This article originally ran in 2016. We are resharing it for Mardi Gras. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
NEW ORLEANS – When people think of New Orleans, visions of feathery masks, brightly colored beads, boozy drinks, hazy jazz clubs, girls flashing their goods and heartless hurricanes usually come to mind. Indeed, all of these elements are a part of the culture, but there’s so much more.
A visit to The Big Easy can be upscale, seedy or somewhere in between. Whether one stays in a five-star historic hotel or questionable, crumbling quarters, New Orleans has a certain magic that entrances most of its visitors. (Multiple conversations with locals lead to a statement like, "I came here X number of years ago on vacation and I never left ...")
Perhaps it’s the "anything goes" feeling of freedom that permeates the streets. From complete freaks to normal Nans, it seems everyone slips into a NOLA niche. The blend of cultures, predominantly French, Cajun, Creole and Haitian, creates a unique blend of food, drink and music offerings unlike anywhere else in the world.
The city emulates endurance, resilience and strength that’s, in part, conjured from a history of adversity. In 1788, the Great Fire of New Orleans burned down most of the French Quarter, and hurricanes, like 2005’s horrific Katrina, forced residents to rebuild their homes and their lives. A postcard at the French Quarter Postal Emporium on Bourbon Street reads, "New Orleans: destined to outlast the cockroach," reminding everyone that it’s definitely a place for the hearty and not the weak of heart.
Bourbon Street: flash ‘em if you got ‘em and then keep going
Most visitors stay in the French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carre, which is the oldest neighborhood in the city. The Quarter has a total area that’s under one square mile, so walking is the most common mode of transportation. In terms of what to do in the Quarter, Jason Clime, the regional coordinator for the Louisiana Office of Tourism, put it best.
"Everyone has to go to Bourbon Street, at the very least to see what all the fuss is about," says Clime. "Bourbon Street is an experience, a place where people lose their inhibitions and that can be a beautiful thing."
Strolling up and down Bourbon Street, which spans the entire Quarter, offers a feast of eye candy. "Upper Bourbon Street" is an eight-block stretch and where most of the debauchery takes place. Walk-up windows serve "huge ass beers" to go, as well as strong, sugary drinks from daiquiris to hurricanes to the secret-recipe hand grenade. (It has a melon flavor. Midori or some cheap knock-off perhaps?)
Bars, voodoo shops, restaurants and clubs, both jazz and strip, line the street on the ground floor. (Try Larry Flint’s Hustler Club or Rick’s Cabaret to push the NOLA experience beyond an R-rating.) Above the businesses, there’s usually a balcony with an ornate iron railing holding back a gaggle of partiers tossing strings of beads to those exposing naked torsos.
Bourbon Street: beyond boobs and beads
A few must-stops on Bourbon Street include Cafe-Lafitte-In-Exile, the oldest gay bar in the country, and the home of a fantastic Bloody Mary that, because of all the fixings, is more of a meal than a beverage. Or grab an Abita, the most popular local beer in New Orleans, at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. It’s inside one of the oldest buildings in the Quarter and did not have electricity – instead it was lit entirely by candle light – until very recently. It is believed, but not confirmed, that the tavern got electricity so they could install flat screen TVs when the Saints went to the Super Bowl.
The massive, famous Pat O’Brien’s is a hardcore tourist destination with a great patio that serves up decent drinks in souvenir glasses. People in green blazers rove the connected drinking and eating spaces offering to snap photos. Pat O’Brien’s hurricane mix is a common New Orleans’ souvenir that’s sold in lots of shops in the Quarter. If you are visiting with kids, this would be a good place to dine because it’s boisterous and fun and, unless it’s during Mardi Gras, pretty tame for Bourbon Street.
Pirate's Alley Cafe and Absinthe House is located on a quiet, cobblestone alley not far from Bourbon Street that was once the site of a Spanish Colonial prison that jailed Battle of New Orleans' war hero, Jean Lafitte. The dark and cave-like cafe is staffed by people who are experts at emulating pirates. From their ragged clothing to their "matey" speak, they have the Blackbeard schtick down and are well trained in the art of serving absinthe. The cafe slings four different types of absinthe, three of which cost $10 a glass and one, which is Cognac-based, that costs $20 per glass.
All of the pirate barkeeps provide plethora of absinthe-related information while making the 120-proof drinks. They use a large carafe filled with ice water, set the sugar cubes on fire and place them on green-lit coasters to further the mystique of the ancient drink that was referred to by Vincent Van Gogh as "the Green Fairy." Absinthe was only re-legalized in New Orleans in 2007.
For non-alcoholic drinks, Cafe du Monde in the French Market features paper-hat-wearing workers serving cafe au lait and beignets – square, fried donuts coated in powdered sugar. At Cafe du Monde, beignets are served in orders of three. Splitting an order of these sugary gut bombs is highly recommended. Otherwise, for a less touristy coffee experience, go to one of the numerous Community Coffee shops in the Quarter. Community Coffee is the Alterra of New Orleans.
Real-deal jazz joints
To hear authentic New Orleans jazz, Fritzel’s European Jazz Club on Bourbon Street guarantees a taste of traditional every night. But just beyond Bourbon, on St. Peter Street, is Preservation Hall, the home of the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band – a jazz music lover’s must.
"Young and old can gather together in one room and be moved together by some of the most emotionally powerful music in the world, all in a 200-year-old living room that has been essentially unchanged since we opened for business in 1961," says Preservation Hall’s J. Lloyd Miller.
The seating is very limited – there are a few benches and seat cushions but most people stand – and people start lining up about two hours before the 8:15 p.m. show to get in. (There is also a 10:15 set that is often less crowded). Admission is a mere $12 and the show varies from night to night. Food and drink is not available at the venue, but T-shirts and recordings are.
"For the audience, that translates into an experience that is uninterrupted by the racket of bar service or the loud chatter associated with a bar crowd. At Preservation Hall, the entire focus is on the music and the musicians creating it," says Miller.
During our visit, we saw the band play a few standards, including the crowd pleasing "When the Saints Go Marching In," and then invited the indie rock group The Givers and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, the grandson of Pete Seeger, to sit in with them.
For another true New Orleans’ jazz experience, check out Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. It’s next door to the Quarter and features about a dozen small clubs in a few block radius. The Apple Barrel, often just called "The Barrel," is intimate and affordable with superb acoustics. The Blue Nile and Snug Harbor are also authentic and comfortable.
"The best way to experience Frenchman Street is to walk down the block, listen to what’s pouring out of the club and see what strikes your fancy," says Clime.
Splurge until you wanna purge: NOLA’s most indulgent restaurants
As a man said on an elevator, with his luggage in tow, "I gotta [expletive] get out of this city before the food kills me."
It’s true. New Orleans offers some of the most decadent and delicious eats in the world. The city is most known for its gumbo, crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, red beans and rice, muffulettas (a massive, traditional New Orleans’ sandwich), fresh oysters, po-boys (stuffed sandwiches similar to subs often filled with fried oysters or shrimp), beignets and bananas Foster (a flaming banana dessert made with rum and banana liqueur).
Tujague’s, the second oldest restaurant in the French Quarter (the oldest is Antoine's), provides a traditional Creole lunch and dinner. Tujague’s does not have printed menus and instead serves a standard six-course meal that always features their delicious Shrimp Remoulade, rich corn and crab bisque soup and their signature beef brisket with homemade, horseradish Creole sauce. Other courses include crawfish marinara with creamed spinach and a to-die-for banana bread pudding with caramel topping.
As a special treat for us, the chef also made chicken bon femme, which is perfectly fried chicken topped with potatoes and garlic-laden chips.
The meal costs $40-$46, depending on the entree.
"We want you to come in, make maybe one or two decisions, and then don’t stress about anything else for the rest of your meal," says server Jeremy Barrios. (Furthering the "it’s truly a small world" philosophy, Barrios’ grandparents live in Racine, and he has visited multiple times.)
After dinner, have a drink in the adjoining saloon, the oldest stand-up bar (no bar stools) in the South. Customers belly up to the bar to drink taps of mostly Louisiana-brewed beer or to eat bowls of spaghetti during football games. Behind the bar, there’s a giant mirror that was a gift from a French bistro in 1856. The mirror was already 90 years old at the time of delivery. And there's not a crack in it.
Brennan’s is a classic New Orleans’ brunch destination. The three-course menu allows diners to pick an appetizer, main dish and dessert from a comprehensive list of classic Louisiana favorites. Meals usually start with a beverage such as the incredible brandy milk punch (who says no one drinks brandy beyond Milwaukee or California?) or the Mr. Funk, named for the late cellar master, featuring champagne, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.
The turtle soup appetizer sounds adventuresome but actually – no joke – it tastes a lot like chicken. More specifically, it's like a thick chicken soup drizzled with Sherry. The oysters Benedict feature deep-fried oysters slathered in two creamy sauces with a baked tomato sprinkled with parmesan cheese on the side. The bananas Foster – invented at Brennan’s – is the perfect finish, which involves a server setting the entire decadent dessert on fire before presenting it.
The service at Brennan’s is impeccable. So much so, it’s almost unnerving at times for those not used to being waited on hand and foot. The servers, however, are more than just accommodating, they are extremely sincere and easy going, like so many of the people who live in New Orleans.
The Court of Two Sisters offers an upscale jazz brunch, featuring a live jazz band. This brunch is buffet-style with a large "hot," "cold" and dessert buffet. The offerings include incredible grits, numerous juicy meats, perfect pancakes, a massive mound of peel-and-eat shrimp, veggie or seafood pasta in Alfredo sauce, pecan pie, bread pudding with whiskey sauce and dozens more items, all extremely fresh and most sinfully decadent.
Diners can also special order omelets or eggs Benedict from the waitstaff. Strong mimosas and Bloody Marys are also available for brunch-time eye openers. If weather permits, request the lush and spacious patio, otherwise the indoor seating is nice, too, located inside a window-lined room overlooking the beautifully-groomed gardens.
Po-boys and other affordable eats
The original Pierre Maspero’s restaurant features moderately-priced Cajun-Creole cuisine inside a 1700s building.
The blackened redfish is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes (all of the house specialties are inside green boxes on the menu) that, for a few extra dollars, can be topped with seasoned crawfish cream or crawfish etouffee sauce.
For adventuresome diners, try the fried alligator bites (kind of taste like pork) which comes with a Creole mustard and mayo dipping sauce or the Cajun Bloody Mary, quite possibly the spiciest Bloody in the Quarter. The vodka, which is infused with pearl onions, sundried tomatoes, green olives and spicy beans, sits atop the bar in a carafe and is one of the first things noticed when walking into the 300-year-old building.
Maspero’s also makes a very meaty gumbo, a good barbeque shrimp po-boy and superb pancakes and grits. Plus, it easily accommodates families with children and the ambiance is attractive and relaxing, with soft lighting and lots of exposed brick and wood.
Other highly recommended and even more affordable eateries are the classic Acme Oyster House . Also, travelers who truly like to eat where the locals eat won’t want to miss out on the Verti Marte. (According to a NOLA resident and Verti Marte shopper, Brad and Angelina stop in regularly.) The Verti Marte, a small grocery store with a walk-up food counter, burned down a few years ago, and reopened earlier this year with a vengeance.
The shrimp po-boy is arguably the best in the Quarter (be sure to get it "dressed") and sides like creamed spinach and artichokes are insanely naughty and delicious. There isn’t any seating at Verti Marte, so most diners sit on a random building stoop or head for Jackson Square to dig into their meal.
For those who insist on sleep
Accommodations in NOLA, particularly in the Quarter, are as varied and diverse in option as everything else.
For visitors looking to curl up in luxury’s lap, the opulent Hotel Monteleone is a fantastic choice. The 1886-built, family-owned hotel recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and continues to offer extreme elegance, with crystal chandeliers, marble-topped counters, a roof-top swimming pool and spectacular views of the Quarter and / or the Mississippi River.
Not a single detail is overlooked at the Monteleone, from foiled wrapped chocolates left nightly on overturned-sheets to Kuerig coffee makers to dream-inducing king-sized pillow-top mattresses.
The hotel bar, celebrating 125 years in service, is like nothing else. Called The Carousel Bar, the space features an ornate French-style carousel that continuously rotates. It seats 25 people and takes about 15 minutes to do a full rotation. The Carousel Bar lore insists that the bartenders increase the speed as the night wears on, but unfortunately, this was not experienced first hand.
There are many other lodging options in the Quarter, from the moderately priced Chateau Bourbon (owned by the Wyndham and very well maintained) to the extremely inexpensive St. Peter House (old plumbing, no Internet, small room, clean sheets). During Mardi Gras and Jazz Festival, however, accommodations are always more expensive.
Last call for NOLA explorations
To truly get a taste of New Orleans, time must be spent simply walking around with open eyes and an even more open mind. Whether window shopping the antique shops and galleries on Royal Street or stopping to watch washboard-playing street musicians in front of Rouse’s Market or getting a tarot card reading in Jackson Square or giving a couple dollars to the statue-like man spray-painted silver, these experiences are as quintessential to the NOLA experience as drinking on Bourbon Street or going to Preservation Hall.
If time permits, or even if it doesn’t, try to journey beyond the Quarter, too. Take the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District, check out the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the Faubourg Treme neighborhood (featuring the tomb of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau) or take a Gray Line Bus "Disaster" Tour to the lower Ninth Ward to see the incredibly moving hurricane aftermath that’s both heartbreaking and hopeful.
Or, for about $10 each way, take a cab to the Ninth Ward and ask the driver to swing by where the levee broke and then stop at the House of Dance and Feathers (be sure to call ahead, they have very limited hours). Meet Ronald Lewis and check out his small museum and workshop featuring hundreds of handmade costumes worn by Mardi Gras Indians during parades. Hear Lewis’ first-hand stories, which are truthful but never bitter, about what it was like to lose absolutely everything, live in a gymnasium at a Louisiana college and rebuild a life from nothing.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.