A culinary adventure is just a short drive away.
During a Christmas visit to South America, my family stopped at a roadside restaurant. It was set back a good distance from a country road, in a spacious scenic area designed to look like a Swiss chalet, and had a playground and old-time couch for the kids to play on. It reminded me of similar places I had encountered in driving through Europe. Such places are designed to be destinations – places off the beaten path that are worth a road trip.
This sort of “destination dining” is not as common in the United States. We tend to find the better restaurants only within the city limits; beyond that, we’re left mainly with chain restaurants at cloverleaf interchanges.
But this being Louisiana, there are a number of restaurants a road trip away from New Orleans that fall within the category of destination dining. And judging by the many years some of them have been in business, there’s promise on the frontier.
Middendorf’s sits on a thin strip of civilization off Interstate 55 surrounded by wetlands to the north and bordered by Lake Maurepas to the south. The restaurant dates to 1934. After Hurricane Katrina, celebrated New Orleans chef Horst Pfeifer bought the restaurant and expanded the menu well beyond its renowned thin-fried catfish. A steady stream of seasonal offerings — including Oktoberfest, kid-friendly Christmas displays and Middendorf’s Manchac Run — keep creating excuses for customers to return. Thanks to the location, hungry mariners are free to arrive by boat.
La Provence is much younger than Middendorf’s — it’s only 44 years old this year — but it also has a European connection. It was opened by Frenchman Chris Kerageorgiou in the early 1970s and has been the centerpiece of the St. Tammany dining scene ever since. After Kerageorgiou’s death, the restaurant fell into the hands of a former La Provence sous chef, a fellow by the name of John Besh. Set in a woodsy area off the Tammany Trace, with a large vegetable garden in the back, the restaurant has the décor and cuisine to live up to its name.
Restaurant des Familles is down in Crown Point, adjacent to the Jean Lafitte National Park. Its dining room exudes sophisticated country charm, and a wall of windows overlooks the bayou. It’s strategically located close to swamp tour launch points, which means it’s both easy for visitors to discover, and the occasional alligator is known to show up.
A brand new entry is the Truck Farm Tavern on River Road in St. Charles Parish. Its otherwise polished dining room evokes, well, trucks. Outside, a patio is decked out like a German beer garden. The antique trucks on the premises deserve a look-see. After eating, you can walk off the barbecue or shrimp and grits by crossing the street and making your way along the levee.
Finally, across the river in Waggaman is a destination restaurant in its own category. Like the other stops, it’s in the middle of nowhere. But unlike the others, the setting is a barren stretch of Highway 90. Parking is on a gravel patch, and the bleached-white building could not possibly look more unassuming. But that’s part of the allure. Since 1946, Mosca’s has served a clientele that has included Jefferson Parish political bosses — and, once upon a time, New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello, who loved the place. Come for the James Beard-award-winning Creole-Italian food; stay for the intrigue.
Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.