre- or post-Southern meal cocktail.
The Praline Connection
The Praline Connection began on Frenchmen Street in 1990 as a delivery and catering service aimed at working women. While famous for their version of the praline, owners Cecil Kaigler and Curtis Moore have since created a much more encompassing Southern food institution with the Praline Connection. The menu alone takes one through a tour of Southern favorites: appetizers include fried chicken livers with sweet hot pepper jelly, hog’s head cheese with garlic toast, fried okra, bite-size catfish with cocktail sauce, and fried pickles. And the comfort aspect of Southern cooking is made clear through the entrée options: there’s a fried fish plate with farm-raised catfish (seasoned, battered, and fried); pork ribs that are slow cooked and finished with the Praline Connection’s own special seasoning; a stuffed crab dish that is sautéed and topped with a particular blend of spices and seasonings before being lightly battered and deep fried. And then there’s the sides: a wonderful macaroni and cheese as well candied yams. My rule of the Southern side? It’d be rude not to order one. Go with the Crowder peas with okra and rice.
On Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum dedicates itself to the “discovery, understanding, and celebration” of the food of the American South. With cooking demonstrations, historical materials, and a permanent collection divvied up by state, SoFAB is a worthwhile trip prior to digging in to any of these five restaurants.