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.
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.
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.
Central Grocery: There are many who-dunnit-better arguments about the famed muffeletta. This old-fashioned Italian grocer serves one of the best renditions of the iconic 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.
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).
Felix's: The first thing I do when I arrive in the French Quarter is walk right up to the oyster bar, order a dozen on the half-shell, and shoot the breeze with the affable shuckers. They crack jokes while whipping together a spicy cocktail sauce (with Saltine crackers) on the spot.
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).
Herbsaint: Sophisticated farm-to-table fare, excellent (laid-back) service, and mellow lunch crowd. Take the folks. Linger with wine.
Maurepas Foods: A Bywater beauty that takes all that is local and seasonal and presents it with TLC on a platter. Starters make produce shine (peach and pepper salad; okra with shiso and plum), while mains are simple and inspired. A classic, reimagined.
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.
Note: 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.
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.
Bouligny Tavern: A very classy, Mad Men-style living room setting for polished cocktails and conversation. What's not to love about a snack menu divided into Fried, Sliced Meats, and Sweets?
DBA: A divey, boozy spot for live music (jazz, Dixieland, zydeco) and real good beer.
Cane and Table: The "proto tiki" bar is all about classy daquiris, gin with coconut water, and the Boss Colada. An excellent Caribbean-inspired menu (peas and rice, grilled yardbird) can be served to you at the rustic bar or at tables in the airy courtyard out back.
Cure: Familiarize yourself with the house rules (no baseball caps or shorts, boys) before heading over to this schmancy cocktail bar on a happening little strip Uptown. The space, a reclaimed firehouse, is spacious and sharp. Small plates are carefully prepared and served late.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Avery Fine Perfumery: A sunlit shop — filled with salvaged woods, metals, and mirrors — stands alone on this quiet street in the gallery district. A small collection of very special, hard-to-find French perfumes and artisanal colognes are available for the spritzing (onto feathers), sniffing, wafting, and collecting.
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.
Big Easy Limo: If you must.
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.
The National World War II Museum: Give yourself a few hours (or a few days) to take in the incredible displays, short films (skip the elementary CGI video narrated by Tom Hanks), oral histories, and artifacts spanning the epic history of the war. Volunteers, some of them veterans, take the time to answer questions and describe batillion set-ups thoroughly.
Voodoo Museum: Filled with folklore and Southern mystic charm. Curious curios to boot.
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).
Soniat House: For those craving a nostalgic, genteel Nawlins setting, there's this charming wrought-iron townhouse triplet filled with French antiques, Frette linens, and quiet courtyards.
Cornstalk Hotel: Sweet, quintessential French Quarter Victorian hotel set back on charming Royal Street. Appropriately for the neighborhood, rooms 10 and 15 are said to be haunted.
The Hotel Modern: In striking distance of all the great museums (Ogden, WWII, CAC) and right on the parade route during Mardi Gras season. Hotel bar Belloq can make sharp Sazeracs (the official drink of NOLA) to go.
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.
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