PASSPORT: NEW ORLEANS
WON'T BOW, DON'T KNOW HOW
Most New Orleanians loathe the word “recovering,” particularly when it is used as a media news peg for the city’s status whenever this disaster or that is commemorated annually. Proud and stubborn, residents don’t need or want pity from outsiders.
So while the rest of the world continues to ponder whether New Orleans will ever “recover” after Hurricane Katrina or the 2010 BP Oil Spill, most residents are doing what they always do: getting on with it. Mourning for the lives and homes lost endures, but in many ways the spirit of the city is at unprecedented heights. New Orleans has never been a more captivating place to visit or live than right now.
More than six hundred new restaurants have opened in the past decade, ushering in inventive new cuisines — not to mention a staggering number of James Beard Award nods. The influx of rebel chefs has done a great thing: it has inspired the French Creole temples of taste (Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace) to ramp up their standards. It is so on.
Ask any food critic who has recently visited the Big Easy and they may tell you that New Orleans — always a contender for top three greatest US food cities — rivals New York for inventive fare. Fighting for the city’s culinary crown are John Besh (Restaurant August, Domenica, Besh Steak), Donald Link (Cochon, Pêche, Cochon Butcher), and other newcomers, both local and expat.
There’s a Vietnamese-Louisiana cuisine craze, crossing over from the city’s immigrant enclave on the West Bank, which has many scratching their heads. But then they dig in. Upscale and regionally minded variations of Mexican, Italian, and even Israeli are proliferating. So are many exceptional wood-oven pizza parlors, food trucks, and purist barbecue palaces. Mind you, this is a city built upon Creole, Cajun, and Southern vernacular tastes rich with a heavy salt pour, butter, roués, and flour for the deep-fry.
Today, many once-blighted, high-crime areas along streets like Freret and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, as well as far-flung districts like St. Roch, Bayou St. John, and Broadmoor, have become destination spots for visitors. Travel magazines now point to these places as the “insider musts,” eschewing the obvious French Quarter. There was a time when the city enjoyed limiting the Red Tide (the denigrating term for slumming tourists) to one stretch of Party Central, largely keeping the “show us your tits” set out of its more rich and exotic parameters. But now the door is wide open to visitors, and some even opt to set up shop, becoming transplants for good. That increasingly includes New Yorkers, San Franciscans, and Angelenos embracing a lifestyle outside that of their pricey metropolises.
Tourists used to have only two choices: stay in a mega-chain hotel or a dusty B&B that looked quaint from the outside, dismal within. Now there’s over a dozen boutique hotels raised or in the works, including the Ace Hotel and a spectacular renovation of the grand dame of St. Charles Avenue, the Pontchartrain (both set to open early 2016). The local film industry in Hollywood South, the name given to the city for its status in the top three of movie and TV locations, has also added something to Fat City, helping to make it Fit City. A week hasn’t gone by that a juice-press bar or yoga studio hasn’t opened shop. Is there anything wrong with that in a city known for its high obesity rates?
As a whole, it’s a more youthful and upscale-minded city — charged up and inspired, rolling with freshly laid bicycle paths. Renting a bike is one of the most invigorating means of exploring the intricate details of the entire crescent, with its tropical fauna, flora, and gargoyles, too.
Aidan Gill for Men, 2026 Magazine Street (main) and 550 Fulton Street. The best-dressed man in New Orleans presides over this Uptown gents essentials shop, precisely curated by the eponymous owner. In the back, it’s a shave-and-haircut salon. And if you’re lucky, the bow-tied Irishman may even let you fire up while you’re getting that Kennedy side part.
Rubensteins, 102 St. Charles Avenue. Though the “men’s department store” is a near-extinct species, in New Orleans it’s thriving (with a young man’s gait) at this handsome operation, and has been since 1924.
Billy Reid, 3927 Magazine Street. The CFDA award-winning menswear designer is an unlikely good ol’ boy, having grown up in Amite, Louisiana. So it makes sense that two years ago he opened an Uptown outpost of his line in a circa-1890s house (with full Viking kitchen for food tastings; it is, aer all, New Orleans).
Meyer the Hatter, 120 St. Charles Avenue. Showing “hatititude” in their display windows in the Central Business District since 1894, the family-owned millinery for (mostly) men is the fedora and Panama hat go-to for Uptown lawyers, natty jazzmen, and Hollywood South arrivistes trying to look the part.
Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter Street. Don’t call it white-boy Dixieland at this purist live jazz venue, home of the ever-evolving Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who perform and record with the likes of Jack White, Tom Waits, Mos Def, and the Foo Fighters.
Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl, 3000 South Carrollton Avenue. A must-stop for visitors who want some authentic New Orleans avor, the massive Mid-City, live-music dance hall is striking. Zydeco bands squeezing their boxes dominate, but doo-wop, twang, and big-band swing, too. And, of course, there are bowling lanes and bars. Triple fun.
Dos Efes Uptown Cigar Bar, 5535 Tchoupitoulas Street. Step into the Cuban-cigar smoke and inhale the top-notch live bands that play at 9 p.m. nightly in this no-cover bar. Closest thing to a jazz hut that you’ll find outside of Tremé. Crowd dresses with respect.
Soniat House, 1133 Chartres Street. This modern-luxury hotel—comprised of three early-nineteenth-century town- houses and two serenely tropical courtyards — is one of the only in-the-know hostels that upscale locals recommend to savvy visitors with open wallets.
Melrose Mansion, 937 Esplanade Avenue. Location, location, location is what it’s about at this so-called B&B manor and side-cottage that is more like a luxe series of crash pads for rock‘n’roll royalty than some quaint, kitsch-filled cliché in the French Quarter.
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, 514 Chartres Street New visitors are apt to lose themselves in the Grand Guignol trappings of this French Quarter curio shop. A perfect aernoon for those who are smitten by midwife tools, exotic voodoo “love potions,” and the things that once cured the oddball ills of another time. Gout? Consumption? They’ve got you covered.
Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, 813 Rue Bienville. Don’t get too tipsy at Arnaud’s French 75 in the French Quarter before meandering up a stairwell to this dimly lit labyrinth holding sequined and bejeweled Carnival costumes from the ’30s to the ’60s.
Peche Seafood Grill, 800 Magazine Street. Located in the artsy Warehouse District, the corner restaurant is known for its crackle-skin, whole-fish preparations, but the little things, such as smoked tuna dip with Saltine crackers, are the stuff of last-meal requests.
MoPho, 514 City Park Avenue. Located in Mid-City in a commercial strip mall zone, this internationally praised restaurant with a glass-box vibe turns out inventive Vietnamese-Louisiana cuisine, from distinct takes on pho and shared bowls to what-the po’boys.
Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue. Suit-and-tie up as the locals do for lunch, and you may be lucky enough to secure a sunny upstairs table by the windows at this turreted, sprawling, iconic temple of taste in the heart of the Garden District.
Shaya, 4213 Magazine Street. Who would think that this year-old Uptown Israeli restaurant would be the hottest and most buzzed-about ticket in a town known for its French Creole? Chef Alon Shaya rightfully won the James Beard Award this year for Best New Restaurant: South.
Galatoire’s Restaurant, 209 Bourbon Street. Jacket and tie are required — and no sneakers or jeans — at this spit-polished, circa-1905 bastion to fine French Creole cuisine in the most unlikely area of the frozen-daiquiri-stand Quarter. But this is anything but a stiff-shirt scene. On Fridays from 11 a.m. on, the city’s power elite let it all hang out with table-hopping not seen since the apper era. Order crabmeat maison, shrimp rémoulade, and some off-the-menu fried chicken for the table.
Crescent City Steaks, 1001 N. Broad Street. You might have to bust out the GPS, but in a city bursting with quality steak houses, none compare to this old-school, Mid-City classic, for character and bloody good meat.
Café Du Monde, 800 Decatur Street. Since 1862, the original French Market location of this coffee-and-doughnut icon has been doling out their famous powder-sugared fried beignets with chicory coffee chaser. Go there hungover at sunrise, or at 4 a.m. — it’s open 24/7 — when you can truly experience its Parisian–like ambience.
Atchafalaya, 901 Louisiana Avenue. On a tranquil Uptown corner, this New Louisiana-cuisine restaurant and bar is helmed by chef Chris Lynch, and is a local go-to for shrimp and grits, upscale bayou entrees, and its uber-attentive owners. Weekend brunch is a get-in-line situation with live jazz and a comprehensive, do-it-yourself Bloody Mary buffet.
Bacchanal Wine, 600 Poland Avenue. Nestled in the Bywater neighborhood, the wine package store grew from its two-story corner space into a buzzy small-plates restaurant featuring “Mediterranean minimalist” cuisine. Take a first date there and you, sir, are getting laid.
Square Root, 1800 Magazine Street. If you like your mussels steamed in cigar boxes, this is your place. The experimental, newly opened two-story restaurant and bar encompassing an Irish Channel corner, has become the city’s top “gastronaut” star.
Casa Borrega, 1719 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. This authentic Mexican fonda newcomer, operated by a Mexico City transplant and housed in a colorful Greek Revival (with an ancient-ruins-style courtyard), is both romantic and bustling, with regular live music. Among the Santeria-inspired shrines, the chicken mole is exact and the margaritas pure.
Carousel Bar & Lounge, 214 Royal Street. Spinning patrons round and round on its converted and rotating carousel-cum-bar, this sixty-five-year-old cocktail spot in the French Quarter’s Hotel Monteleone is best during the week when courthouse judges and lawyers fill the room.
Bouligny Tavern, 3641 Magazine Street. The young ladies–in–waiting of Uptown love this house-turned-cocktail saloon, fronted by a porch and sided by a patio. Minimalist-chic and subtly retro, it may be the most civilized bar to have a happy hour drink with small plates in the whole neighborhood. The bartenders spin records, and their tastes are on point, from the Beatles to the Mills Brothers. Favorite drink: Hemingway Daiquiri (with shaved ice oater).
Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, 813 Rue Bienville. Named for yet another cocktail invented in New Orleans, this clubby sidecar to the iconic Arnaud’s Restaurant (since 1918) transports patrons far from the boozy scene one block away on Bourbon Street.
Cane & Table, 1113 Decatur Street. New Orleans has gone tiki-drink crazy, but the standout is this local-favorite, sugar-cane-and-rum-loving French Quarter restaurant and bar. A great day-date stop-in.
Barrel Proof, 1201 Magazine Street. This year-old Lower Garden District newcomer, once a dive bar, is now a space attracting an unguarded young professional set who likes a rye shot and a sixteen-ounce PBR with pop-up barbecue on late weeknights.
The Columns Hotel Bar, 3811 St. Charles Avenue. Strolling up under its stately oaks, past those namesake columns, and into the woody, high-ceiling bar of this Italianate mansion-turned-hotel feels like entering a high-class bordello, circa 1883, the year it was constructed.
Circle Bar, 1032 St. Charles Avenue. From the outside, with a General Robert E. Lee statue on a pedestal hovering over it at the crossroads of Uptown and Downtown, this two-story house and live-music club looks haunted or abandoned, but it’s spirited with some of the best bands in the city.
The Cellar Door, 916 Lafayette Street. Housed in a historic townhouse (once a brothel), on a narrow cobblestone street, this standout newcomer to New Orleans’ cramped craft-cocktail scene sets itself apart with a cool, chic crowd and unpretentious barkeeps in the Warehouse District.
DIVE RIGHT IN
There are arguably more dive bars in New Orleans than anywhere else in the States. Put a blindfold on, and you’ll bump into a bar stool. Some are open twenty-four hours, more are day-drinking establishments (a pastime met with a shrug in the Big Easy). Note, however, that in a rare concession to political-correctness, New Orleans went “no-smoking” earlier this year. But you can still carry your drink in a plastic cup wherever you well please. The sprawl that is broadly known as Uptown is dive-bar central. Pulling an all-nighter? Hit the el cheapo Club Ms Mae’s or Brothers III Lounge (blocks apart). The afternoon-opening Kingpin is the unofficial hospice for the city’s top chefs; the crowd at the red brick-façade bar spills out to a grassy median strip, a food truck favorite anchor. Around the bend, is the Milan Lounge, windows blacked out; buzz the door to get in.
Same with the nearby Mardi Gras bead-encrusted Mayfair, and the notorious 45 Tchoup, over in the West Riverside. The motto of newcomer Verret’s Lounge is: “Freak Friendly, Hipster Tolerant.” Get the “set-up,” the blue-collar bottle service. In the French Quarter, there are treasures amid the tourist traps. Namely, the dog-friendly Cosimo’s, as well as the straight-friendly Golden Lantern Bar, where drag performers do killer acoustic Eagles covers. Uptown comes Downtown at The Chart Room. There’s also the one-two punch of Bar Tonique and the shiny-new Black Penny, both on the Quarter’s edge.
In the merging areas of Bywater, Faubourg Marigny, and St. Roch, you have the old-timey Vaughan’s Lounge, featuring weekly brass bands, as well as the hipster hang Lost Love Lounge, and Mimi’s in the Marigny. You’ll get shrinkage in the AC chill at the enduring Bud Rip’s Old 9th Ward Bar. Get a haircut-and-shot special at the Royal Street Inn & R Bar. Off the beaten path, destination dives include the Irish Channel’s altie-sanctuary The Saint (hit a smoke in the secret open-air back room).
Get the frozen Disco Lemonade at The Rusty Nail. Seek out the Sandpiper Lounge, home of “the set-up,” funky deejays, and the greatest beacon of a neon sign. At Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, buried in a blue-collar neighborhood near Tulane and Loyola, drink for free if you show up butt-naked; they’re open all night.
Over in the Bayou St. John district, the armed-robbery past of Pal’s Lounge merits an off-duty cop at the door. In Tremé, at The Little People’s Place and The Candlelight Lounge, be respectful to the jazz gods who go there and you’ll make some friends, and see a bona fide live music scene unfold.