New Orleans is Back and Better Than Ever
By Jacqueline Church
“Culture Leads” in New Orleans
You hear the words often and their meaning becomes clear as you wander the city today. Chefs, market leaders and organizers, restaurant owners, architects and builders, are preserving what is historically significant and pushing forward in innovative ways.
The renewal, rebuilding, rebirth is being lead by the people in the hospitality industry; by those passing on Creole building traditions, by musicians and by chefs.
In a place with 300 years of history in which the governing body has always been located elsewhere – in Spain or France – the people learn to do for themselves and often look on the failures of their heads of state as a sort of sideshow.
No one wants to excuse failures of public officials, but many people echoed a common theme: “It’s time to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame. Time to start doing what needs to be done.”
And so the “unofficial” leaders have. While adopting a hopeful “wait and see” attitude toward plans to bring industries like biotechnology to New Orleans or to bolster the economy and build the middle class.
The real folks will tell you that the good stuff’s already happening. The cultural experience that has consistently drawn tourists and foodies to New Orleans is back and better than ever.
Consistently rated as one of the world’s top culinary destinations, New Orleans has more restaurants open today than before Katrina. The French Quarter (“Vieux Carre) is where you’ll find many of the well-known destination restaurants, as well as spots frequented by locals.
Just beyond the Vieux Carre, other neighborhoods hold delicious rewards for diners willing to hop in a cab for a good meal.
Ask anyone in New Orleans what their favorite restaurants are, or where they think you should have a meal while visiting and the answer will likely be, “How many days do you have?” Then, they proceed to tell you their top five places and another few you might try to fit in.
Have your first meal at a local place like Mother’s Restaurant on Poydras St. It’s cafeteria-style, so grab a tray and peruse the menu. Favorites include the PoBoy with “debris” and their fried chicken is made to order but worth every second of the 20-minute wait. Order a little etouffee and split a PoBoy while your chicken’s being fried.
Johnny’s Po-Boy and Coop’s Place are two other casual places with local flavor.
Oysters – local oysters – are a favorite. They are clean, cheap and plentiful. Louisiana produces 40% of the country’s oysters.
My general rule of thumb is to only eat oysters on the half shell, why mess with perfection? However, New Orleans makes a good case for keeping an open mind.
Drago’s is a second-generation family-owned restaurant that char-grills oysters with a special garlic butter. Of their two locations, the new spot, adjacent to the Hilton hotel is easy to get to on foot if you’re staying in the French Quarter.
Acme Oyster House is also masterful at the char-grilled oysters, adding a little Romano cheese. Try to resist picking off the crusty bits, just try! Acme is famous for their oyster eating contest which will resume this year. Professional competitive eaters are rumored to be practicing already.
Galatoire’s is a French Quarter institution. Jackets are still recommended for dinner and the generous cocktails ease the pain. This French-Creole restaurant is under the fourth generation of family ownership and is known for traditions such as an unchanging menu and a dedication to good food, as well as fun. “Tradition #136: We serve French bread as hot as our customers.” Table hopping, hats and finery, all encouraged.
Other recommendations: The Court of the Two Sisters, Muriel’s, The Gumbo Shop, Cafe Rani on Magazine Street, Perino’s for an authentic crawfish boil at a bargain price. Redfish Grill, Cafe Desire (BBQ Oysters). Arnaud’s French 75 Bar for a Sazerac – the quintessential New Orleans cocktail.
New Orleans has no shortage of fantastic food. Some of the best new chefs are getting to be well known. Chefs and co-owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryljewski at Cochon serve award winning Cajun and Southern-style food in an atmosphere that is both upscale and fun.
Things to do
Festival Central – You know about Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but how about the French Quarter Festival? Billed as the world’s largest block party, it’s a bargain and showcases fantastic music, and great food, of course.
The French Quarter Festival is less well known than Jazz Fest. Many people don’t know it also boasts a fantastic line up of musicians. The whole French Quarter turns into one large block party. And the whole lineup is free!
Another great event called “Tales of the Cocktail” is held in July at the Hotel Monteleone. Have a drink at their famous Carousel Bar immortalized by many literary greats including Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty and Truman Capote, who liked to tell people he was born there.
Take the St. Charles streetcar (restored and running) to Audubon Zoo and Park, or just read a book or go for a stroll.
Magazine Street is mix of antique shops, vintage clothes and new boutiques. Sprinkled among them are some great finds.
For family fun there’s an Imax Theater and the Aquarium. History buffs will want to see the WWII Museum. Cooks can take a local cooking class at one of many local schools. Pick up some local flavor, techniques and recipes.
Sports enthusiasts might find the hot New Orleans Hornets in town. Depending on the time of year you visit you can also catch the much-loved Saints in town or the Mets Triple-A club, the Zephyrs. Maybe you’ll get to see the next rookie of the year playing.
Stroll the French Market. While still undergoing renovations, this is a gorgeous little market packed with everything from authentic treats to tacky souvenirs. Pralines, file powder, and chicory coffee as well as other local food items make great gifts for yourself or your friends.
Crafts and other tchotchkees are also for sale. Shop the country’s oldest public market to pick up a great beach hat at the Brazilian Shop, or maybe a “voodoo doll” toy for your dog.
Frenchman’s Street for Nightlife
Terrific bars in this little pocket of a neighborhood just off the French Quarter include Blue Nile, the Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor. World class musicians are as likely as locals to be in attendance and playing. Take a cab there and back and enjoy the fine music. Often you can purchase a CD from a yet-to-be-discovered artist.
Architecture and History
New Orleans has richest concentrations of registered historic landmarks in the US. Diverse styles of architecture reflect its colorful history as a French, then Spanish colony.
Travelers can shake the rust off their high school French, practicing on many of the signs and names around the Vieux Carre. Current pronunciation may vary from what you were taught and local flavor abounds. For example, Chartres Street is pronounced “Charters” (not like the Cathedral “Shart-ruh”.) Iberville is “Eye-berville” and Burgundy is “bur-GUN-dy.”
Walk the French Quarter and don’t forget to look up at the Spanish-style lace balconies and Creole “Shotgun” houses (modeled after African style long houses) with Victorian painted roof supports. Look to the side and down to find plaques commemorating historic events, colorful history and more somber moments, too.
Before you go
View, order, or download the Official New Orleans Visitor Guide. The site is worth spending time on. It’s full of coupons, ideas, itineraries and overviews. I recommend shaking up a Sazerac, putting on a little jazz and then settling in to plan your itinerary.
Read local authors.
Sara Roahen’s “Gumbo Tales” introduces New Orleans through its food. Roahen is an adopted daughter of the city, a cook who followed her boyfriend who had enrolled at Tulane medical school. Her book lovingly traces her love story with New Orleans and sets the table for yours.
Chris Rose’s “1 Dead in Attic” chronicles the former Times Picayune journalist’s daily struggles after Katrina. He gives voice to the despair and some moments of triumph, to the pain of his own journey which mirrored that of so many others.
Filled with truths that somehow never made it to the evening news. It’s a heartfelt message of survival that manages to bear witness to horrible things while still offering hope.
Get the brand new 2008 Zagat’s Guide which includes updates on new openings, sites and attractions, nightlife and more. Read the Gambit Weekly to find out what’s happening in town when you’ll be there.
I found Sara Roahen was doing a book signing at the terrific Garden District Bookshop. Sara once wrote the restaurant reviews for the Gambit and her review can still be seen hanging on the wall of Perino’s, a local favorite for crawfish boils.
Many major airlines serve Louis Armstrong Airport (MSY). Recent record-setting numbers of passengers prove the airport is ready for more travelers. JetBlue begins direct flights from Boston on May 1. From the airport you can take a taxi, or shuttle or bus.
Amtrak also runs to New Orleans.
Accommodations range in price and style. Stay in the Canal Place Westin and enjoy stunning views of the Mississippi, the steamboat Natchez and French Quarter. Check out the Maison de Ville and Audubon Cottages for a taste of old New Orleans; Tennessee Williams and James Audubon each stayed there. The W French Quarter is located right on Chartres and includes all the upscale amenities. Surprising bargains can be had, so shop around.
GoNOMAD has listings for budget hotels in New Orleans.
Tips & Advice:
Earheart Expressway is often faster to and from the airport than Interstate 10. If you’ve left too little time to make your flight, be sure to ask your cabbie to use this faster route.
If you take a cemetery tour be sure to take a reputable guided tour. See any hotel concierge for recommendations.
Bring walking shoes and use them. It’s a beautiful, walkable city.
Don’t be afraid to ask locals how things are. You will be amazed at how many people will tell you moving stories of random acts of kindness, generosity of strangers and tales of survival. The city has a unique soul that brings people back and draws visitors in. Don’t resist!
Jacqueline Church is a freelance writer, cook and traveler who has eaten her way across several countries including China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and more. She climbed Machu Picchu, walked icebergs in Antarctica, and explored a shipwreck 100 feet below the waters of Curacao. She has yet to fulfill her dream of filling a passport before it expires, but she vows to keep trying. Read her blog and her gourmet food column.
Read Jacqueline Church’s story about Boston’s Chinatown.
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