A Little Big Easy Guide to New Orleans
New Orleans is one big, beautiful rag-tag gang of party people. It’s the one place in America where it’s always time to eat a great meal, join a band, booze on the street, start a parade, and wear a feather boa. (Incidentally, it’s also the one place in America where you can do all of those things at the same time.)
There’s no mistaking this town for a health food hub. I advise you eat light the week before you arrive; then give in whole-heartedly to the buttered, battered, saucy, condiment-friendly Southern, French, Creole, and Cajun fare.
Felix's: Local-yocal oyster bar. Walk right up, order a dozen and shoot the breeze with the affable shuckers. They’ll crack jokes as they whip together a spicy cocktail sauce (with Saltine crackers) for you on the spot.
Central Grocery: Old-fashioned Italian grocer serving one of the best renditions of the famed muffeletta, a football-shaped sandwich stuffed with cured meats, cheese, crushed olives, and pickled veggies. They are eaten by the quarter and sold by the half, but order a whole -- this is not the time to be shy about your appetite.
Bayona: James Beard notable and Top Chefer Susan Spicer has a long list of excellent NOLA restaurants under her belt, but this New American — no, New Louisianian — consistently delivers top-notch food and service on a beautiful patio (when weather permits). Everyone talks about the duck sandwich.
Herbsaint: Sophisticated farm-to-table fare, excellent (laid-back) service, and mellow lunch crowd. Take the folks. Linger with wine.
People are going to tell you to go to Café Du Monde, and maybe you will, since you’re there anyway, but it’s really very touristy and you’ve probably had better beignets elsewhere. What you should do instead is buy the beignet mix for a rainy day when you are in your kitchen dreaming about NOLA.
Cochon: The Warehouse District foodie hangout and local chef depot pays homage to the Cajun meat boucherie (meat market). Yes, you just ate some gator. Lunch-time meat hankerings are taken care of at the adjacent Butcher (where you can get the high-end version of a muffeletta).
Gautreau’s: This is the city’s best-kept dining secret. The elegant little dining room, tucked away on a residential street Uptown (drive slow, or you’ll miss it) feels like a very special club house. The chef, James Beard rising star Sue Zemanick, keeps Louisianian cuisine fresh and inventive (if there are pierogis on the menu, order them and don’t ask questions).
Camellia Grill: Take the long, scenic route by street car (it’s about 40 minutes from the French Quarter) and prepare to wait during the brunch rush. The Creole townhouse has a diner vibe and a wide Formica bar where you should sit and order a chili omelette and an ice cream freeze. Or a pecan pie warmed up in the fryer.
Parkway Bakery and Tavern: It’s a little bit of a trek to Mid-City, but worth it for the gravy drenched roast beef po-boys.
Napoleon House: They offered this refuge to an exiled Napoleon (but he never made it over). Classical music and classic New Orleans decadence. Fit in drinks, snacks, and snapshots between lunch and dinner.
The music really is good, and really is everywhere — park benches, street corners, divey bars, bowling allies. You could spare yourself the Bourbon Street mayhem and head right to Frenchmen Street. Locals hang from North Peters to Royal. If you get lost, just follow the tuba.
The Spotted Cat: Tiny and old-timey. There’s a piano in the ladies room. Catch the New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings — a motley crew playing classic, lo-fi swing. They do a great medley of spirituals and really get the crowd moving.
DBA: A divey, boozy spot for live music (jazz, Dixieland, zydeco) and real good beer.
Preservation Jazz Hall: It’s like going to church! A tiny wooden box with a few benches or cushions on the floor. Praise to Dixieland. These guys are super tight and slay it every set.
Rock ‘n’ Bowl: Just like it sounds!
Balcony Music Club (BMC): Free-wheeling live venue for jazzy jam sessions, swing dancers, up-and-comers, and plenty of honky tonk. Sundays take the cake.
If you’re only here for a few days, you might as well be in middle of the action. That way, if you’re in your room and hear a marching band going by, you can quickly run out and catch up with the percussion section (I’m speaking from experience).
Cornstalk Hotel: Sweet, quintessential French Quarter Victorian hotel.
Lanaux Mansion: Old-fashioned rooms for let, cute, kitschy and super close to Frenchmen Street, which means you can stumble home after a night of heavy jazz.
There are lots of high-falutin’ French antiques and lots of cheapie Mardi Gras bead shops. The Garden District, French Quarter, and Magazine Street have some really great gems (of the Old- and New-school varieties). But you’ve got to dig a little.
Retroactive Vintage Shop: A boutique brimming with headdresses, handbags, sparkly jewels, and antique bric-a-brac. If you’ve ever been tempted to wear a lariat, now’s your chance.
Faulkner House Books: Rare first editions of Southern literature along with a nice selection of contemporary fiction are stacked floor-to-15-foot ceiling. Pick up a little Tennessee Williams or Walker Percy for the ride home.
You need to do something between meals.
Museum of the American Cocktail: Could there be a more perfect home for this new institution? Try and time your visit with one of their seminars (like “The Mindful Bartender,” or “The Math of Mixology”).
Audobon Insectarium: Very nice staff, koi pond, and butterfly sanctuary. A great place to take the kids, especially if they like to eat bugs after they learn about them. (Crickets and seasoned waxworms are served in the cafeteria.)
Besthof Culture Garden: Pick up an audio guide and stroll the footpaths of the NOMA’s backyard.
Long Vue House: A really great example of American Renaissance architecture and design. On a nice day, tour the nine gardens on eight acres.
Pitot House: A meticulously restored version of 18th century Creole architecture. It was once the home of NOLA’s first American mayor after the Louisiana Purchase.
Voodoo Museum: Filled with folklore and Southern mystic charm. Curious curios to boot.
Big Easy Limo: If you must.
GOOD FOR YOU
Hands on New Orleans lists volunteer activities.
GOOD READS FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
- The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
- A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
- Zeitoun, Dave Eggers
- Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans, Roy Blount Jr.
- Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer’s New Orleans, Susan Spicer and Paula Disbrowe