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Starving Student Couple Needs Advice on One Fancy Meal

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Hello Chowhound! My boyfriend and I are going to New Orleans next week and, as college students, we are planning to eat cheaply and rarely. However, my birthday is on Thursday and my dear parents have given me an amazing gift: they will treat us to dinner for two at any restaurant of our choosing. Which leaves me with a dilemma- in one of the greatest eating towns in the world, what restaurant should I pick for our special meal? I've done some preliminary research and already eliminated Antoine's as it sounds too stuffy. Right now I'm thinking Emeril's or Commander's Palace. Each place comes with caveats, however: Commander's Palace suffers from some of the same stuffiness that Antoine's seemed to suffer from and I'm worried Emeril's won't seem "special" enough for a romantic birthday dinner. I'm also worried that both places are too touristy, and perhaps coast on their laurels.
Thus, I offer this question to Chowhound: if you had to choose one upscale restaurant in New Orleans, what would it be? In terms of what we're looking for, my boyfriend and I are definitely looking to eat Cajun or Creole food (it's the best place in the world to do so, after all). We also are looking for a place that won't look down on college kids who might not be familiar with the world of haute cuisine, without jackets required. We want someplace authentic, maybe with a bit of history and presence, with good drinks and mind-blowing food. What would the Chowhound community recommend? Thank you in advance for the advice!

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  1. Hmm... Coquette, Dante's, Green Goddess, MiLa, Sylvain, Boucherie, Brigtsens.

    1. Commander’s isn’t too touristy and it would be a memorable meal. It’s not stuffy like Antoine’s either. If you can bring a sportcoast for your boyfriend, it would be my choice for 1 over the top meal. Otherwise I’d go toward the other end of the spectrum and go somewhere small and romantic like Brigtsen’s or Stella.

      1. 2nd that emotion for Brigtsen's. Can't imagine a trip to NO without a visit, especially with a special occasion to celebrate.

        1. I would choose Bayona and sit on the patio if the weather is nice. Other places that you may also like that IMO fits your criteria are: Dante's Kitchen, Clancy's, Pelican Club, Lilette, One Rest and Grill, Brigtsen's.

          1. From the two you mention I would definitely pick Commander's. In our last trip (last year) we ate at Emeril's one night and Commander's the next. There really was no comparison in terms of overall experience. Commander's was like theater (good theater) and Emeril's was like dinner.

            For example we had a few mix ups with our drink orders at Commander's which our server rectified with aplomb. She ended up giving us a tour of the kitchen which was a treat. At Emeril's the service was rather laissez faire and many of the other customers seemed to be posing and posturing rather than experiencing a fine meal. The food was fine at both places, but the experience was worlds apart. There also seemed to be more New Orleans type people in Commander's (a big birthday party that was obviously mostly locals for example) and more auslanders at Emeril's. But I have to admit I didn't ask to see everyone's drivers licenses so it could just be my fantasy of CP.

            1 Reply
            1. re: omoshiroi

              Thank you! These suggestions are all so appealing!

            2. The two most upscale restaurants that come to mind after about ten trips to New Orleans would be Commander's Palace and Stella. At both, the food, service, and ambiance are in a league of their own. If I had to choose, would make a reservation at Commander's - you will remember your dinner there forever!

              1. Commander's (in the Garden District) is tough to beat. If there's a budget, recommend lunch in the Garden Room (we traditionally favor that room--so long as the weather is not hot). We also had a wonderful meal recently at Pelican Club, in Da Quawtahs. I've only eaten at Antoines a couple of times, but I've never found it unduly stuffy--just very old and traditional. Their version of oysters Rockefeller is very special. I think for the foregoing, the guy will need at least a sport coat. But then, dressing up is part of the experience. BBQ shrimp at Pascale's Manale on Napoleon (Uptown--within walking distance of St. Charles streetcar) is another excellent meal, but to me, at least, it's the only (and quite sufficient) reason to go there. Don't think it'll be shrimp grilled with a sweet red sauce. It's actually a bunch of huge shrimp in a bowl of buttery, peppery goodness. A salad, BBQ shrimp and a bunch of french bread (for getting the sauce of your hands and to soak up bunches of it from the bowl) is a sufficient meal (possibly for two, if you're light eaters). Finally went to Brigtsen's about two months ago and found it very good, but not wow. It is in Riverbend, kind of close to Tulane and Loyola Universities. Clancy's is a pretty grand dining experience, also uptown. Way less formal and less expensive, but filling many of your wants might be Mandina's on Canal (Mid-City). Their almondines and trout bayou and lafitte dishes are favorites and two can more than comfortably share. Very easy access from the Canal streetcar. Very different areas of town and ambience. That may matter to you. Hope you have a great time.

                1. Commander's fits the bill perfectly.

                  1. Try Irene's Cusine (539 St. Phillip St.) in the French Quarter. It is my favorite restaurant in the city and I've sampled all the best. They bill themselves as Italian Creole but it is so much more. The food is delicious and you can get anything from fish, duck, lamb, traditional Italian fare, and other seafood. Aside from the food I recommend Irene's because of the whole experience. The service is amazing and they have a way of making everyone feel special. I've been frequenting Irene's since my undergraduate days and while I may have been one of their younger patrons I was always treated with respect. This is not a stuffy restaurant so your boyfriend won't need a coat. The atmosphere is cozy, the lighting can be dim and they put a pillar candle on each table to add a little romance. They do not always take reservations but I'd call ahead and speak to Michael the maitre d'. Explain that you are coming in for your birthday dinner and he may be able to give you a reservation. Even with a "reservation" you may have to wait a little while, but you can order drinks and listen to the piano player before being seated.

                    Irene's is more of a local favorite than tourist restaurant so you won't find it on all of the typical New Orleans restaurant lists. My friends and I have celebrated many special occasions at Irene's and have never been disappointed. Based on everything on your wish list I think Irene's is definitely the place for y'all. Enjoy whatever restaurant you choose and Happy Birthday!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: uptownlady

                      This is an excellent suggestion. The service at Irene's is hard to beat.

                      (I think there are two types of acceptable hospitality: the kind where you feel the restaurant staff are gracious and the rare kind where the restaurant staff make *you* feel gracious. Irene's, for whatever reason--as mentioned, they're certainly not stuffy--fits squarely into that latter camp for me.)

                    2. First, Happy Birthday!

                      Now, for that one special meal, I would choose Restaurant August. Note: some find it a tad "stuffy," but I never have.

                      Next, I would recommend Stella!, with one caveat - it is New Orleans "influenced," but is not pure Creole, or Cajun.

                      Then, Commander's might well have it all, and is not even close to "stuffy," at least by my experiences, which go back many decades.

                      Bayona, as mentioned, and especially the patio in good weather, would be a good choice.

                      Frank Birgtsen's restaurant, is one of our "must dos," even after all the years. Again, excellent food, in a lovely old home, with zero (or almost zero) stuffiness.

                      If I had only one, it would be between:

                      August
                      Brigtsen's
                      Stella!

                      Most of all, enjoy!

                      Hunt