Saint City’s cultural and culinary cachet shines.
New Orleans is known for its rich cultural heritage of jazz music; French, Creole and Cajun cuisine; lax alcohol laws; lore and life along the Mississippi River; and deep Southern history and humidity. It’s the largest city in Louisiana, and there’s a lot more to it than the French Quarter. But like a leggy, drunken blonde downing dirty martinis and affecting an obscure accent, the FQ dominates the room at all the parties.
Here’s the thing about New Orleans, specifically the French Quarter, whose debauchery during Mardi Gras makes the Las Vegas strip look like Mayberry: Even if your brain doesn’t retain everything, your other organs – especially your liver and stomach – will remember the French Quarter forever. And if you visit during Mardi Gras (see sidebar), your entire epidermis may smell like the FQ for days.
That smell – a not-entirely-unpleasant olfactory kaleidoscope – is a distillation of the city. My first morning stroll down Bourbon Street reveals the fragrances of beignets in fryers, throwup in alleys, gumbo in kitchens, burning cigarettes between fingers, crawfish in nets and human waste god-knows-where – all within several steps on a single block. As someone who likes to lead with my nose, I’m immediately enraptured. And torn. Where do I start? I guess I’ll start the way everything in the French Quarter seems to start – with a drink.
Clockwise from top left: Steamboat Natchez; night scene on Bourbon Street; desserts at Bourbon Heat, brass musicians - Photos courtesy Steamboat Natchez; NOLA CVB/chris grange; Bourbon heat; wikimedia.org
The Big Easy Binge
The French Quarter is a mere .66 of a square mile along the Mississippi River, but almost all of NOLA’s nightlife is packed into it. I didn’t want to write this like Charles Bukowski rolling off a bench after a bender, but I can’t say I never woke up in the French Quarter in the morning to the sound of my traveling companions popping open beer cans. Nationally distributed Abita Brewing Company beer (abita.com), made 20 miles north of NOLA in Abita Springs, is available at stores and bars throughout the French Quarter. Their line of “Harvest Brews” includes fruity flavors like Strawberry and Grapefruit, and the ABC logo has a wheat crop on it, so I can see how one could equate beer with breakfast. It’s not that far from Fruit Loops. Maybe 12 steps.
Great local craft beer is also up for draft at Crescent City
Brewhouse (527 Decatur St., 504-522-0571, crescentcitybrewhouse.com), including their smooth and crisp Kolsch, and Black Forest porter with a heady roasted coffee finish. The environs here are relaxed, with classic Crescent City jazz music at a conversation-friendly level, and colorful, tentacled blown-glass sculptures hanging over the bar.
No alcohol-fueled visit to NOLA would be complete without a stop at Old Absinthe House (240 Bourbon St., 504-524-0113, ruebourbon.com/oldabsinthehouse). Many famous patrons have passed through the saloon doors since OAH opened in 1815, including Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Liza Minelli. The interior felt frozen in the ‘80s on my visit, with a league of old battered football helmets hanging above the bar and Phil Collins, Steve Perry and The Police playing on the jukebox. The absinthe menu features seven kinds of the green, wormwood-based herbal liqueur, which was once outlawed in the U.S. Much to the chagrin of traditionalists and liqueur snobs (but usually to the primal delight of everyone else), the bartender places a sugar cube atop a slotted spoon over the absinthe glass and lights the sugar cube on fire. The truth is, the sugar cube would dissolve in the black licorice-tasting alcohol with some simple stirring, but sometimes people just want to watch stuff burn.
And sometimes, people just want to sit on a plastic zebra and ride around in slow circles while sipping a Sazerac. When this urge strikes, only one place will do: Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St., 504-523-3341, hotelmonteleone.com). A sophisticated-singles mingling scene revolves around the bar (no pun intended), which is housed in one of the most historical buildings in the city. Antonio Monteleone opened the luxury hotel in 1886 and it remains a family-owned business, currently in the hands of the fifth generation of Monteleones.
If you’re staying in the French Quarter – and especially if you’re there during Mardi Gras – you might have a moment when you seriously want some quiet, but don’t want to wander too far from base. Take a 10-minute walk a half-mile southwest of the French Quarter (but still downtown), to Victory (339 Baronne St., 504-522-8664, victorynola.com). The mixologists here – led by owner Daniel Victory, named one of the top five bartenders in the U.S. by GQ magazine – elevate craft cocktails to a level of high art. Victory’s 19 specialty cocktails run the gamut from palate-punching potent to cloyingly complex, but I fell in lush with The Councilor, so tall and fresh, brimming with gin and elderflower liqueur, crisp with cucumber and a tart dash of lemon juice, and fizzy with ginger beer. A menu of small plates (including scrumptious crab meat au gratin dip) balances the belly.
Drink garnishes can be gardens in New Orleans, especially in Bloody Marys, which uniformly come with delicious pickled okra. At red-hot dance club Bourbon Heat (711 Bourbon St., 504-324-4669, 711bourbonheat.com), the Bloody Marys also come with plump olives and eight-inch strands of fat green beans. They also have a food and cocktail pairing menu, which includes an Avion melon delight with a vegetable spring roll. If you can do some day drinking here on Bourbon Heat’s lush, misted back courtyard, that’s your best bet for contemplative consumption or intelligible conversation, because this nightclub gets crazy packed with booty-shakin’ twentysomethings at night.
Down the River and into the Graveyard
A walk down Decatur Street is an entertaining amble, thanks to the street artists, who run the gamut from kids tapdancing with aluminum cans tacked to their tennis shoes to a guy dressed like a blue Grateful Dead dancing bear. In combination with the plastic cup full of Abita beer I perpetually had in my hand, all that made my head spin, so I decided to chill out with a jazz cruise on the Steamboat Natchez, operated by New Orleans Steamboat Company (600 Decatur St., 504-586-8777, steamboatnatchez.com). Launched in 1975, the Natchez is one of only two true steam-powered sternwheelers on the Mississippi River today. This 25-ton, white oak vessel’s two-hour ventures down the river are history lessons in motion. While listening to a live jazz band play standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” we learn that: New Orleans’ No. 1 export is grain; its No. 1 import is petroleum; the Domino sugar plant in NOLA is the largest sugar plant in the U.S. and the second largest in the world (after a plant in Brazil); and Canal Street is one of the widest streets in the U.S.
A mile north of the French Quarter lies one of the oldest and most iconic places in New Orleans: Saint Louis Cemetery (320 N. Claiborne Ave., 504-596-3050). Known as a “City of the Dead,” it’s the final resting place of famous voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and numerous NOLA notables, like sugar magnate Étienne de Boré (first mayor of New Orleans) and architect Barthélémy Lafon (who allegedly became one of Jean Lafitte’s pirates). Many tour companies stop here. Most days there’s a man at the entrance dressed all in white, welcoming people to the cemetery. This man is a voodoo priest, and he also gives tours for a price. If you’re pressed for time and want to head straight to Marie Laveau’s alleged resting place – or the resting places of any of the other voodoo icons interred here – it’s worth tipping a guide well. The above-ground graves are old, and many are unmarked.
Crescent City Cuisine New Orleans was ranked the No. 1 food city in the U.S. by Yahoo! Food in 2014, and for good reason. Its stable of classic Creole cuisine restaurants includes Galatoire’s and Broussard’s, but for me, the titan of fine-dining in The Big Easy is Arnaud’s (813 Bienville St., 504-523-5433, arnaudsrestaurant.com). Established in 1918, Arnaud’s has an embedded lounge called French 75, where patrons can partake of the bar’s namesake cocktail (a blend of Cognac and champagne) and smoke a stogie at the cigar bar. You can order a steak there, too, but why miss out on the splendor of the dining hall? (By the way, wherever you order your steak, don’t expect a steak knife. They don’t have any steak knives at Arnaud’s because the meat is so tender.) The main dining area sets a romantic scene with pristine white serviettes, tuxedoed waiters and historical paintings, and the menu is a blend of folksy Creole and exotic opulence. Appetizers like alligator sausage share space with escargots en casserole (Burgundy snails baked with garlic and herb butter and a splash of Pernod). Arnaud’s signature dishes include tasty little tater pastries called Soufflé Potatoes, which – like all great signature dishes – has an interesting story behind it. The legend goes that one night, King Louis Phillipe (1830-1848) came home very late for dinner. His chef plunged fried potatoes into hot oil to reheat them, and they puffed up like little pillows.
Established in 1840, Antoine’s (713 Saint Louis St., 504-581-4422, antoines.com) is the oldest family-run restaurant in the U.S., with a menu of entrées with long French names like Petit Filet de Boeuf Marchand de Vin aux Champignons (petite beef tenderloin in red wine sauce with sliced mushrooms). Their Sunday jazz brunch is a popular and affordable dining option, offering a choice of appetizer, entrée, dessert and a mimosa for $32, which is about the price of one dinner entré.
For a true “hands-on” eating experience, nothing beats a big bucket of steamy whole crawfish. At the French Market Restaurant & Bar (1001 Decatur St., 504-525-7879, frenchmarketrestaurant.com), people happily pop the heads off cooked crawfish to suck the buttery body flesh out. It sounds sadistic, but it tastes delicious. Just beware the lingering smell on your hands.
For a less messy D.I.Y. dining experience, I visited the New Orleans School of Cooking (524 Saint Louis St., 888-736-0171, neworleansschoolofcooking.com), where chefs including 6-foot-9, 400-lb. former NFL player Kevin Belton teach eager eaters how to cook traditional Cajun and Creole cuisine, from pralines to jambalaya to crawfish étouffée. “City cooking and country cooking merged to become New Orleans cuisine,” Belton explains. “The food is so good we lick our fingers. We lick our neighbors’ fingers.” In addition to dropping culinary knowledge, Belton doubles as a comedian, wearing a “Bacon is meat candy” T-shirt and joking about being a former member of the Chippendales. After class, check out the school’s general store for all your cooking needs, from alligator oven mitts to Cajun garlic powder.
Speaking of powder, the prolific piles of powdered sugar on the tables, chairs and ground at Café Du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504-525-4544, cafedumonde.com) look like something out of the movie Cocaine Wars, but the cafe’s world-famous beignets are better than blow – if not as addictive. The original location on Decatur Street has catered to hungry fried-fritter-eaters since 1862. If the doughy, sugar-dusted beignets don’t help soak up the alcohol consumed in the FQ, nothing will. And nothing nurses a hangover like a cup of Café Du Monde Coffee and Chicory. Except maybe an Abita beer in the morning.
Mardi Gras Survival Tips
Get a room.
Mardi Gras (mardigrasneworleans.com) is Tuesday, February 17, but the festivities are a multi-day deal that start the prior weekend. Many people who didn’t reserve a room in New Orleans several months in advance will be sleeping in their cars, which is dangerous and uncomfortable. Some nearby towns that may have rooms include Covington, Metairie, Hammond and Slidell.
Stash your cash.
Cash is quick, convenient and accepted everywhere, but also a target for pickpockets. Safety experts recommend wearing a money belt under your clothes and carrying cash in different pockets. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry or carrying a purse.
Wear cushioned shoes, but not your nicest pair; they will get filthy. Also wear sunscreen or a hat, and pack water and snacks.
Beyond Mardi Gras
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Hometown heroine Mahalia Jackson sang at the first New Orleans Jazz Fest in 1970, ushering in the continuing tradition of highlighting the city’s best jazz players. April 24-May 3, 2015, nojazzfest.com
Festigals (pictured): This annual “Girlfriend Getaway Weekend” at the Hotel Monteleone includes power luncheons with national speakers, a Bourbon Street fashion show and parade, the Bodacious Bras for a Cause auction and shopping-bonding opportunities galore. June 11-14, 2015, festigals.org
Tales of the Cocktail: Held at various locations throughout the French Quarter, this pioneering fest features mixology demos, lectures, tastings and “Spirited Dinners” at topnotch restaurants. July 15-19, 2015, talesofthecocktail.com
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