New Orlean’s pleasures, from sublime to ridiculous, are at their best right now, just before Mardi Gras.
Begin with beignets. This is sound advice for anyone visiting New Orleans. The beignet’s almost vulgar appeal—fried dough, chewy and hot, blanketed with powdered sugar and served with strong coffee—is offset by old-world elegance and delicacy. A great beignet is defined by contrasts in a way matched by no doughnut ever: crunch against ethereal tenderness, steaming bready interior against cool heaps of soft sugar, chicory-bittered cafe against comforting milk. A beignet is simultaneously American as baseball and unmistakably French, a quick snack that slows the flow of time. What better way to start a day in New Orleans, a city as primal and ethereal as the best beignet?
Head first to Morning Call in City Park. The elegantly tiled coffee stand is set in a lawn shaded by gothic live oaks and extravagantly mossed cypresses. Besides free parking, outdoor seating, no line and excellent beignets, Morning Call is close to other City Park attractions: the Botanical Garden, the antique carousel and the New Orleans Museum of Art. And I strongly recommend City Putt, one of the few mini-golf courses in the world, where they will sell you a beer on the course at 9 a.m. Nearby is St. Louis Cemetery #3, with its wide white necropolitan avenues and extravagantly statued tombs.
It may be easier to visit the equally picturesque Lafayette Cemetery #1 because it’s across the street from not-to-be-missed Commander’s Palace, the resplendent queen in a city full of grande-dame restaurants. The classic creole menu at Commander’s is always great, but their weekend jazz brunch may be the best brunch in the world. The musicians playing table-side at Commander’s are top artists and bandleaders from around the city; on my last visit, we were treated to a haunting rendition of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” the best live music I’d heard all year. Like all the grand restaurants of New Orleans, Commander’s Palace has a world-class wine list, but don’t let that keep you from ordering several glasses of milk punch—nobody makes a better one.
The French Quarter is a little less frenetic in January and February, in the calm before the city’s wildest party. Her proudest traditions are manifested in legendary restaurants, world-class bars, and famous music venues, right beside her less-proud traditions—trashy souvenir shops, fake voodoo stores and countless garish bars blaring loud music and peddling brightly colored alcohol in brightly colored plastic cups. Nowhere else in America does the ridiculous rub up against the sublime quite so closely. It is as though The French Laundry were located inside a strangely permissive Six Flags.
In most places, local folk cuisine—the food with soul and a sense of place—is divorced from haute cuisine. Not in New Orleans, the most delicious city in America. Dooky Chase and Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Treme district serve competing versions of fried chicken, both among the best in the world. Nothing is fancy about the chargrilled oysters at Casamento’s. And the po’ boys at Domilise’s are not to be missed. But Louisiana Creole Cuisine is the true cuisine of New Orleans, and its natural habitat is the high-end Gilded Age restaurant. Most cities in the world would be thrilled to have one or two restaurants like Commander’s Palace—the French Quarter alone has five. Each is a legend in its own right, and each deserves a whole article to itself, but I will just recite their names like a rosary: Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Broussard’s, Galatoire’s. Some of these restaurants are approaching their 200-year anniversary and going strong. That they are all within walking distance of each other seems a grotesque overindulgence until you remember that we are talking about New Orleans.
A youngster compared to some on that list, Galatoire’s has only been operating since 1905. Sitting in the mirror-lit main room and enjoying a cocktail as the waiter brings me a perfect plate of Crab Maison is the closest I’ve come to feeling like Jack in that photograph in The Shining, grinning back at the modern world from a party a century in the past. Diners used to the streamlined comforts of the 21st century may feel slightly out-of-place at first, but relax and trust the restaurant and you will enjoy one of the best meals America has to offer. Tip: If you can’t commit the hours and dollars for an epic, life-changing meal, stop by in the afternoon for a mathematically perfect bowl of gumbo and a loaf of fresh bread. Ten dollars and 25 minutes is a small price to pay for such a pilgrimage.
The soul of New Orleans is music, and most of the best venues are in the French Quarter. Younger visitors may want to seek out some Bounce, the New Orleans variant of hip-hop. But when I am in New Orleans, I want jazz. Dedicated music fans line up to gain admission to the holy of holies, Preservation Hall, where a changing cast of the best jazz musicians alive perform nightly with no amplification for a small, rapt audience that holds its breath to hear every note. If you want a more casual experience or have no interest in standing in line, similarly great music is available without all the to-do at Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, about a two-minute walk away. Members of the famous Marsalis family regularly play at Snug Harbor. And if you can catch John Boutte singing his regular gig at d.b.a., don’t miss it for anything—the seventh-generation New Orleanian has the voice of Sam Cooke and the vocal control of Pavarotti and he puts on a devastating show.
The menu goes on. Don’t I need to tell you about the blue-crab-stuffed beignets at La Petite Grocery? The Sazerac Bar makes the best sazeracs and Ramos gin fizzes in the city; these are the two great New Orleans cocktails. Latitude 29 serves unspeakably delicious tiki drinks. Cure is a temple of mixology that holds its own against the best bars in New York and San Francisco. The Catahoula offers some of the city’s most adventurous cocktails, including one made with pisco, aged eggs, and the bloom of the toothache plant. And, for those who can’t resist the siren song of those brightly colored alcoholic slurpees, Gene’s Curbside Daiquiris serves up an electric rainbow of custom-blended flavors to loyal locals.
Caveat emptor. And I really mean it.
NOLA is a grown-up town, but kids can have fun, too.
Audubon Park, with its zoo and moss-hung oaks, is a great place to stretch your legs after a NOLA feast. The aquarium is a great one, and the insectarium is a can’t-miss attraction for fans of shiny beetles, butterflies or giant millipedes. Plum Street narrowly beats out Hansen’s Sno-Biz as the purveyor of the best sno-balls.
by Travis Waddington