At this very moment, someone in New Orleans is tossing back a strong cocktail, strapping on some sequins and feathers, painting on some glitter and getting ready for the pre-Mardi Gras weekend madness that is enveloping the city (the big day is officially this coming Tuesday, February 21st). And I’m not talking about some giddy tourist, either.
Having just returned from a southern sojourn two days ago, I was happy to discover that Mardi Gras in New Orleans isn’t just a fratty partiers excuse for a road trip. It’s an annual religious experience for locals, as well. They may not line up on Bourbon Street with the visiting throngs of yahoos dropping trou for beads, but all over the city, from the Ninth Ward through the Marigny and all over Uptown, parades and parties will reign over this resilient and raucous riverside haven.
So, after consulting with some sassy and savvy locals, here are nine tips to guide you on your quest for fun, food and frothy festivities around NOLA. (And yes, these are all good tips year-round, not just come Mardi Gras time).1. Eat It!
Brunch is fundamental in New Orleans. And right now, the best place for your Saturday or Sunday noshing is the charming and absurdly delicious Eat (clever name, eh?) perched on a perky corner in the French Quarter.
Chef/owner Jarred Zeringue hails from Vacherie, LA (about an hour away on the mighty Mississippi) and his menu is a righteous mix of savory and sweet, Southern and sumptuous. His Eggs Dauphine are unmissable (poached eggs, country ham, fried green tomatoes, hollandaise and a killer biscuit), but so is everything else on offer. Specials on the day I visited were a killer Soft Shell Dauphine (just add a perfect crusty crab to that aforementioned mix), and a dauntingly delicious Grits & Grillades (shredded beef, dripping in a dazzling BBQ style concoction, lavishing atop a massive biscuit with a poached egg). And the starter of banana fritters served with some peanut butter to slather on ’em? Life-changing.
Eat doesn’t have a liquor license, but no worries. Grab a Bloody Mary down the block, or a bottle of champagne around the corner and you’ll be just fine. Trust, drinks or not, you don’t wanna miss this.
2. Ride the Ninth
You probably want to get a local’s point of view about how the city really coped with that entire devastating Katrina debacle, but you don’t want to seem like a some of creepy disaster fetishist, right? And you like a bike tour anyway, so here’s what you do…
Join one of the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours and get an insightful, smart and impressive view of the city as a whole, and some personal stories of how locals of the Ninth Ward have lived their lives before, during and following “the storm” of 2005. Created by local expert Reecy Pontiff, it’s a ride across the Marigny and Bywater (awesome, bustling, hip and thriving eclectic ‘hoods) then over in and around the historic Ninth Ward. You’ll cruise by Fats Domino’s home, nosh at a spot for tasty po-boys, take a look at the work Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” home-building organization is doing, and you’ll even stop by the intriguing “House of Dance & Feathers” museum, celebrating a local side of Mardi Gras’ pizzazz and pageantry you may not know about. Trust, this tour will be a highlight of your New Orleans visit. And a portion of your $55 fee will go back to local charities.
3. Make a New Friend
Magazine Street is a vital stretch of architecture and shopping, food and commerce flanking New Orleans lush and lovely Garden District. And one of its coolest new residents is the hip menswear boutique Friend.
Opened this month by Louisiana’s own Parker Hutchinson (you’ll meet him when you visit, and you might develop a crush), it’s a cool haven of great brands like Saturdays Surf, Defend New Orleans, Burkman Bros and 18 Waits. And conveniently, Friend is on that stretch of Magazine boasting other rad menswear and houseware stores (Vegas, Vernon, Appartique), so you’re well-positioned for a stylish retail rampage.
4. Pig Out
Upon arriving in NOLA, my beau Nicholas and I promptly ditched our bags at our hotel and hoofed it to Cochon. It was the unanimous recommendation we’d gotten from smart foodie friends, and they nailed it. Oink, people!!!
FYI, Cochon operates a brilliant sandwich place around the corner, Butcher. They also sell deli goods and meat bits you can cook up yourself, but they also have amazing local beers, daily sandwich specials and sides to die for.
5. Dance It Out
Homo travelers to NOLA likely already know about the big gay bars over on Bourbon Street (Oz and Bourbon Parade & Pub) or the quirky go-go dive Corner Pocket, the tawdry Rawhide or leathery Phoenix. But consider a trip to Siberia. This new-ish joint hosts lots of rock/metal/punk nights, and they also welcome queer and just devilishly off-center nights made for dancing, drinking and silliness.
The vibe is like a slightly upscale dive-bar/Goth moose lodge (there will be antlers), and they even serve up fried bar snacks. The staff is friendly, the crowd young and loose and… You could run into anyone from Big Freedia to Seth Bogart (of Hunx and His Punx fame) while you’re there.
6. Get Funky with Frenchmen
Like many a visitor to New Orleans, you may be fiending for some live music, perhaps of the jazz or bluesy soul or even bluegrass variety. The easiest way to tackle this and to get your drink on simultaneously is to head to rollicking Frenchmen Street, right where the French Quarter and the Marigny converge.
Between Decatur and Royal streets you’ll find quirky joints like the Apple Barrel, the Spotted Cat and The Blue Nile. Wander in, grab a strong drink, listen a bit and then shuffle off to the next place. Tip the musicians, your bartender and just wallow in the loopy plonky charm of it all. You’ll find a mix of tourists and locals, old and young, folks and freaks.
7. You’re Not Terrible, Muriel
While visiting New Orleans, my elderly voodoo priest cousin (For real! He runs the Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street.) took me and my bf to one of his favorite places for dinner. Was it spooky? Witchy? In a graveyard? No, no, and no… It was the elegant and richly old-school Muriel’s which is a grand and sumptuous haven of classic Southern cuisine perched like a regal Tennessee Williams heroine on the edge of Jackson Square at St. Ann and Chartres streets.
The vibe is Gone with the Wind meets Interview with the Vampire, the food is classic (swanky seafood gumbo, a massive double-cut pork chop, blackened redfish), and pretty spectacular, the service is friendly yet classy, and yes… A lot of folks your parents’ age will be dining next to you. But if you want old-school French Quarter with warmth to spare, this is the place.
Also, ask to peek upstairs at the special rooms for events, especially the velvety luxe bordello-esque lounge where ritzy séances are sometimes held. Anne Rice would approve.8. By the Bywater
If you’re in your 20s or 30s, chances are you will vibe on the boho-hipstery charms (ugh, sorry if that sounds trite, but the description is apt) of the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. The streets full of colorful shotgun houses and palm trees are tattered and beautiful, crunchy and lovely.
Right now, a great local hub where you can sit, nosh on a great sandwich, sip coffee or tea is the funky coffeehousey Satsuma. Named after a local citrus fruit, it’s a largely female-run place with amazing daily pancake specials and, now, nightly dinners worth sticking around for.
Satsuma is the perfect place from which to explore the neighborhood, chock with thrift stores and oddball shops. And if you’re feeling gay and groovy, just around the corner is The Country Club, an eatery, bar, hang-out and spa which boats its own heated pool which is also clothing optional. Come and zen out for the afternoon or the evening – nekked!
9. The Best Laid Plantations
So, you’re loving New Orleans, right? Then leave! Yep, what will make your trip even better is a jaunt out of the city, and the easiest option is to dash out and get historic along the Great River Road, which trails along the Mississippi and links a slew of wildly interesting (and gorgeous) old homes and plantations that you can tour (and in some cases, dine in and shop at!).
We rented a car (about $60 total) from Hertz by the Convention Center and within about an hour we were in Vacherie, LA, pulling into the parking lot at Laura: A Creole Plantation, which locals attest (rightly) boasts the best and most insightful tour. Laura was a Creole-owned and operated sugar plantation throughout its heyday (mid-1800s to early 20th century). Thusly, its main house isn’t about grandiose white columns a la Tara. But it’s breezy, immaculately restored, and thanks to the diaries of the family which owned it, most notably heiress Laura Locoul Gore, its guided tours are fascinating. Visit the slave quarters and get a bracing account of their lives here, but also dig into the personalities and daily life of a 19th century plantation.
Then nearby you can ogle the Gone-With-the-Wind worthy pomp of Oak Alley Plantation, the whimisical vibe of San Francisco Plantation and others.
Plus, just driving throught the swamplands and smalltowns of rural Louisiana is a scenic, breezy treat. Stop for lunch on the side of the road at Spuddy’s Cajun Foods or the no-frills fried seafood goodness of B & C Seafood.FINALLY, NEED A PLACE TO BUNK IN NEW ORLEANS? The service at the Harrahs Hotel (yep, they’re the casino folks) is pretty fabulous. The location is great, tucked between the French Quarter and the Warehouse Arts District, also near Magazine Street. As big hotels go, this one shone.
We also stayed at the recently opened Hotel Modern, a relaxed and smart boutique hotel also in the Warehouse Arts District, right by some major museums, Cochon and the St. Charles streetcar. Enjoy!
Need more New Orleans travel ideas? Then, click away…