Finally, a book on New Orleans restaurants that feels like summer in the city: gusty, alluring, oppressive, extravagant and intentionally over the top.
Eat Dat New Orleans is a love letter from ex-pat and food junkie Michael Murphy to one of the most complex and addictive cities in the world. While it covers some 250 restaurants, cafes and pop-ups, it’s anything but typical or predictable in tone.
Murphy, who spent 30 years with a variety of New York-based publishing firms, used to go to New Orleans regularly to visit authors, particularly culinary icons Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Hooked on the city’s culture, he threw himself and his wife a rockin’ destination wedding in New Orleans and moved there permanently in 2009. He has become, like most converts, the most zealous of disciples, and this highly personal but extensively researched book is like a food blog on steroids.
The restaurant profiles are, as he says, stories rather than critical reviews, as much anecdote as information. Murphy salutes the great waiters as well as chefs and owners. (This, of course, is how Southerners explain things: "You know who her people were . . .") The décor, the regular crowd, even the volume level get as much attention as the menu.
The title, for anyone who has managed to escape the ubiquity of NFL culture in America, is a reference to “Who Dat,” an old minstrel show phrase—something like the “Who’s on first?” of early jazz—that has become most closely associated, especially post-Katrina, with the beloved New Orleans Saints. It has an irresistible and characteristically New Orleans combination of underdog bravado and working class pride. (Not entirely coincidentally, one of the most striking local accents, called “Yat,” has a family resemblance to the famed Brooklyn/Jersey dialect, a reminder of the city’s immigrant and longshoremen builders. Though originally a mid-Westerner, Murphy calls himself a Pat-Yat.)
While Murphy is not shy about admitting a bias, and almost boasts of his lack of critical training, he has assembled a panel of backup experts, nine cookbook authors and journalists, to pick up any pieces and even to disagree with him. In fact, most of the prejudices in Eat Dat are laudable. Murphy acknowledges the tourist traps for their notable histories, and skewers some for what they aren’t anymore. Reluctantly but logically, he has imposed geographical boundaries on his book, sticking mostly to the areas within reach of tourists. However, his lists of “best-ofs” in the back cover a much broader spectrum.
The book was produced on a short schedule, and there are a few flatter, less engaging moments. The black-and-white photos by Rick Olivier, on the other hand, show great affection for the “real people” of New Orleans.
Murphy intends his book for out-of-towners and newcomers. However, a large number of “tourists” are there on convention business, and there are a few aspects of New Orleans dining that it would be nice to see a second edition address: handicapped access (always tricky in such historic structures), places comfortable for solo diners, especially women, lighting levels as well as volume, etc. The great bartenders and cocktail historians of the city, such as Chris McMillian, could get a little more credit. And I insist he mention the amazing collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the free upstairs museum at Arnaud’s Restaurant—air conditioning heaven in August.
Eve Zibart is a former restaurant critic for The Washington Post and the author of 10 books, including The Unofficial Guide to New Orleans.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a behind-the-book essay by Eat Dat New Orleans author Michael Murphy.