New Orleans was all that I hoped and more. It was the vacation equivalent of hitting all of the green lights – each little place we chose to eat, visit, or have a drink left us smiling. Here are a few of the highlights:
Hotel Monteleone is a historic US hotel in the French Quarter that doubles as a literary landmark, a favorite of authors like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. The lobby’s marble floors gleam, the view of the Mississippi from the rooftop gym is surprising (so are the free apples!) and the pool would have been awesome had I remembered a swimsuit.
The hotel’s circular Carousel bar looks like an old Parisian carousel, minus the horses. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it actually rotated! As you sit on the ornately decorated bar stools, the beer taps get farther and farther away, until you notice that you are orbiting the bartender at a snail’s pace.
The bartender at Touché, a local bar, recommended that we get to Frenchman Street to hear some jazz. “It’s what Bourbon Street was like before it became Bourbon Street,” she said.
It’s on the southeast side of the Quarter, past the French Markets. The street is lined with jazz clubs, all of which seem to start their first band around six, then get another in at about ten. We decided on the Spotted Cat, a dark, tiny club with a lead singer who looked straight out of the ’20s.
Within a half-hour of our arrival, the singer announced that there was a special guest in the house and called on ‘Mad Dog’ to come up to the stage. The old man next to us at the bar took a drag on his cigarette, drained his whiskey, and strolled up to the microphone.
“Let’s get some Bye Bye Blackbird,” he growled.
The band struck up the song. Mad Dog held up a hand. “I ain’t never heard it like that before,” he said to the clarinet player.
Chastized, the band pulled themselves together and started again.
“That’s better,” Mad Dog said, snapping his fingers almost imperceptibly. He launched into the song, a shockingly powerful, gravelly voice holding the audience spellbound. After it ended, Mad Dog ambled back to his barstool, smoked another cigarette and vanished into the night.
At the corner of St. Louis and Royal street is the Best Singer in America. He is a massive man with a deep, booming voice and the astonishing ability to make it sound like he is not one man, but an entire quartet. Jared & I heard his clapping and singing from several blocks away and were shocked to see one person singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” We crossed the street to give him a dollar, prompting another girl to elbow her boyfriend, “Give him a dollar,” she hissed.
Cajun food is easy to find, but reasonably-priced Cajun food is a challenge. We went to Napoleon House for jambalaya and red beans and rice, Gumbo Shop for gumbo and shrimp étoufée, the famous Café Beignet for hot French-style doughnuts. All of these places were wallet-friendly and delicious. We did not go hungry.
When it rained (as it inevitably does), we bought a day pass and took the St. Charles streetcar line to the Garden District. The houses are impressive, with towering columns, wraparound porches, and climbing vines.
There’s no shortage of drinking establishments in New Orleans, and I’m not just talking Bourbon Street. We stopped at The Boondock Saint, an Irish pub with a knowledgeable bartender, full selection of local favorite Abita, and the namesake movie playing round-the-clock on the TV.
We visited Touché on Royal Street, where we met a Helen-Mirren lookalike in a big floppy hat. She told us that the French Quarter never flooded during Katrina, but was hit hard by media reports that crushed tourism.
We found the most hole-in-the-wall bar on Bourbon Street, Johnny Whites. The bartender Ramona shared her pickled green mangoes with the patrons, who all got talking about weird foods. I mentioned the Indiana State Fair’s newest offering, the doughnut burger.
“38th Street,” the man next to Jared said. “I’ve seen 46 Indiana State Fairs. Just moved to New Orleans a few years back.” Turns out he grew up around 10th & Shadeland, then lived near Broad Ripple, Indy’s own version of Bourbon Street.
Seek out happy hour and feel swanky for a while at Hermes Bar, attached to the famous Antoine’s restaurant. Free hors d’oeuvres on Wednesdays and $2 domestic beers.