French Quarter Delights
The spirit of New Orleans thrives with great food and music and a rich heritage.
Brass band musicians perform in front of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square on Sunday mornings.
The good times always roll in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where a Creole stew of French, Spanish, African and American culture, music, food and tradition has seasoned into a living, breathing treasure that is—above all else—devoted to pleasure. If you’ve never been (or if it’s been a while), here’s how to jump in.
Start where the city did. Jackson Square, laid out by the French in 1721, is the literal heart of the city. This manicured park is framed on three sides by pedestrian throughways where street performers, artists and tarot-card readers ply their trades. The Louisiana State Museum at the Presbytère, located beside the Spanish-built St. Louis Cathedral, houses worthwhile exhibits about Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras. On Decatur Street, facing the Mississippi River, horse-drawn carriages await passengers, while jazz musicians busking outside of the open-air Café Du Monde (800 Decatur) add a soundtrack of lively rhythms.
Beignets (fried dough doused in powdered sugar) and chicory-laced coffee are served 24 hours a day at Café du Monde, as they’ve been since 1862. If it’s savory you crave, walk a few blocks downriver to Central Grocery (923 Decatur) for an only-in-New Orleans sandwich, the muffaletta: thick layers of Italian-cured meats and cheeses sandwiched between house-made olive spread. You can get it to go, but the no-frills, nostalgic atmosphere at this over 100-year-old market makes it worthwhile to eat at the counter.
Leave your wine tastes at home. The city’s bartenders will restore your faith in the cocktail; there’s even a festival held every July called Tales of the Cocktail, focused on,
well, you get it. Say no to cheap Hurricanes made with grain alcohol and sold from to-go windows on Bourbon Street and instead hit classy joints like the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal) and French 75 at Arnaud’s (813 Bienville), where time-honored drinks like the Sazerak, Brandy Milk Punch and Ramos Gin Fizz are made with premium booze and a deft touch.
Put your diet on hold. Most Cajun and Creole dishes begin with the holy trinity: onions, bell peppers and celery. Add as much butter as possible, fresh seafood pulled from the Gulf, and just the right seasonings, and you’ve got a typical New Orleans restaurant menu, which nearly always includes gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée. Plan to dine at one of the city’s old-guard establishments such as Galatoire’s (209 Bourbon), which opened in 1906, or Arnaud’s, from 1918, that keep the city’s rich culinary traditions alive. When you want something simpler, a fried-oyster po-boy at Johnny’s (511 St. Louis) is a first-stop for many devoted NOLA visitors.
Let the music grab your soul. Music seeps from the pores of the city’s skin, and most of it is free (but always expect a hat to be passed). Experience authentic New Orleans jazz at Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter) and the Palm Court Jazz Café (1204 Decatur); at the latter, you can dine at a table right in front of the band. Says Historic New Orleans tour guide and jazz-lover Dave Roberts: “I want to sit in the lap of the drummer, to see the expression on his face.” For a master class in the brass/funk/jazz hybrid that reflects the soul of today’s New Orleans, catch the 10-piece powerhouse To Be Continued Brass Band. This group wins hearts and blows minds every Sunday at 11 p.m. at Blue Nile Live (532 Frenchmen). The classic New Orleans jazz band has even crossed over as part of the burlesque revival seen at weekly shows, where dancers with names such as Trixie Minx and Roxie Le Rouge revive the art of tastefully taking off their clothes. The Burgundy Bar at The Saint Hotel (931 Canal) hosts the monthly Creole Sweet Tease Burlesque Show, and every Friday beginning at midnight, the Royal Sonesta (300 Bourbon) presents Burlesque Ballroom to a packed house.
Find a hotel to match your vibe. Naturalist and painter John James Audubon spent a year painting his series, The Birds of America, in one of the seven peaceful, private cottages tucked down a garden path behind an unmarked gate at Audubon Cottages (509 Dauphine; auduboncottages.com). If you prefer a livelier scene where playing naughty is encouraged, The Saint Hotel (thesainthotelneworleans.com) is uber-modern and sexy, topping all the “best new” lists.
Say “yes” to an easy getaway. To plan your trip, check out neworleanscvb.com, then book a flight on Southwest. The airline offers direct service from Orlando: a 1-hour, 40-minute flight that’s typically less than $300 with advance planning (southwest.com).
Saints and Sinners
Contrast the decadence of The Big Easy’s French Quarter with the elegance of the American-Protestant Garden District.
Another side of the city
Join a walking tour with Historic New Orleans Tours (tourneworleans.com) to learn the stories behind the above-ground tombs at the city’s oldest municipal burial ground, Lafayette Cemetery #1, and the ornate 1850s mansions that remain largely preserved in a city that was 80 percent destroyed by flooding following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The tours begin and end in the excellent and independent Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania), which carries titles on every subject related to the city.
Now is the time to try celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s take on traditional Creole dishes at Delmonico (1300 St. Charles). If you don’t stay for dinner, at least come for the delightful cocktails (half-price Monday-Friday, 5-7 p.m.) in the elegant bar.