Not long ago, going out to dinner in New Orleans fit into a very specific set of parameters. A meal typically consisted of heading to a brick-and-mortar space with standard hours and a tried-and-true menu of appetizers, main courses and desserts. In the past few years, this time-honored system has been flipped on its head by the introduction of alternative dining options,
Today, diners can run down a whole pantheon of Dr. Seuss-like questions to determine just how outside the box they want their meal experience:
Can I eat it in a bar? Can I eat with a star?
Can I eat it on the run? Can I get Korean bun?
What about a traveling cook? A supper club with a Cajun look?
Despite the city's culinary traditions, New Orleanians seem to have a voracious appetite for fresh approaches, as the city's edible landscape continues to evolve with an ever-growing number of supper clubs, multi-course meals in warehouses, pop-ups and food trucks. Mobility and flexibility are key for this fresh crop of experimental eating opportunities, and this includes the kind of progressive meals that encourage dining-on-the-go.
One of these moveable feasts is DishCrawl, a national "progressive dinner" start-up with outposts in 250 cities across the country. The New Orleans iteration (which launched in March 2013) asks participants to visit multiple restaurants in a specific New Orleans neighborhood — like Oak Street or the Bywater — stopping off to eat as a group at various designated restaurants.
"The purpose and mission of Dishcrawl is really to bring diners together, help build out a 'food community' and expose people to new places and areas of town where they normally might not eat," says organizer Michelle Mashon. "The challenge [for picking the restaurants] becomes, 'I want to bring a group of 30 people into your restaurant on a Tuesday night but not disrupt you,'" she adds with a laugh. "I have regulars now who come to multiple Dishcrawl events."
Educating as well as
eating is at the heart of Langlois Culinary Crossroads in the Faubourg Marigny, which offers an "interactive dining experience set inside a fully equipped cooking classroom."
"We want our guests to have a full experience and learn about Louisiana's culinary heritage while mingling and having fun," says Chef Amy Sins. "I don't like to use the word 'cooking school' because no one has a station and our chefs do the prep work. We have a really fun mix of locals and out-of-town guests from all over. I had a group from Bavaria one time, and by the end of the night we were all listening to Bavarian music and dancing."
Today, the barriers to creating a place for diners — whether lack of funds or lack of venue — has been lowered, giving opportunities to chefs who have creativity and ingenuity. This has led to a much wider range of culinary offerings in the city, particularly from women and minority- owned businesses.
Mosquito Supper Club offers homey, family-style dinners featuring classic Cajun flavors and monthly zydeco brunches that allow New Orleanians to dance and snack as fiddle-wielding musicians play. In January, the supper club hosted a boudin-fueled zydeco dance party in the 9th Ward's St. Maurice Church, which drew more than 300 two-stepping guests.
"I've lived [in New Orleans] for 19 years now, and Effie [Michot, co-founder] and I have dragged people down to Cajun country that whole time," says Mosquito Supper Club chef and founder Melissa Martin. "Our first advice for someone coming down is to go visit all these [Cajun] places, but if you can't, we hope that we can accommodate you in the city."
After a stint at Magazine Street fashion hub Billy Reid — including hosting a cookie sale and tailgating party — Mosquito will be taking over the Cleaver & Co. space during Mardi Gras, which they've deemed their "residency." The 10-day run begins Feb. 6, and will feature a daily Cajun breakfast, plate lunches and a variety of "parade treats" like boudin and cracklins.
"The sky's the limit for us going forward, from doing dinners on a houseboat in the middle of the swamp to God knows what," said Martin. "We eventually want a space that's like Cafe des Amis [in Breaux Bridge] or Fred's Lounge in Mamou where you come at 8 a.m. and get your dance on. We have crazy plans up our sleeves."
New Orleans also has become a launching pad and stop for national traveling dinners, which often find their homes in offbeat spaces across the city that allow diners to see their own backyard in an entirely new light.
The national farm-to-table outdoor dinner series Outstanding in the Field returned to New Orleans earlier this month, allowing MoPho Chef Michael Gulotta to craft a one-of-a-kind, communal meal for diners at Bartlett Farm in Folsom, using ingredients grown on site. The dinner series' first visit to New Orleans was in 2006, when organizers hosted an event in a greenhouse. On both occasions, the dinners allowed New Orleanians to experience firsthand the from-the-soil processes of locally sourced meals.
A more hoity-toity annual outdoor dinner is the New Orleans iteration of the international "chic picnic" Le Diner en Blanc, which fashions itself as a high-society dinner flash mob. Participants gather at a secret location clad in shades of ivory and eggshell to eat (personally supplied food) en masse and en blanc.
Even food trucks like Chicago's The Fat Shallot — which serves made-to-order BLTs and other sandwiches — have started rolling into town for an annual working vacation. The inherent mobility of food trucks, pop-ups and traveling chefs takes the concept of, "Have whisk, will travel" to a whole new level.
Detroit-based Tunde Way used New Orleans to launch the inaugural tour of Lagos, his Nigerian pop-up. In October 2014, diners gathered in a house in the Faubourg Marigny to feast on goat head stew, fufu (fluffy, starchy cassava) and dive deep into a cuisine that's all but absent from the New Orleans scene. The dinner proved to be such a success that Tunde returned for a second dinner at Carrollton Market this month after crisscrossing the country. He was joined by a fellow traveling chef — Yana Gilbuena of the Salo Series — who brought her Filipino stylings to the city's Filipino restaurant Milkfish as part of a 50-state tour.
The most prominent of all alternative dining options in New Orleans is the national entrepreneurial darling Dinner Lab, a membership-based supper club which allows up-and-coming chefs to show off their chops for crowds of adventurous diners. Since its founding in 2012, Dinner Lab has ballooned into a multi-million dollar enterprise with 50 full-time employees.
"We just launched four new markets, so that puts us at 24 total cities, but we're still headquartered in New Orleans," says Zach Kupperman, Dinner Lab's chief business officer. "I love the fact that our roots are here. A lot of our value is that we have a mobile kitchen, so we can turn any venue into a space for a culinary experience. In addition to our dinners, from what I can tell, we are now the largest culinary events company in the country. We'll serve between 250,000 and 300,000 people this year."
For many chefs, however, the road still leads to a brick-and-mortar space. New Orleans has seen many of the most successful first-wave pop-up restaurants transition into more stable homes, including Milkfish, ramen-favorite Noodle and Pie and pioneering supper club The Salty Swine. Mosquito Supper Club is on the hunt for a forever domicile. Even Dinner Lab has explored the option of opening up a more traditional, permanent location as a complimentary piece to its larger national puzzle of high-end catering and off-the-wall, intimate dinners. But the pool of alternative dining experiences is so deep and vast in the city that it seems we'll never be without a fresh crop of talent to replace those who move on from their roots. These quick-thinking, pioneering chefs will continue to find new ways to challenge and nurture our concept of what it means to dine out in New Orleans.