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Come for the Cajun food, stay for the fun

In Lafayette, the folks are friendly, the festivals are lively, and the cuisine is world famous. You'll find real Cajun and Creole cooking just an oyster throw from the bayou. Local restaurants are famous for traditional, down-home cooking, as well as more upscale versions of time-honored favorites.

Few foods are as emblematic of Acadiana as crawfish. Once found only at the bottom of the bayou, the little lobster-like crustaceans appear everywhere now, dressed up on the dinner plates of fine food restaurants as well as in backyard boiling pots. If you're here and they're in season, then you'll want to sample what has become one of the most distinctive food experiences Louisiana has to offer.

Crawfish have been a documented part of Louisiana's native culture dating back to the Native Americans and the original French settlers. Until the mid-20th century, they were seldom eaten except in crawfish bisque, an old-fashioned and complicated recipe dish prepared in fancy New Orleans restaurants. And when poor farming families in Acadiana did occasionally catch and boil crawfish for their dinner table, it wasn't something they wanted to share with their neighbors. Crawfish was something you ate when nothing better was available.

Lots of Lafayette restaurants now serve boiled crawfish as well as crabs and shrimp in the same informal atmosphere as a family backyard crawfish boil. There are even drive-through shops that sell freshly boiled crawfish and vegetables by the pound, bagged up and stapled shut, still steaming. All you have to do is gather a few friends, grab some newspapers and find a shady picnic table at the RV park.

Plate Lunch
There are a few signs that let you know you've stumbled into a genuine plate-lunch restaurant. First, the plate itself: a tripartite plastic plate or Styrofoam clamshell, struggling to keep its oversized portions within their respective compartments.

The presentation is another hint that you're in plate-lunch territory. Arrayed in cafeteria style, the various dishes compete to entice you; you'll find yourself lingering, undecided, while the line lengthens behind you. If you find yourself at the Creole Lunch House, just ask Ms. Merline for the "rookie plate" designed for the inexperienced or the indecisive.

Clue number 3: the food. Meals served at a plate lunch house are darn close to what you'd eat in homes around Acadiana. Plate lunch houses evolved as a substitute for the home-cooked fare prepared at a time when families still gathered for their midday meal at home.

It's hard to imagine that beef, pork, or chicken can taste so good when it's been melted into gravies, stews, and fricassees. And, of course, there's the seafood, crawfish, shrimp or catfish that's served up fried or in an etouffee or court bouillion. And for the adventurous plate lunch connoisseur, there's the garfish, the smothered liver, and the cowboy stew. Whatever you get, it's coming to you over a king-size bed of rice.

Along with the food, a vital part of the plate-lunch experience is the place and the people who frequent it. The dining rooms are full of the hustle and bustle and laughter of regulars, where family photos might line the walls or a television may play a popular soap opera. Since most workers can't go home for lunch with the family anymore, the plate lunch house offers the next best thing.

Quick Bites
Only in Lafayette for one day? Here are a few things you should try not miss:

• The Acadiana Center for the Arts is an arts and cultural facility, including fine arts exhibition spaces for touring exhibits, arts-education spaces and a 300-seat theater equipped for dance, music, theatrical and broadcast productions.

• The Alexandre Mouton House is a lovely house museum located in the heart of downtown Lafayette. The original structure was built in the early 1800s by the founder of Vermilionville, Jean Mouton. It later became home to Louisiana's 12th governor, Alexandre Mouton. It is now restored to its 1850s grandeur and serves as a repository of the history and culture of Acadiana.

• The Blue Moon Saloon opened in April of 2002 on the back porch of the Blue Moon Guesthouse and has since become one of America's premier venues for roots music from around the world. This world-famous honky-tonk is a homegrown place where all kinds and sizes are welcome; the saloon is more than a venue or a gig. It has become a meeting place where world travelers, community organizations, families, artists and politicians rub elbows, dance, drink a few and thank their lucky stars they have the good fortune to spend an evening together in Lafayette.

• The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Acadian Cultural Center, a unit of the National Park Service, depicts the story of the Acadians who settled the prairies, bayous and marshes of south Louisiana.

• Lafayette Art Association & Gallery is a nonprofit art association and gallery established in 1959. Art originals, prints, pottery, glass, photography, wood and metal sculptures and jewelry are exhibited. Art classes and workshops are held frequently, and six working artist studios are under its roof.

• Lafayette Science Museum includes exhibitions featuring hands-on science and a planetarium.

• LARC's Acadian Village is Lafayette's oldest authentic vision of life in 19th-century southwest Louisiana. Acadian Village is a showcase of authentic homes along a winding bayou. The homes, which depict the unique Acadian architecture of the time, were restored on site and are filled with period antiques.

• Sans Souci Fine Craft Gallery features the work of Louisiana Craft Guild members in both traditional and contemporary pottery, blown glass, wood and metal sculptures, baskets, dyed silk, jewelry, recycled art and fine furniture.

• University Art Museum
includes art exhibitions of regional, national and international significance.

• Vermilionville Living History & Folk Life Park represents life in Acadiana from 1765 to 1890. Features self-guided tours; costumed, bilingual artisans, live music, cooking school, restaurant, boat tours and gift shop in a historic village setting.

For More Information:
Lafayette Travel

Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism