Big Chillin’ in the Big Easy

 

This is my second trip to New Orleans this year; this time, it’s a micro-reunion of college friends.  We’d met almost 3 decades ago at Loyola University of New Orleans.  One of the big films that year was the Big Chill, and we imagined ourselves in the various roles of the college friends in that movie.  Who would be the successful entrepreneur?  The journalist who sells out?  The saintly doctor?  The career woman who puts off having children?  But most of all, I suspect it was the house party (or maybe just the house!) that enthralled us most.  Inspired by that, rather than stay in a hotel, we rented a home via VRBO near the neighborhood we spent 4 years in before scattering to the four winds.

Our VRBO rental, just off Freret Street, and my bedroom.

If St. Charles Avenue is the front door of Loyola, Freret Street was the back door – and that’s where our rental was located.  The unit was clearly added on to and renovated over the years, but retained some of the character of the shotgun it was.  With 3 comfy bedrooms, 2 baths, a living room, dining room and kitchen, as well as front steps and back yard, we had everything we needed.  And Freret Street between Jefferson and Napoleon Avenues is itself in the process of developing into everything a visitor might want – driven by urban pioneers in hipster form.  But while the denizens sport the body art and interesting beards one associates with hipsters, they lack the ironic and supercilious attitude encountered in other cities.  When they greet you with a “Good morning.  What can I get you, hon’?” they actually seem like they mean it.

Within a 1-block radius of our place was a hot dog shop, a Vietnamese restaurant, a bodega, 2 tattoo shops, a salon/spa, a bike shop, a hot dog restaurant, a Peruvian restaurant, bars, a bagel shop, a comedy theater … well, you get the idea.  In fact, while lounging on the front steps in the perfect 78-degree/sunny/not humid weather, it took me as long to refresh my glass of wine from the one in the kitchen refrigerator as it did my friend to go over to a bar and buy a go-cup of bourbon and coke.  But among all of that, there is plenty of road work and construction as well.

A funky hot dog restaurant (with obligatory full liquor license) just across the street from ongoing construction.

As familiar as all of us are with the city, our get-together was less about playing tourist, and more about hanging out together, enjoying the city and the weather, and simply walking around and exploring.  And – oh yeah — eating and drinking!  The food and drink agenda including new spots and old favorites.  Given that it was not a huge festival or event weekend, we had a simpler time getting into the places we wanted to go without having to make reservations weeks in advance, and the opportunity to just wing it.

Which is exactly what we did after arriving Friday evening.  We opened the Google maps app to see what was nearby, and started walking to Pascal’s Manale, an old-school New Orleans restaurant known for barbecue shrimp.  We diverted briefly to Cuzco, a Peruvian restaurant (I love ceviche), but while they had room for us, they had no liquor license and we hadn’t yet gotten any B to BYO (which they allowed).  Onward in the soft evening air, where Pascal’s Manale had room for us in the white-tablecloth dining room.  Seafood is what I frequently order in New Orleans, and my grilled black drum, with a handful of those glorious shrimp in that dark, tangy and complex sauce (which isn’t a barbecue sauce, really, in the Open Pit style one might think of) was a perfect start to a foodie weekend.

My dinner of black drum, and Pascal’s Manale famous barbecue shrimp.

Nowhere near done for the evening, we stopped at the stylish artisan cocktail bar carved out of a former fire station, Cure.  There is a gorgeous, leafy courtyard separated from the sidewalk with an ivy-covered fence and a funky door.  Sitting out there with a ti punch (rhum agricole with simple syrup and lime, my go-to drink in French St. Martin) in the company of good friends was a great end to the evening.  But wait!  We weren’t done!  We stopped in at The Other Bar (cement-floored and grungy with the stigmata of decades of cigarette smoke and spilled drinks), picked up some Moscow Mules to-go, and then watched the world go by from our front steps.

Saturday morning dawned obnoxiously bright and sunny.  I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but there was no Diet Coke in the house, so I needed to get some caffeine onboard and fast.  My former roomie and I walked over to Mojo Coffee House (high ceilings, cement floors, fumed oak, chalk boards, staffed by cheerful tattooed baristas) for my coffee drink of choice (iced skim latte) and normal and non-foofy coffee for the others.  I would do this every morning.  I got the necessary Diet Cokes at the tiny supermercado down the street.  What else did we need?

With an epic walk planned for the day, we started with a bit of pampering at a salon on Carrollton Avenue which we reached by streetcar (you can buy an unlimited ride pass on your iPhone for $3/day on RTA gomobile): pedicures and, for one of us, a manicure too.  I chose an acid yellow polish, the better to keep my eyes on my feet because New Orleans sidewalks vary between concrete and cobbles, and are cracked and buckled by the ancient live oaks lined up alongside.  Since we were at the river bend, and had skipped breakfast, lunch at Cooter Brown’s was on our minds.

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New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries share space with Uptown’s gorgeous homes.

Cooter Brown’s is a bar located across the railroad tracks from the Mississippi River levee where St. Charles Avenue meets Carrollton.  It’s a dark biker/student bar with dozens of beers on tap and in bottles (and bartenders who are knowledgeable and willing to pour generous samples), and a more-than-competent kitchen if you are looking for a po-boy or burger.  The servings are generous, providing us fuel for one of my favorite walks in the city – the Magazine Street crawl.

Magazine Street – from the Lower Garden District all the way to Audubon Park – is a miles-long stretch of boutiques, cafes, bars, shops and restaurants, few of which are representatives of chains.  On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the street was alive with pedestrian traffic, poking in and out of shops or dining and drinking at sidewalk tables.  Unlike Bourbon Street, which attracts more than its share of humanity, Magazine Street is convivial and charming, not tawdry and honky-tonk.  It’s possible to spend a lot of money on Magazine, but I contained my expenditures to a bottle of wine at Spirit Wine, which offers an inclusive but not overwhelming selection of well-chosen wine, and an informed and helpful proprietor.

Saturday night’s dinner was on Magazine Street, at my favorite of all New Orleans restaurants: Coquette.  The chef – who is a Marylander like me – can do things with vegetables that would convert this dedicated omnivore to vegetarianism.  But I don’t have to, because his gifts extend to seafood and meat as well.  This Garden District restaurant is somewhat off the beaten tourist path.  The main floor is a long narrow room along which a bar runs; tile floors, pressed tin ceiling and chandeliers create a bistro feeling.  Although we didn’t have the stamina to do the 5-course tasting, dinner (smoked cobia and grilled octopus for me) left us wanting more, so we hoofed it to Bouligny Tavern after dinner, about 6 block away.  The tavern is next door to Lilette, but between the 2 buildings is a small courtyard where you can settle in with cocktails on a sofa and spend a beautiful evening.

My dinner of tea-smoked cobia, and marinated octopus over crab rice.

Sunday ended up being a marathon of walking.  Our ranks were depleted, so just my friend Dan and I set off for the French Quarter.  Not to drink frozen daiquiris on Bourbon Street, but to find a nice late breakfast/early lunch.  We found ourselves at the corner of St. Peter and Chartres, an oasis of relative cool and calm, in Dickie Brennan’s Tableau.

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A New Orleans classic: grits and grillades.

If you wave off the strolling jazz band, it’s an entirely mellow experience, where people come in without fanny packs and giant white sneakers and the 36 ounce Bloody Mary from down the street.  Thus fortified, we strolled the high-end antique shops and galleries of Royal Street, rambled into the Marigny, and down to the Bywater, where we climbed steps up and over the railroad tracks to get us to Crescent Park.

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French Quarter courtyards and balconies.

Crescent Park is a Mississippi riverfront promenade reclaimed from wharves and warehouses and opened only in the last couple of years.  Here, you can walk alongside the river and appreciate its grandeur and power.  Few visitors hike this far.  Other than the occasional wake of a passing barge, this is a spot for quiet contemplation among the plants and butterflies.

Behemoth cruise ships in contrast with the serenity of Crescent Park.

Footsore after having walked 32+ blocks from the French Quarter, Dan and I retreated to one of his favorite haunts – the not-so-secret-anymore Country Club.  Built in and around a few grand Bywater homes, the Country Club is a bar, restaurant and swim club with a very tolerant attitude (it is not, however, clothing optional anymore).  After the brunch crowd left, we had the expansive columned porch to ourselves as we watched the endless show that New Orleans denizens can provide.

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The gracious portico at the Country Club.

We whiled away late afternoon on our front steps until it was time to walk down Freret Street to dinner at Bar Frances.  It’s a wine bar that features organic and natural wines (the bottle we ordered was cloudy due to natural oxidation, but that didn’t harm the flavor whatsoever), and a brief menu of small plates and some larger entrees.  If you like beets – as I do – a beet tartare small plate will knock your socks off; this is one I feel compelled to attempt at home.

And home is where we were bound on Monday, with early afternoon flights that allowed a leisurely breakfast before heading to the airport.

I don’t know when I’ll return to New Orleans next.  For 10 years in a row, I would have my hotel and air arrangements in place by this time for the following year’s Jazz Fest (last weekend of April and first weekend of May).  But, at least as a tourist destination, New Orleans has recovered – and then some – since Hurricane Katrina, and that has turned Jazz Fest into a painfully crowded slog for me.  In 2014, Jimmy Buffett’s show was running at the same time as Lady Gaga with Tony Bennett and Pitbull, and getting out of the Fairgrounds left me freaked out.  Simply put, I need a break from Jazz Fest, and it will only be during a “down” time like this past weekend (second weekend of October) that I’m likely to return.  But, oh, how lovely it was.

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Given that I’ve been visiting New Orleans regularly since graduation from college, including at least those annual visits during Jazz Fest for the last 10 consecutive years, a lot of people ask me for advice on where to stay and eat and drink in a city that has too many options to count.  So, the rest of this post is my very opinionated review of some of the places I’ve stayed and eaten and drank (drunk?) in the past years.

WHERE I’VE STAYED

Wyndham Belle Maison: Rick and I have been lucky enough to have access to Wyndham vacation club points, so we’ve stayed here for the last 4 years during Jazz Fest.  The location of this property, carved out of an old printing plant with the brick walls and soaring atrium to show for it, can’t be beat for Jazz Festing.  It’s right behind the Sheraton, where the Jazz Fest shuttle drops off.  Being so close to Canal Street, you are by extension close to the French Quarter without being in it.  The units are comfortable, stylish, and well-equipped; they are ideal if you are traveling with another couple and want to hang out together.  The only caveat is that some of the interior units don’t have windows to the exterior, so you can find yourself disoriented as to the time of day.

J.W. Marriott:  Fronting Canal Street, this is also an extremely well-located hotel.  On the plus side, it’s a standard quality J.W. Marriott, the higher-end of Marriott’s offerings.  On the minus side, it’s a standard quality J.W. Marriott, which means it has little relationship to its environment and could be dropped in any city in the world.  I appreciate the plush bedding in the rooms.  I also appreciate that they don’t jack up their prices during special events – the room rate stays pretty constant year-round.

Royal Sonesta:  This is my favorite of the bunch, but I haven’t been able to get a room there for several years.  It’s right on Bourbon Street, but once you go through the doors, it’s like entering an oasis of serenity.  In my opinion, the best rooms are interior ones overlooking the courtyard and pool area and away from the Bourbon Street noise; some of the rooms have french doors that open right out onto the pool/bar deck.  The rooms and common areas feel very vieux Nouvelle Orleans, but with all the modern amenities.

Monteleone: One of the storied grand dames of the New Orleans hotel roster, its best known for the carousel bar in the lobby (that really goes around in circles).  When we stayed here a half dozen years ago, it was in need of a sprucing up.  The location on Royal Street in the FQ is terrific.

Ritz Carlton: This gorgeous property on Canal Street was once the Maison Blanche department store I frequented when a student, and retains some of its old glories.  The RC features high-ceilinged spaces, exceptionally comfortable bedding, and elegant décor; the service here is either attentive or over-bearing (depending on your point of view).  The courtyard bar is one of my favorite places in town to grab a drink.

Crowne Plaza Astor:  Stayed in a suite here with 2 girlfriends, which was large and comfortable BUT the bedroom window overlooked the Quarter and had no sound-proofing.  Very noisy.  All. Night. Long.  Who’d have thought that the sofa bed in the living room (without a window) would be the place everyone wanted to sleep?  Indifferent service, and a very busy lobby.

Sheraton Canal Street:  Huge, soulless hotel with a very crowded lobby, especially during Jazz Fest.  It’s convenient, because Jazz Fest tickets can be picked up here, and the shuttles run from the hotel, but I wouldn’t choose it myself.

Aloft (Baronne Street):  Located in the Central Business District (CBD, which is close to the French Quarter), it covers the bases.  The rooms are done in a modern and inexpensive-looking style, but the common areas are inviting.

Pere Marquette:  I’ve only stayed here one night (before we could get into our time share at the Wyndham), but I liked it a great deal.  Chic, stylish and comfortable, as well as being right on the streetcar line right in the CBD.

PLACES I’VE EATEN:  Aside from the places noted in my report above, we’ve eaten a lot of meals over the years!  It’s really, really hard to get a bad meal in New Orleans.  Where things fall apart – if they do – it’s due to bad or indifferent service, and the service is more likely to be iffy during a major festival or event weekend.  During those times, reservations are essential at the better places, and can be hard to get.  I’ll keep my opinions brief.

August: This is the flagship of the John Besh restaurant empire, and deservedly so.  You’ll have one of the most memorable meals of your life here – not a single false step.  If you have the stamina, try the chef’s tasting menu with wine pairing – but it’s a long evening.  For a smaller (and cheaper) taste, try lunch.

Lüke: Another outpost of the Besh empire, this is a brasserie-styled spot in the CBD.  It’s noisy, but the food is good, casual fare with brisk service.  You can almost always get a table here if you plan ahead.

Cochon: As the name implies, Cochon is about all things pig, Cajun-style.  It’s a warehouse-ish space in the Warehouse District close to the WWII museum (which is a must-visit).  The food is not especially refined, but it’s a carnivore’s delight!  It seems like they overbook during festival weekends, and dinner service can go sideways.  Go to lunch instead.

NOLA: Emeril Lagasse’s offering in the French Quarter, this super-loud place left me cold.  The food just seemed un-inspired.

Clancy’s and Patois: These are old school, neighborhood Creole restaurants offering delicious takes on the classics – if you want a martini, gumbo, and beautifully prepared redfish, this is for you.  Both are small and tucked into Uptown neighborhoods.  It’s very difficult to get a table at Clancy’s (we only managed because we were guests of a local VIP).  I don’t mean to suggest that the two are interchangeable, but either will check the box.

Commander’s Palace: Brunch par excellence.  Wear your Sunday-going-to-meeting clothes here.  Beautiful, lighthearted décor; strolling jazz musicians; courtly service.  This is where families come to celebrate milestones.  The brunch is prix fixe for 3 substantial courses, and a terrific value.  Don’t miss the bread pudding soufflé.

Lilette: The only place in town that has ever not honored a reservation during Jazz Fest, I will forever hold it against them (though it didn’t stop me from a late afternoon drop-in for a glass of wine).  The other time we ate here, it was good, but service was clearly suffering from the overflow crowds in town.

Bayona: At the corner of Toulouse and Dauphine, in the FQ but a few blocks away from the tourist hustle, Bayona is a haven my husband and I have made a necessary stop on every trip.  Dinners eventually proved to be too challenging – in terms of strained service during Jazz Fest, on the few occasions we’d been able to get in – so we make it a Saturday lunch regular.  A fixed price luncheon makes the choices easy, but Chef Susan Spicer’s classics preparations (cream of garlic soup; duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly) always make it to that menu.

Domenica (CBD); Domenica Pizza (Magazine Street):  The Italian iteration of John Besh’s and his protégé Ilon Shaya’s genius, both of these serve wonderful and creative brick-oven pizzas.  The CBD location is housed in the Roosevelt Hotel and has a chic, masculine décor and broader menu that features house-made pastas.  Both offer the popular roasted whole cauliflower appetizer (trust me – it’s worth it).

Borgne: A loud, hotel-based seafood restaurant.  The food is good, but the principal selling point is being able to reserve a table for a large group.

Johnny Sanchez:  In the CBD (Poydras Street), this is a taqueria built in a former bank lobby that has Chihuly-styled chandeliers.  The taco offerings are good, but you’d probably do just as well from a food truck.

Meauxbar: Located on the edge of the FQ and the Treme, Meauxbar is a tiny but trendy restaurant featuring updated comfort food (grilled cheese with caramelized onions and braised beef; steak au poivre) and an ambitious cocktail menu.

Pelican Club: A clubby atmosphere in a brick-walled space off an obscure FQ alley, featuring Louisiana seafood.  If you choose well (whole fish), you’ll be happy; if you hit it on an off night (during Jazz Fest, when a thunderstorm takes out your AC), you’ll be disappointed.

The restaurant scene is ever-changing, and there really are no rules, so be sure to check out the latest reviews and go for it.

 

 

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