By Andrew Collins
Gary Krist’s absorbing history of New Orleans’ seedy early-20th-century underbelly, Empire of Sin, opens with a great quote from a local minister of the time: “It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.”
Indeed, with apologies to Las Vegas, New Orleans is America’s original “Sin City.” And, with apologies to the residents and boosters of New Orleans today, it’s also worth pointing out that the city’s reputation for licentiousness is overstated, and that most locals rarely set foot in the giddy strip joints and beer-soaked tourist traps of upper Bourbon Street. Unquestionably, though, this is one city that encourages visitors to let their hair down and indulge a bit, whether by partaking in the round-the-clock nightlife, eating their way through one of the most acclaimed restaurant scenes in the world, or attending one of New Orleans’s larger-than-life festivals. Mardi Gras is February 17, but there’s also Jazz Fest in late Apr. and early May, Southern Decadence over Labor Day weekend, and many others.
The famed French Quarter and its increasingly famous adjacent district, Faubourg Marigny, together contain the lion’s share of the city’s LGBT-owned and -oriented bars and restaurants, not to mention plenty of key attractions. It’s certainly good fun to browse and carouse in these neighborhoods, but New Orleans has far more to it. Try to spend some time venturing outside the city’s most obvious neighborhoods—you may be surprised by New Orleans’s rich diversity and off-the-beaten-path charms.
Among the city’s several nationally acclaimed chefs, John Besh is almost in a class by himself—he has several restaurants around town, with Lüke, in the Central Business District (CBD) offering up some of the most delicious food. Besh patterned the concept of this bustling space with pressed-tin ceilings and a long bar on the “grand old Franco-German brasseries that once reigned in New Orleans.” The decadent biscuit sandwich with fried chicken and Tabasco honey is a favorite at breakfast. In the evening, consider one of the impressive raw bar platters, heaping with Gulf oysters and other local shellfish, or the hearty ragout of wild boar with Parmesan and hand-made garganelli pasta. Nearby, amid the contemporary art galleries and jumpin’ music clubs of the Warehouse District, chef Donald Link has become another much-celebrated figure in New Orleans food world. His finer dining spots—Herbsaint, Cochon, and Peche—are all terrific, but the Link eatery I never miss when I’m in town is his cozy, carnivore-driven lunch room Butcher, which turns out phenomenal sandwiches (Moroccan spiced lamb, duck-pastrami sliders), plus sides of head cheese with chow-chow, hot boudin, and addictive house-made potato chips.
In a modest historic house with an open, pitched-ceiling dining room, laid-back but trendy Maurepas Foods serves consistently inventive, locally sourced fare, such as pecan soup with potatoes, brown butter, garlic, and smoked paprika, and goat tacos with pickled green tomatoes and cilantro harissa. Open late for dinner and also on weekends for brunch, it’s one of several notable restaurants in historic Bywater, a little down river from the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. The neighborhood fell on hard times for many years but has over the past two decades has become a hot spot among hipsters, creative spirits, and LGBT residents (Ani DiFranco among them).
If you’re seeking a less-touristy, albeit somewhat out-of-the-way, alternative dessert option to much-hyped Cafe du Monde, make a beeline to Angelo Brocato, which was virtually rebuilt a decade ago following Hurricane Katrina and has been a fixture in Mid-City since 1905. This old-fashioned pastry shop and ice cream parlor provides a nice glimpse into the city’s deep and extensive Italian-immigrant roots, serving delicious fiore di latte and straciatella gelato, watermelon Italian ices, chocolate-dipped cannoli, and decadent Sicilian Cassata cake. It’s easily reached via the Canal Streetcar and makes a fun stop before or after a stroll through nearby New Orleans City Park, which is also home to the excellent, if underrated, New Orleans Museum of Art.
It may sound a little touristy, but spending a half-day on one of Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours provides a truly memorable opportunity to see and appreciate the ecosystem that characterizes southern Louisiana and the lower Mississippi Delta. There’s nowhere else in the country where you can experience such an impressive river swamp—this one looks virtually as it would have when European explorers first came to the region.
These tours differ from some of the noisy—and goofy—airboat rides offered by many competitors. Guests are taken out in small boats that can venture quietly and deeply into the depths of this 250-square-mile swamp on the edge of Slidell, 30 miles east of New Orleans (the tour company can pick you up and drop you back off at your hotel). These two-hour excursions are narrated by smart, entertaining naturalists, and amazing opportunities for wildlife photography abound. Depending on the season, you may see alligators, turtles, feral hogs, bald eagles, heron, owls, and the now-infamous—but pretty cute—nutria, an invasive otter-like rodent introduced from South America into the Louisiana wetlands in an unfortunate and ill-fated attempt at fur-farming.
No visit to New Orleans is complete without a stroll through Uptown, which actually comprises a string of historic neighborhoods extending upriver from the Central Business District (CBD) and Warehouse District for about 5 miles to the Riverbend/Carrollton area (at about the junction of St. Charles and South Carrollton Aves.). There’s a lot to see and do in this historic part of the city best known for the ornately trimmed mansions and ancient cemeteries of the Garden District, the handsome campus of Tulane University, block after block of diverting cafes and boutiques along Magazine Street, and the moss-draped live oaks of Audubon Park, which has walking trails, picnic shelters, a lagoon, the city’s best public golf course (Audubon Golf Club), and Audubon Zoo. If you’re up for a more in-depth look at the Garden District, consider a guided walk with Historic New Orleans Tours—these two-hour strolls pass by landmark homes (including the residences of local celebs like Anne Rice and John Goodman) and amid the above-ground tombs of infamous Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.
The shopping and dining highlights in Uptown are too many to mention by name, but you’ll do especially well to focus on the 2000–2300, 2800–3400, and 4200–5000 blocks of Magazine Street as well as the recently gentrified 4500–5200 blocks of Freret Street, several stretches of St. Charles Avenue, and Oak Street up in the Riverbend/Carrollton area. Do consider three Uptown musts for dining, however: Jacques-Imo’s in Riverbend/Carrollton, and Lilette and Casamento’s on Magazine Street.
Literary luminaries including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and William Faulkner have all roosted at the wonderfully atmospheric Hotel Monteleone, a soaring 1886 tower—the tallest structure and largest hotel in the French Quarter—whose atmospheric Carousel Bar & Lounge ranks among the most distinctive cocktail venues in the city. The upscale rooms are traditionally furnished with period-style pieces, but for the ultimate “only in New Orleans” experience, book one of the special Literary Suites, which are named and themed after notable past guests.
For the ultimate splurge, book a room at the Old World–posh Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, which occupies the fabulously restored Maison Blanche department store building, an icon on Canal Street—right on the edge of the French Quarter—since this Beaux Arts beauty was constructed in 1908. Be sure to stop in Davenport Lounge for a Sazerac cocktail to the accompaniment of live jazz, or for traditional afternoon tea during earlier in the day. M Bistro is a lovely option for savoring gorgeously plated regional contemporary cuisine. There’s also a full-service spa offering a long menu of enticing treatments.
Its gently curving façade bathed in red neon, the hip Hotel Modern overlooks dignified Lee Circle and lies right on the St. Charles Streetcar line, steps from the trendy dining and nightlife of the Warehouse District and relatively close to Magazine Street shopping and the frilly mansions of the Garden District. The nine-story 135-room boutique hotel is moderately priced and stylishly designed, its minimalist-chic accommodations offering a refreshingly contemporary vibe. The hotel’s sexy Bellocq lounge employs a talented team of mixologists, and Tivoli & Lee restaurant is serves superb mod-Southern fare.
For more on New Orleans, check out neworleanscvb.com.
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