While it is sad to see the problems that New Orleans is having, both in the past with Katrina, and currently with recent storms like Hannah and Ike, it is a special place to visit. Judging from the people there, it is also a special place to live. I admire their spirit, for not wanting to leave, and for coming back to rebuild.
I have been there twice, once for a meeting many years ago, and with Sheri just a few years ago (also for Super Bowl 47). Our friends, Kevin and Patty, renewed our interest in the city. They enjoy good food like we do. I also wanted Sheri to see a part of this country that is very different than anywhere else.
Most people forget that New Orleans (pronounce it Nawlins), is a major U.S. port, located on the Mississippi River. It is named after Phillipe II, Duc d’Orleans, and is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. The annual Mardi Gras is its biggest claim to fame, with great depth of character involving the creole and Cajun cultures. The city itself has only 250,000 people, perhaps less after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
The city is well known for its tourist areas of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. Both are gaggles of fun, slightly mischievous, and never boring. It feels a little like Old Europe before WW2 (so I am told, I was not there). The best food, drinks, and entertainment are here. You will never get bored in this town. People also seem to forget that it is the home to several well regarded universities, Tulane, Xavier, Southern, Dillard and Loyola.
The three streetcar lines are well preserved and famous. The streetcar line to Desire inspired Tennessee Williams great play, “A Streetcar Named Desire”. The other unique aspect of New Orleans are the above ground cemeteries. The above-ground vaults for which New Orleans is noted is as much a product of its European and Caribbean pedigree as it is of the topography. Because the city is entirely below sea level, the water tables are high, and frequent flooding, especially prior to the establishment of the protective levee system, made in-ground burials a questionable proposition. These unique cemeteries can be seen going to and from the airport.
There are so many must see, must do and must eats here. Let me highlight where I and we have been. For lots of fried food, creole/Cajun stuff, Ralph and Kacoo’s in the place. Huge platters of food, good service, and informality are the trademarks here. Moving up the scale, Acme Oyster House is always on the Travel Channel and other traveler’s blogs. Both their oysters and their Po’ Boys are great. They shuck oysters so fast there, that I think the oysters can fly. By the way, Po’ Boys are sandwiches, on a large French roll, that contain anything and everything you want. Besides the obvious luncheon (beef) meats, it can have fried (catfish) fish, fried oysters, fried shrimp, grilled veggies, you name it. It got its name originally as an inexpensive way to get a solid meal. These days, it is available dressed, meaning lettuce, pickles, tomato, and mayo. Some are even smothered with gravy.
The place that always has a special charm is Brennan’s. It is the most classic and popular place in the French Quarter. While the food is not as good as it once was, it is still the quintessential southern dining spot. The French onion soup has a thick crust of cheese and croutons, basically a meal in itself. The signature dessert is the Bananas Foster. It is a must have, and has no equivalent anywhere in the world.
There are many excellent and famous places to eat here. I have been to several, like the Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Emeril’s, Court of Two Sisters, and K-Paul’s. While they are famous, they are quite pricey. So unless you are on an expense account like I was, I would stick to the others. The other historic landmark is Preservation Hall, but be prepared. You must stand on a tiered platform, and it is small, dark, and hot. It is a must see, but ends up a slight disappointment in my book. Good music can be found in other venues, like Pat O’Brien’s, with seats, and good drinks all over the French Quarter. Somewhere on your trip here, you must have a Hurricane, a drink made of lime juice, passion fruit syrup, and rum. And the bigger, the better. It is legal to walk around in public with an alcoholic beverage.
But much like other cities we have visited, it is hard to find a bad meal. We walked into a food court in a shopping center. We had excellent fried fish Po’ Boys. We also found several breakfast places near our hotel that were fast, nutritious and inexpensive. Johnny’s Po’ Boys has a great, and greasy inexpensive and fast breakfast, almost cafeteria style. It was around the corner from our hotel.
But the holy grail of eating in Nawlins are the beignets (ben-yays) from the famous Cafe Du Monde. The Original Cafe Du Monde is a traditional coffee shop. Its menu consists of dark roasted Coffee and Chicory, Beignets, White and Chocolate Milk, and fresh squeezed Orange Juice. The coffee is served Black or Au Lait. Au Lait means that it is mixed half and half with hot milk. Beignets are square French -style doughnuts, lavishly covered with powdered sugar. In 1988 Iced Coffee was introduced to the cafe. Soft drinks also made their debut that year. Beignets were originally brought to Nawlins by the Acadians. They were fried fritters, sometimes fruit filled. Today, it is a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar, and served in threes. The chicory coffee is smooth and strong, and complements the hot beignets perfectly. It is hard to walk out of there with less than several orders each. Also, do not feel that it is a breakfast only item.
The half day city tour is great fun in a very small group. We had a small van, with just a couple others. Our driver was also the tour guide, a native of Nawlins, and quite spirited. One of the first stops was to the most famous cemetery in the city, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. We got to see the grave of the famous Rene Lacoste, whose alligator logo polo shirts adorn the preppy and sports landscape world wide. Even though he was a Frenchman, he wanted to be buried here.
We also drove past many of the great mansions in the City. We saw Tulane and Loyola Universities, and their medical schools and hospitals. They even drove us by the Manning residence. That would be Archie, Peyton, and Eli. Some other famous residents: Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote, Bryant Gumbel, Al Hirt, Huey Newton, Edgar Degas, Emeril, Lee Harvey Oswald, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Fats Domino, Paul Prudhomme, Cokie Roberts, and Michael DeBakey. That is a pretty impressive list.
We took the St. Charles streetcar line one day from downtown out to the end of the line, through the famous Garden District. Few people from the United States lived in New Orleans during its colonial era and the area had experienced only modest commercial development during its first decades due to trading restrictions imposed by France. With the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Americans swarmed into New Orleans to take advantage of the boom in Mississippi River commerce. By the 1850’s the successful entrepreneurs built large elegant mansions that are located in the Garden District.
Another interesting architectural anomaly is the shotgun style house. The name is derived from the fact that the rooms are lined up so that a gun can be fired through the house without hitting anything. It is one room wide, one story tall, and several rooms deep. The primary entrance is in the gable end. Another strange thing, on my first trip here, the streets were torn up. The road bed was made up of broken oyster shells.
Nawlins is also a great walking city, but I would stick to the daytime, except for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street areas, that are filled with people and police. There are several street fairs, especially along the waterfront area. The best places to buy souvenirs, food, and gifts are the French Market and the Crescent City Farmers Market. The French Quarter has interesting voodoo and occult shops, as well as cheesy porn and souvenir shops. Also, the City is very strong in the arts, with galleries, opera, symphony, and ballet. Several casinos are within walking distance as well.
New Orleans was the only place in the New World where slaves were allowed to own drums. Voodoo rituals were openly tolerated, and well attended by the rich as well as the poor, by blacks and whites, by the influential and the anonymous. It was in New Orleans that the bright flash of European horns ran into the dark rumble of African drums; it was like lightning meeting thunder. The local cats took that sound and put it together with the music they heard in churches and the music they heard in barrooms, and they blew a new music, a wild, jubilant music. It made people feel free. It made people feel alive! It made people get up and dance. And they danced to the birth of American music. And nobody played it like they played it in New Orleans, a city already used to feeling jubilant, and expressing its jubilation.
You must go if you have not. It is uniquely American, tourist friendly, and serves up fantastic food. I would avoid Mardi Gras, since it is a crazy time, more expensive, and full of trouble. But any time in the Fall or Spring is a great time to see the Crescent City.