When in New Orleans, eat like the locals do

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NEW ORLEANS -- The Crescent City is known as much for its cuisine as for its carousing. It's easy to pay too much for both, such as $83 for a simple pasta lunch at the far edge of the French Quarter.

Mitigate the pain by following this strategy: Eat like the locals.

New Orleans is dotted with favored must-do's, ranging from old-fashioned fancy to the latest experiment from high-profile chefs.

Here are just some of the hometown faves visited during a recent stay in the Big Easy. Directions to each restaurant are for the carless visitor staying in the central business district across Canal Street from the French Quarter.

Brigtsen's Restaurant

Located in a small, unassuming house near the Mississippi River, this Garden District restaurant draws people from throughout the city who savor chef Frank Brigtsen's homey yet complexly flavored take on Louisiana cooking.

His seafood is stellar. Loved the clean-tasting catfish fried in mustard and cornmeal. A simple flounder fillet takes on new dimensions enrobed in a reddish-brown meuniere sauce.

Duck, slow-roasted until all the fat is rendered, is sauced with a honey-pecan gravy; it tasted like a festive holiday dinner. The rabbit, available as a starter or entree, is terrific, a lightly breaded tenderloin served on grits and encircled with a creamy Creole mustard cream sauce.

Open since 1986, Brigtsen's has a wonderful family feeling. The chef's wife or sisters-in-law are likely to greet you and tend the tables set up in what was once a parlor or a bedroom. The decor is simple and old-fashioned; it's like visiting your grandmother's house. The staff treats guests with great courtesy.

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Credit cards: Yes. Dress code: Dress as though going to Sunday dinner with family because, really, you kinda are. Getting there: The St. Charles streetcar is $1.25 each way; travel west through some of the city's prettiest neighborhoods to the Maple Street stop (No. 44), then a two-block walk toward the Mississippi; 723 Dante St.; 504-861-7610; brigtsens.com

Bayona

Step through the iron garden gate at Bayona, and it's hard to believe noisy Bourbon Street is just one block away. The feeling is one of quiet elegance -- and anticipation. That's because co-owner and chef Susan Spicer is nationally renowned, especially for her use of local and underused seafood, such as the tripletail fish on the menu the night I visited. Oddly named, but it's delicious sauteed until golden.

A typical example of her signature weave of flavors, colors and textures is a gratin of local oysters paired with tasso, a Cajun-style cured pork, and paper-thin slices of eggplant under a shallow crusting of browned Parmesan cheese.

This French Quarter restaurant opened in 1990 in a 200-year-old cottage. It's still jam-packed, even on weeknights, with knowing locals looking for a smart night out. The main dining room, upholstered in a cinnabar-colored ottoman fabric, is alive with the sounds of jovial diners.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 6-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 6-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Credit cards: Yes. Dress code: Officially the word is "casually elegant or business casual," but reflect the special setting by dressing sharp. Getting there: Easy walk; use Dauphine to avoid Bourbon Street crowds; 430 Rue Dauphine; 504-525-4455; bayona.com

Casamento's Restaurant

Four guys and a gal charge in the door of this Uptown eatery and rush to the back of the narrow front dining room.

There stands Mike Rogers shucking muddy lumps of oysters pulled from a large mound of ice. They line up across the counter from him, impatiently slurping these big, limpid beauties, killing time until a table opens up.

Their wait is short at 11:30 a.m. They order a dozen more oysters, a steal at $9, and sit on down. Just 30 minutes later, 20 people are patiently lined up inside, and who knows how many are out on the sidewalk.

That's how things are at Casamento's, a 90-year-old seafood institution that packs 'em in with super-fresh seafood, cheap prices and tons of beautiful oysters. You can get 'em raw, fried or stewed. All delicious. Check out the savory seafood gumbo too.

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; closed June, July and August. Credit cards: No, cash only. Dress code: Very casual. Getting there: Four blocks from the St. Charles street car; a round-trip cab ride is $40 with tip; 4330 Magazine St.; 504-895-9761; casamentosrestaurant.com

Cochon Restaurant

Despite the wailing country music, bare brick walls and casual wooden tables, this Cajun restaurant in the Warehouse District is seriously considered a shrine to all things porcine.

Cochon, which is the French word for pig, celebrates that animal in all forms, from ribs to fried ears to ham hock with sweet potato and pickled greens. Fork-tender shreds of pork are shaped into a patty and topped with wands of golden deep-fried cracklings. Nubbins of roasted pork cheek are strewn with pickled green tomatoes, apple cubes and beans on a creamy grits base.

Open since 2006, Cochon is owned by chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, who also operate the neighboring Cochon Butcher, a self-described "swine bar and deli."

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday. Credit cards: Yes. Dress code: At lunch, employees from the nearby Halliburton office prefer business casual accessorized by loud company lanyards. Getting there: Moderate walk down Tchoupitoulas Street; 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-588-2123; cochonrestaurant.com

Galatoire's

Now 104 years old, this venerable institution still draws the locals along with knowing tourists to dine on the kind of French Creole cooking that made New Orleans' reputation: Oysters Rockefeller, crab Yvonne, shrimp Clemenceau, crawfish etouffee.

Do try the signature appetizer, a combo of "souffle potato," fingerlike puffs of tissue-thin potato and strips of cooked eggplant. Both are served with warm bearnaise sauce. Have the cafe brulot for dessert. The assembly of this liqueur-soaked and flaming coffee is a spectacle.

Aim for the downstairs dining room. It's crowded, noisy, fun and still strictly "first-come, first-serve."

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday. Credit cards: Yes. Dress code: Jackets required for men during dinner and all day Sunday. Getting there: Short walk down Bourbon Street; 209 Bourbon St.; 504-525-2021; galatoires.com

Parkway Bakery & Tavern

This nondescript Mid-City stretch of Toulouse Street and Hagan Avenue overlooking Bayou St. John is sparked by a lively neighborhood joint famed for its po' boy sandwiches.

Chow down on a fried oyster-packed beauty dressed with slivered lettuce, pickles and sliced tomatoes. The "golden grilled" Reuben sandwich is a handsome thing, the rye bread a toasty brown, the corned beef smoky and caramelized on the edges, the sauerkraut zippy. The french fries on the side are hot, golden and headily aromatic; some of New Orleans' best. And this being New Orleans, you know the place has a full and busy bar. Still, I'm happy sitting on the patio sipping a Dr Pepper.

Built in 1911 by a German baker, the Parkway closed in 1994. It was reopened by Jay Nix in 2003, only to be drowned in the Katrina flooding of 2005. Nix reopened the place just 90 days after the disaster.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Credit cards: Yes. Dress code: Casual. Getting there: $16 round-trip taxi ride, including tip; 538 Hagan Ave.; 504-482-3047; parkwaybakeryandtavernnola.com



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