It’s 10:00 a.m. and we’re making the rounds to a few of the hottest brunch places in the city. In the true spirit of brunch, we ordered two mimosas at Toups South. We quickly amended it to “and just use a splash of orange juice,” to which our snarky bartender replied, “That’s just called champagne, not a mimosa. Own it.”
Welcome to New Orleans.
What do you do during the first snowfall in the Midwest, or anytime it’s cold?
Go to New Orleans.
Why? It’s a short flight, the weather is considerably better in the winter (usually in the 60’s, at worst), and it’s just a fun place to be.
New Orleans is the kind of city where even the most tacky, touristy things seem to make sense. We would never think of taking a donkey tour around any city… But in New Orleans, it seemed like a great idea (especially with family in tow). And, admittedly, it was a great way to get an overview of the neighborhoods (not as good as by bike, but certainly more entertaining).
The actual people of New Orleans are the real entertainment. They’re authentic and fiercely loyal to their city, incredibly friendly and tolerant, and even welcoming to the idiot tourists. On one of our first trips there, we went to a glass-blowing studio giving a demo on a Saturday and struck up a conversation with the glass blower, Andy Brott. We ended up in his backyard the next day for a neighborhood party with grilled oysters and football. (And nearly 15 years later, we’re still friends and have put Andy’s work in countless restaurant projects across the country.)
The Uber drivers will give you the best overview of the stages of New Orleans, including how New Orleans had lost its mojo pre-Katrina. The recovery was brutal, but now the city is back and better than ever. Luther, one Uber driver, talked to us about dressing for success and taking pride in what you do. He was excited to take a short detour to show us where he grew up playing stick ball in Freret, how the neighborhood has had a resurgence, and how far he’d come after a lifetime traveling and working on barges. To us, Luther himself defines how the real New Orleans can be.
Every weekend is a celebration, a festival, a big football game (hopefully not with a shooting), or a convention. It’s not just during Mardi Gras—New Orleans is always a party.
Everyone is drawn to the French Quarter, which is actually small and walkable from one end to the other, with Jackson Square the orientation point. The best time to be in the Quarter is about 9:30 a.m. The smelly revelers from the night before have finally gone “somewhere else,” the street cleaners have been through most of the streets to clean up last night’s mess, the tourists aren’t out in full force yet (or they’re at Café du Monde covering themselves in powdered sugar from the beignets), and the tarot-card readers and mimes painted in gold are just starting to set up.
The Garden District (upper and lower) is an incredible walking area, too, with a little more relief from the mess and tourists. New Orleans is filled with tree-lined streets, even in warehouse areas (learn a lesson here, Minneapolis).
We call New Orleans the original “look up” city. Walking, especially in the Quarter, you have to look up to see the details on the buildings and to see the overhanging porches, called galleries. You also need to look up because the people above may be watering their massive flowers… Or pouring a beer on your head. Looking down is equally important, because you will inevitably step in something completely undesirable and indescribable.
There is no shortage of hotel rooms in the city. Name a chain or brand and you can find it here.
Most people want to stay in the Quarter—which is fine, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Most times of the year, it’s dirty and loud. The classic old dogs are the Roosevelt (a Waldorf Astoria) and the Ritz Carlton, on opposite sides of Canal Street bordering the Quarter.
If you want the Quarter with a little more seclusion, your two best bets are Audubon Cottages and Soniat House. They’re not big hotels with big lobbies, but they have the classic New Orleans hidden courtyards (and the Soniat House has to-die-for biscuits for breakfast).
If you want to be close to, but not in, the Quarter, just look across Canal Street for every chain in the book. Our favorites for location and amenities (although more modern overall) are International House and Loft 523. There is also a brand-new Ace Hotel, if you’re a fan of the more happening lobbies and quirkier rooms (the Ace is also home to some of the hottest new restaurants in the city, including Josephine Estelle and Seaworthy).
If you rent a bike, or do one of those aforementioned donkey tours, it will give you a sense of the neighborhoods. It’s also an easy way to make stops at the Lafayette (the uptown garden district) and the St. Louis cemeteries 1 and 2. The cemeteries are actually walking distance from the Quarter (the current home of Marie Leveau, legendary voodoo queen. Yes, people actually believe in voodoo here).
Other than the tacky Bourbon Street, the French Quarter is filled with fascinating building details, shotgun houses, galleries, and incredible overhanging flowers everywhere. There is a bar every 10 feet, and everyone walking has a drink.
Faubourg and Marigny
This neighborhood borders the Quarter and is starting becoming the more hipster-cool spot for stores and restaurants. It’s still more offbeat and grittier than the garden district by a lot, and it’s fun to see the contrast of where people actually live.
Garden District (Uptown, Upper and Lower District)
There are a lot of parts to the Garden District, from the incredible huge homes to the more commercial area of Magazine Street. It’s worth a walk down the street to see fewer tourists and where people really live.
Arts District and CBD
Technically two neighborhoods, but they blend together. This area borders the French Quarter, is home to tons of hotels, and the restaurant scene is incredible—and keeps getting better.
This neighborhood is where the New Orleans resurgence lives. It’s a cool little area of houses that are being rehabbed with a younger, cooler crop of people moving in. (Our glassblowing friends from Brottworks were some of the first in here, and they built a new home and studio smack-dab in the middle, before it was cool.)
Oh, boy, where to begin?
The Quarter has more of the tourist-driven, huge restaurants: Mr. B’s, Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, Acme Oyster House. There is also Commander’s Palace, a classic in the Garden District and best for brunch. If you must do touristy restaurants, just pick one or two—don’t make them your only eating experiences.
Before we get to restaurant recommendations, here are a few classic tips for New Orleans eating:
- Have a Sazarac , and ideally have one in the Sazarac bar at the Roosevelt, a classic.
- Let’s talk fried chicken, a trend still holding on a bit across the country. Dooky Chase versus Willie Mae’s. Both will be recommended, but locals will tell you Dooky Chase is much better (and he actually just died).
- Po Boys. They’re everywhere. Mother’s on Poydras, Mahony’s on Magazine. Everyone stands in line for Mother’s, including us a few times. The experience is cool, but I’m not sure the ham is worth the line?
- New Orleans loves all of their sandwiches, though, naming Turkey and the Wolf one of their best new restaurants. Also, try the classic Stein’s (Jewish Italian deli, right where you’d expect it?).
Now let’s get to the great restaurants in the city.
Toward the Garden District, there are a few cool/quirky stops including Toups South (new in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum) and Cavan on Magazine Street, which is an incredible remodel of a classic old house done really well. An example of great restaurant design and sensitive restoration. (The Cavan owners also have Sylvain right in the Quarter, which used to be better, but if you can score a table in the back outdoor courtyard, it’s worth it.)
Also, don’t miss the detour to the Bakery Bar. It’s a great spot for brunch, but, more importantly, their salty balls (small bites of salty cake dough covered in chocolate). Seriously, one of the best desserts.
The John Besh Group has some incredible restaurants including Domenica (in the Roosevelt hotel) for pizza, charcuterie, and pasta. And you can’t miss Willa Jean, the new place with inventive southern fare. It’s incredibly any time of day, but especially for breakfast/brunch. Note to Domenica: Love your food, but lose the bad 80’s pop music by Paula Abdul and Whitney Houston. Ugh.
If you must do Emeril, try his new place, Meril. More inventive and casual than his other spots.
A little further afield:
Bacchanal Wine isn’t really a walk, but make the trip for great wine and small plates with a fantastic outdoor space.
A caveat: We’re not museum people, but the National WWII Museum is an exception (in CBD), especially for the 4D film Beyond All Boundaries, narrated by Tom Hanks. Also, very surprisingly, the restaurant at the museum, American Sector, is great. And it has an outdoor patio when the sun isn’t too hot. (It used to be a John Besh restaurant, but it’s still really good without the group’s management.)
Whew. Yes, New Orleans is a true two-day town—but you need to visit at least every two years.