Monday, April 15, 2013

Weekend escapes series: N’awlins

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans; everything else is Cleveland”.  Some attribute the quote to Mark Twain, others to Tennessee Williams.  I think it belongs to the latter, but the point it’s not the source, but the validity of it.  Absolutely true! 

The Big Easy, Crescent City, or NOLA – whatever you want to call it – it’s clearly in a class by itself.  Vibrant, always extravagantly (and sans-inhibitions) celebrating something, a place rich in history, culture, original culinary scene, and yes, of course – jazz.  For it’s where it started, and where it continues to grow strong.  There is no other place in the world for so much [quality] jazz!!! 

So if you’re in the mood for some serious partying, pack a light bag (it’s always pretty warm), make sure you leave any inhibitions at home (preferably sense of smell too) and be ready for an experience [good or bad] that will likely be etched in your memory forever…

So here we go:

The Saint hotel
If you’re driving in from one the neighboring Southern states, it’s worth a little detour for the approach via the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (the longest bridge in the word, at almost 24 miles).  But since this type of trip will likely involve copious consumption of alcohol, the driving choice may not be entirely appropriate.  The "wheels" will stay parked for the duration of the trip anyway… Your call ;-)

Get a hotel near (or in) the French Quarter, but stay away from the tourist hot zones on Royal, Chartres (both around Jackson Square) and – especially – Bourbon Street.  You’ll likely over-pay and won’t be pleased with the quality.  There are several nice choices in and around the FQ; we stayed at The Saint this time around.  W also has a very “zen” location on Poydras.  But there are plenty of other – very affordable – choices as well.  In the end, it won’t matter.  You won’t spend much time in the hotel anyway… 

Now, if you visit with kids – although not advised – steer clear of Bourbon Street at all times.  Swing by the Aquarium (a little old, but worth the visit), get a streetcar ride all the way down Charles Street to visit the Zoo [they have the rare white tigers], and hop on the Natchez for a short cruise (allegedly, she’s the last steamboat operating on the Mississippi).  There’s probably other cheesy things to do with little ones – like swamp/alligator tours, for example – but that’s not my cup o’ tea (or something I’d want to expose my little‘uns to).  Your call again.

Since I brought up tours – they offer them at every corner and at every imaginable price range.  We actually discovered Free Tours by Foot ( which offers a cool alternative:  no up-front charge; you pay as much as you want, based on how much you enjoyed the tour.  This is a Clark Howard kind of concept!   But more on that a bit later…

If you’re here without progeny – the sensible choice, in my opinion – there are two options to experience the city:  stay [relatively] sober and take note of how low certain members of the human race can stoop (there’ll be plenty of experiences in that space, believe me), or loosen-up with a few drinks yourself before even setting foot on Bourbon Street.  Each scenario will obviously paint a different picture…  

So let’s see…

Chances are you’re getting here late afternoon.  Check in at the hotel to drop off that light duffle bag you brought with you: change of underwear/bra perhaps (if wearing any), toothbrush [optional], extra t-shirt (if staying more than 3 days) and head out for some “fun” on Bourbon.

If this is your first time here, be warned: it’s hot (pretty much April through October), very humid, noisy, and your olfactory might take a few minutes to get used to the ambient setting.  The combined odor of booze, trash “juices”, metabolic [or not so metabolic ;-)] body waste, plus a few other unidentified ‘fragrances’ give you the impression (if you close your eyes for a second) that you could be inside a sewer.
As you open your eyes, the metaphor holds true, since the ‘image’ you get on Bourbon is the visual equivalent of said waste-removing sanitation system.  There are cheap bars lining both sides of the street, equally unappealing “gentlemen’s clubs” (where the girls I would assume were the cream of the crop – used as bait to lure the customers in – were probably the most unattractive bunch I've ever seen) but the people-watching is “priceless”.  The ‘scene’ is comprised mostly of kids in their late teens and early twenties, drunk, loud, and obnoxious, and forty-fifty-somethings acting just as stupid as those kids.  Sad indeed. 

Balcony "seats" - front and center for the freak show
As you walk through, there are ‘hosts’ and bouncers pretty much luring you to their bars with free [watered-down] drinks, women collecting beads in exchange for a quick peek at their boobs (Mardi Gras or not), a Christian group with a cross in the middle of the street preaching about sin and repentance, while a confused young man – barely with any peach fuzz on his chin – walks by with his right arm raised at an angle, shouting “white power!” [I want to see him try that in the 9th Ward, or Mid-City], a kid (or sadly, an adult) trying to squeeze a dollar out of you for the mere promise that he would like to shine your shoes [even when you’re wearing gym shoes], a girl who looks like a guy but wearing a dress directing traffic [yeah… no…  it IS a guy… for now… 3 hours and 8 drinks later, I wouldn't  be so sure], more girls with ‘tops’ painted on [some are ‘legit’, others should really cover up], and then there’s the ‘music’ blaring from every window, drunks at every step, lots of ‘white trash’ of all gender and race, general yelling and screaming, more loud noise delivered under the pretense of music, pickpockets [watch out!], drag queens, pimps [yes, there was a guy wearing a fur coat in 70+ degree weather] etcetera, etcetera… (I can really go on for days, that’s how “rich” this place is)

So I guess you get the idea; I’m not a big fan of Bourbon Street, but it IS what defines a big part of this city.  Go experience it.  And trust me: the amount of alcohol you consume will have a direct correlation to your overall experience.  Your choice again ;-)

On from there…

Lafitte's Bar
As you continue north-west on Bourbon, the bars and party scene will die down.  That is, until you hit Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar – a tavern built in the late 1700’s and claiming to be the oldest continually occupied bar in the States.  Stop in for a drink, before you head down to Frenchmen’s, another few blocks away.  For that’s where the locals hang out (away from all the tourist traps) and that’s where all the quality music ‘happens’ [no offense to the artists that may be trying their best, but most live ‘music’ on Bourbon is of poor-to-medium quality, catered to a demographic with impaired auditory and visual capabilities, that cares more about decibel levels and the theatrics of the artists performing].

Back on Frenchmen, then…

The Spotted Cat, d.b.a., Blue Nile, Maison, etc. are a few ‘spots’ where you can delight with excellent music in an atmosphere that’s [with some exceptions] at the other extreme from what I described earlier.  I suggest you hang out here, if you like jazz…

The red bar at the Saint
Once you’ve had your fill of live music, and are ready to head back to the hotel, here’s options again: take some of the side streets, clear your head and witness the many “ghost tours” that people seem to flock to like bees to honey.  Or, pass through Bourbon again.  By this time, they’ve surely kicked it up a notch or two!

Back at the hotel, there’s likely a band playing in the bar as well.  Night cap is obligatory in that instance.  A few ‘caps’ later you’re probably trying to decide which band you saw earlier was the best.  Don’t bother – you won’t be able to make that call; they’re so many good ones…

The next morning, you’re more than likely ready for a greasy plate and a Bloody Mary or two.  You’re in luck.  This city does both very well!

Café du Monde is a local institution, but I suggest you stay away.  Tourist trap (although beignets are very good).  Ask Yelp for some help, but there are plenty of decent places to ‘restart’ yourself.  Camellia Grill – a classic diner on Chartres – was excellent.  As for the Bloody Mary, Carousel Bar or Molly’s claim to have the best, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad one anywhere in the Quarter ;-)

Blood sugar and alcohol levels somewhat under control now, start your day at Jackson Square.  Admire (or don’t) some of the street artists’ paintings and trinkets.  There’s a few dozen people that will also “read” your future on tarot cards, palms, or whatnot… and plenty of beggars [most of them drunk already even before noon].  Enjoy a leisurely stroll through Royal Street, the ‘classier’ option in the Quarter, full of art galleries, cafés and antique shops.  On the way back, take Peters and stop by the French Market.  Lots of tourist fare in this section, a place for bargain souvenirs.  You can also grab a po-boy and have lunch on the banks of the Mississippi.

St. Louis Cathedral in the background
A corner from Jackson Square
Mardi Gras!
Royal Street - above ... and some of the many street musicians - below 
By the way, there are very few places in the FQ where you can get a decent po-boy.  The one everyone recommends (Parkway Bakery and Tavern) requires a cab ride but it’s apparently worth it.  Maybe next time… For now – thanks again to Yelp (for this place is tucked in the back of Erin Rose Bar on Conti; you won’t find it otherwise) – we had to settle for what was available in the Quarter.  Killer Poboys (as the place is called) did not disappoint, although it offered less traditional fare (think pork belly or coriander lime shrimp).  For something more mainstream, Johnny’s [on St. Louis St.] might also work.

And since we started talking food, you owe it to yourself to try a good Cajun or Creole restaurant.  We splurged on the excellent R’evolution (partially because of the rave reviews, but mostly because Laura’s former client Graham ( had painted the interior for this wonderful restaurant; a perfect ten, on setting, ambiance, service, and of course, food!

... actually sat at the table on the right...
My other ‘pick’ for this trip, The Commander’s Palace – a local institution that counts Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse among the alumni – would have to wait until next time.  Had reservations, but decided to skip last minute [I know, most foodies would chastise me for that].

Oh, well… gives one something to look forward to for the next trip…. that, and Cochon, Stella, Galatoire’s, August, GW Fins, etc.  You get the idea…

In the meantime, until you hit some of these spots for dinner, pick a decent place in the Quarter and help yourself to some boiled crawfish (served by the pound, sort of like chips and salsa in a Mexican place).  A definite must in this city, although clearly not for everyone!

An alternative for the more adventurous would be a visit to Tremé (the historic creole neighborhood just away from the Quarter, where jazz allegedly originated).  Many advise against it (for safety reasons, calling it - in politically correct terms - an "economically compromised neighborhood") but the area contains plenty of notable points of interest tied to the rich Creole heritage: the Louis Armstrong Park, Li'l Dizzy's Café (real good gumbo) or the Candlelight Lounge (for live jazz) just to rattle off a few.  Just don't venture here at night, and leave your "bling" at the hotel...

A purple party buss in front of Harrah's Casino
By this time, you’re probably in need of a little rest, after all the walking around.  Get a foot massage at one of the many spots on Canal, or better yet, head over to Harrah’s Casino, grab a chair and try to get rich ;-) 

As night sets again, head over to Bourbon Street again.  The shock factor will not be the same, and the people-watching will get better.  The music, unfortunately, won’t… so head back to Frenchmen’s for something worth listening to.

Outside of the Quarter, there’s really not much to do, but we did try the ‘free’ walking tour mentioned above for a little visit to the Garden District.  Adrien, our guide – a retired banker who lived in the area for a long time – proved to be a walking Wikipedia.  In the end, the free two hour tour was $20 well spent.  Apparently, there are plenty celebrities that have a residence in the area: Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Anne Rice, or the houses themselves have ‘celebrity’ status: Manning house (where Peyton and Eli grew up), or houses used recently in movies – Benjamin Button or Django Unchained.  Overall, a cool tour with plenty of history, beautiful mansions, and the obligatory cemetery tour (yep, cemeteries are a tourist attraction here, where ‘six feet under’ doesn't mean the same thing).
Benjamin Button house they filmed the bloody shutout scene in Django Unchained
John Goodman's house
Childhood home of Eli and Payton Manning
Sandra Bullock's pad
Lafayette Cemetery #1
If you make it here, might as well try Commander’s Palace or at least walk down to Magazine Street for deserts.  Sucré is a gem, sweet tooth or not.  Excellent macarons!

I guess that covers it.  You owe it to yourself to enjoy a weekend in NOLA…. Unless you prefer Cleveland ;-)

Oh, almost forgot: I don’t recommend visiting during Labor Day weekend.  The Southern Decadence festival may keep you away from any gay parade (or the city of New Orleans) for at least 15 years [that was the case for me].  Nothing against a decent gay parade, but I can’t think of a bigger turnoff than witnessing one guy ‘blowing’ another in broad daylight, in the middle of the street, while 6-7 others are rooting for them.  I’ll never be able to erase that mental picture.  Ever!

My point is: expect to be shocked - at some level - in N’awlins. 

I'll leave you with an image of the Superdome - the one that hosted the last
Super Bowl (yeah, the one with the 30+ min power outage ;-)!