Destination 2017: New Orleans

It’s a sultry summer night, but the crowd at Shaya, comfortable in the restaurant’s air-conditioned coolness, is ordering hot pitas at a breakneck clip. Charred and puffed up like blowfish in a wood-fired oven, the bread is the perfect foil for Shaya’s baba ganoush, hummus and labneh. A waitress places a bowl of matzah ball soup—made with Yemenite curry, short ribs and English peas—in front of me, and I listen to a young couple nearby move from Spanish to English to Hebrew, while a family a few tables away argues happily in Haitian patois.

“Where y’at?” says a man who stopped by to say hello in the local vernacular, and I remember I’m not in Tel Aviv or New York, but, improbably, New Orleans. Forged from a mix of early-18th-century French settlers, enslaved Africans, Cajuns, Irish and Italian immigrants and others, the port city has long been one of the country’s most diverse. But by the early 2000s, a sameness had come over New Orleans. Thanks in large part to the desire for easy tourist dollars, everywhere you went, New Orleans restaurants were serving the same clichés: blackened fish, gumbo and other Creole and Cajun staples. Food that had once been critically revered was now being uncritically reproduced, and New Orleans had become perhaps the most overrated food town in the country.

Cooper Manning, a New Orleans native who is the older brother of former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and current Giants quarterback Eli Manning—and, as a senior managing director of Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners last year helped restore and reopen the city’s Pontchartrain Hotel—remembers the time well. “We had 300 great restaurants,” he says, “but they all had the same menu.”

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