Its been many years since our first and only previous trip to New Orleans the Crescent City on the Mississippi River. Although Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other events have done their best to change the tone and look of this city, the only obvious change is the high-rise towers lining Canal Street from the riverside toward the Superdome. What hasn’t changed is the look and feel of the French Quarter (Quartier Français), also known as the Vieux Carré (Old Square), and the optimistic resilience of the people of New Orleans.
Beginning with our Lyft driver, Anthony, our January visit was filled with kind, generous and helpful people who seemed to want to do everything in their power to make us feel welcomed and joyful. Laissez le bon temps rouler, Cajun French for ‘let the good times roll’, is more than a saying in this wonderful party town. Anthony made sure we knew that the locals had shaken-off (but not forgotten) the grievous missed call in the NFL Saints Division Championship game with the LA Rams just the week before. Signs for ‘We love you Saints’ and ‘Geaux Saints’ were all over the city and the Superdome. Anthony also told us the two best places to enjoy fried chicken. More about that later.
What to do:
There is so much to see, do and hear in the City of New Orleans. We began day one by walking from our hotel to Jackson Square a uniquely beautiful park with the Cathedral of St. Louis on one side and the levees of the Mississippi on the riverside. During any day you will find colorfully painted carriages pulled by mules lined-up awaiting their passengers. The 60-minute ride is $40 and is not private as the driver will try to get at least 6 people aboard.
Day or night a stroll along Bourbon Street is an eye-opener. During this visit we were surprised to see so much of the street under construction. The project is multi-phased to improve water, sewer and other utility services from Canal Street to Dumaine Street with all businesses remaining open and accessible throughout. Work is to be completed by July 2019. No worries however as the contractor will completely demobilize all labor and materials, including fencing, from the site and temporarily backfill any trenches by the close of business on February 17, two weeks in advance of Mardi Gras, to minimize pedestrian and vehicular traffic disruption. The work will resume operations on March 7, 2019.
Jackson Square, named for General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, for its central role in the city’s history, and as the site where in 1803 Louisiana was made United States territory when Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte consummated the deal known as the Louisiana Purchase. The square is a haven today for artists and performers. Some of the art is very good and you might find something you didn’t know you needed and can’t live without, like a painting of a wine glass and wine bottle with your own personal label on it. Of course, they will pack and ship it where ever you want.
Since 1727 New Orleanians have worshiped in churches on the site of St. Louis Cathedral on the square (later named Jackson Square). The current (2nd) church was completed in December 1794 and established as a Cathedral for the newly created Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas.
There are walking tours, swamp tours, cemetery tours, jazz tours, history tours, Street Car Tours and Voodoo tours among the wide range of attractions and distractions in this city of visitors. We took the Historical Riverboat Cruise on the Mississippi aboard the Creole Queen, a paddle boat, with a stop at the, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and the historic Chalmette Battlefield, scene of the decisive Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. The 2.5-hour cruise and tour were informative and picturesque. The on-board guide, Dr. Wendell, was very knowledgeable and the boat offered dining and beverage options. The seafood gumbo and jambalaya with andouille sausage were both very good.
Where to dine:
We arrived in the early evening from northern California and wanted something to eat close by our hotel. The concierge recommended two places in the Quarter, Acme Oyster House and Oceana Grill but both had longlines. We settled on Mr. B’s Bistro on the corner of Royal and Iberville streets. We were not disappointed with the modern Louisiana Cuisine operated by Cindy Brennan, one of many restaurants in New Orleans operated by the family. After drinks we began our culinary adventure with Gumbo Ya Ya, featuring super-dark roux and spicy chicken and andouille gumbo. I say Ya-Ya!! We also shared the Seafood Gumbo, classic New Orleans Gumbo with Gulf shrimp, crabmeat, oysters and okra. We actually like this even more then the Ya Ya. All in all, a perfect start.
Our first full day began at Café du Monde, a New Orleans staple since it first opened in 1862. There are 8 locations around greater New Orleans but the original is the most fun. Tourists and locals alike seem to enjoy the Beignets and chicory coffee and the vibe. (TIP: Customers can wait in a line that snakes its way down Decatur Street (the original location) or go around back to the much shorter ‘to go’ window.) A great place to sit and people watch and a must do, a least once.
We concluded our first evening with a birthday dinner at Doris Metropolitan, a Middle Eastern influenced steak house awarded New Orleans Best New Restaurant in 2014. The dry aged beef, especially the 34-ounce Porterhouse and the 18-ounce Rib-eye were off-the-wall tender, flavor filled and delicious. The wine list was extensive with wines from all over the world. We were impressed. Expensive but worth the price.
We decided to try Acme Oyster House for lunch on our second day, a Tuesday. Got there just before the lunch hour and walked right in. (TIP: Arriving early for lunch or dinner can avoid lines.) The menu was replete with Louisiana and Cajun delectable. Linda had the softshell crab sandwich and was very happy. I had the New Orleans Medley which was a sampling of gumbo, jambalaya, red beans & rice and grilled smoked sausage. Perfect! Prices ranged from $6 – $17 for lunch items. Very reasonable and delicious.
We were fortunate to have a local friend, Tim McNally, host of the New Orleans Dine, Wine & Spirits Show on radio station WGSO, 990 AM to join us for dinner with his food and wine writer spouse Brenda. Tim suggested Trenasse which was across the street from our hotel. Eschewing the menu, Tim and Brenda ordered a dozen raw oysters on the half shell and paired that with a bottle Philippe Fourrier Brut Champagne that they brought along. In fact, Tim and Brenda brought four bottles of wine, each more delightful than the last, including a wonderful 2016 Sancerre from Chateau de Thauvenay and Thierry Delauney Sauvignon Blanc. After the raw oysters were history, Brenda asked the kitchen to bring out the Trenasse ‘Log’, a platter of oysters All Ways supplemented with fried frog’s legs. The ‘all ways’ included Rockefeller, Bienville, Smoked with gruyere and pancetta and Au gratin. A feast for the eyes and the palate. A New Orleans treat.
Recalling that our Lyft driver Anthony had mentioned the best place for fried chicken, the first was ‘Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen’ and the other was Willie Mae’s Scotch House. The Popeye’s (named after Popeye Doyle, a character in the 1971 movie ‘The French Connection’ not the comic book character) recommendation was repeated no less than 5 times over our brief stay but we opted for a place that was not a chain restaurant, so Willie Mae’s it was.
Located ‘Uptown’ in the historic Treme neighborhood about a 20-minute walk from Bourbon Street, Willie Mae’s is located in a seemingly down-on its-luck residential part of town. Immediate upon entering the aromas of Louisiana cuisine fill your nostrils. Originally opened in 1957, the restaurant is run today by Kerry Seaton Stewart, the great-granddaughter of Ms. Willie Mae Seaton, who was honored in 2005 with the James Beard Award for “America’s Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region.”
Having been to New Orleans so long ago, we decided to return to the Commander’s Palace, where legends Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme made their names, to see if it had maintained its reputation. Another Brennan family eatery since 1974, we were not disappointed. Located in the Garden District and operating since 1893, this converted residence has long been the go-to destination for Haute Creole cuisine. The Brown Butter Seared Diver Scallops were perfectly moist with a mouthwatering caramelization on the outside. My Filet Mignon of Black Angus Beef was cooked to perfection and was very flavorful. We finished with the Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé “The Queen of Creole Desserts”. High on the Yum factor scale. No surprise that the Commander’s Palace has been awarded seven James Beard Foundation Awards.
Our last culinary opportunities were on our day of departure. Having competing desires, we tried two different places for lunch. Linda wanted gumbo and chose Willie’s Chicken Shack (7 locations in NOLA but we went to the one on Decatur in the Quarter). I couldn’t leave without a
muffuletta from the Central Grocery, founded in 1906 by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo, and originator of this delicious sandwich. We were both very pleased with our ‘last meal’ in NOLA.
Where to enjoy an adult beverage:
The Hurricane cocktails at Pat Obrien’s in the Quarter are a New Orleans tradition (over 85 years in the Quarter) to be experienced. The drinks (mostly rum) are reasonably priced and quite delicious. Keep to one for your own safety. They charge $4 for the glass but you can turn it in at the bar and get your $4 back.
The Carousel Bar & Lounge, a circus-clad Merry-Go-Round, in the Hotel Monteleone has been spinning for 65 years and is a long-time favorite New Orleans (NOLA for short) watering hole. The Carousel Bar is the city’s only revolving bar and it is a challenge to get one of the 25 seats. If you’re patient and a bit persistent the seats do open up. bright.
Situated on Decatur Street and just a couple blocks off Jackson Square, the Crescent City Brewhouse, opened in 1991 becoming both Louisiana’s and New Orleans first brew pub. The menu consists of some credible Cajun and Louisiana cuisine and most importantly some excellent brews. I thought the Red Stallion, malty and aromatic, was a delicious medium bodied brew.
Luke, designed as a Creole-inspired Brasserie, has a good happy hour every afternoon and great French press coffee in the morning. We enjoyed bartender-created specialty cocktails on a couple of occasions. A very good place to begin and end your day. Luke is located at the Hilton New Orleans/St. Charles
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Hilton New Orleans/St. Charles which was originally constructed in 1926 as the Louisiana Masonic Temple. One of New Orleans’ first skyscrapers, the historic 18-story structure remained the Masonic Temple until 2000 when it became a Kimpton Hotel. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused the existing Kimpton Hotel to close with flood waters in the basement and first floor. In 2007, the historic landmark reopened as the Hilton New Orleans St. Charles Avenue and remains a distinguished treasure of Louisiana and a member of the Historic Hotels of America. The rooms were large and reasonable priced, being just outside the Quarter, with a very convenient location.
How to get to the French Quarter from the Airport:
The Quarter is approximately 25 minutes’ drive by car from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Uber and Lyft are both easily available and easily accessible at a shared ride central point in the airport parking lot.
There is so much to do in New Orleans and, despite the length of this posting, we have only covered our brief visit. Time for you to find your own Bon Temps!!