Monday, March 24, 2014

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why New Orleans Rocks

My first trip to New Orleans, LA was back in 1987 or ’88.  My friend and I decided to go for a long weekend.  I was not much of a traveler back then, and didn’t make much money, either, so we’re talking People’s Express airline and the Days Inn.

We spent a lot of our time there sampling the various alcoholic offerings for which NOLA has become famous (or should I say infamous?).  We made it to Pat O’Brien’s for a Hurricane, and to the revolving bar at the Hotel Monteleone.  A brunch at Café S’bisa involved unlimited champagne, so that was interesting as well.

The one redeeming thing about our trip was that my friend’s father gave us some money and made a dinner reservation for us at Commander’s Palace.  I was far from a “foodie” at the time, but I do remember the food was really good.  And I guess it ought to have been, because I’m pretty sure the chef there at the time was a young guy from up north named Lagasse.

A mainstay of the Garden District.
I’ve loved New Orleans ever since.  It didn’t hurt that my favorite novel, “Interview With the Vampire,” takes place there.  (You can read about that here.)

So let me give you Five Good Reasons Why New Orleans Rocks.

1.  The Architecture

If you’ve seen photos of New Orleans, you are no doubt familiar with the iron balconies on the Creole townhouses that populate much of the French Quarter.  You can also see huge old mansions in the Garden District, as well as so-called “shotgun” houses all throughout the area.

Examples of some of the colorfully decorated
balconies in the French Quarter.


There are a number of historic landmarks in New Orleans, among them, the beautiful and iconic St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Old Ursuline Convent and the Presbytere.  I toured the convent a couple of years ago, and it’s a charming and interesting place.  The Presbytere now houses part of the Louisiana State Museum, and currently features a fascinating and moving exhibit called “Katrina and Beyond,” which I saw last week for the second time.

The beautiful
St. Louis Cathedral
 The Gallier House on Royal Street was also the inspiration for Anne Rice’s descriptions of the townhouse lived in by her vampire characters in “Interview With the Vampire.”  I stop by every trip just to stand there and imagine Louis, Lestat and Claudia inside reading or playing cards.

2.  The History

Any city with so many landmarks obviously has its share of history.  Founded in 1718 by the French, and for a time under Spanish rule, before being sold to the U.S.A. in the Louisiana Purchase, early New Orleans was populated by fur trappers, traders, deported galley slaves and the like.  A lot of the early settlers were free black Creoles from Haiti.  The British made an attempt to claim the city during the War of 1812, but were defeated by Andrew Jackson’s forces, who included the pirate Jean Lafitte.

Over the years, New Orleans gained importance as a commercial center, even housing a branch of the United States Mint in the mid-1800’s.

Because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and Hurricane Rita just a few weeks later), we’re all very familiar with the fact that a large part of the city is below sea level, with much of the remainder only a few feet above sea level.  Over the past eight-plus years, the city has slowly come back.  The French Quarter looks virtually as it did before the storms, but there are still sections of the city that have not rebounded completely.  The shameful fact that these tend to be the poorer areas is a subject for another blog, and another time.

Fats Domino's piano, damaged
during Katrina and now on display at
The Presbytere

3.  The People

There is a photograph in the Beyond Katrina exhibit, of a New Orleans resident holding a sign that says something to the effect of, “FEMA came and all I got was this lousy blue tarp.”  It’s a take off on those tee shirts you always see at tourist shops, the ones that say, “Mommy and Daddy went to (fill in the blank) and all I got was this lousy tee shirt.”  But it’s so much more than that.  To me, it symbolizes the toughness, humor and survivor spirit of the people of NOLA.

The people in the city are friendly, engaging and always willing to talk to you. They’ll give you directions, offer suggestions on where to eat, or tell you all about whatever it is they’re selling.  A man working at one of the nicer antique shops on Royal Street once spent at least an hour and a half taking Mike and me on a tour of the shop, showing us his favorite pieces, and telling us stories.  He knew very well that we weren’t buying anything - we were very up front about that.  But he wasn’t busy, and he enjoyed sharing his knowledge and time with us.  We still talk about how much fun we had that day.

4.  The Music

There is music playing everywhere in New Orleans.  You can’t walk more than a block or two in the French Quarter without hearing live jazz, Dixieland, Zydeco or blues.  We’ve wandered into clubs on Bourbon Street and seen amazing musicians play, for the price of a drink or two.  Last week, we watched Big Al Carson and the Blues Masters play a set at the Funky Pirate (and you can, too, by clicking here!), and we also stopped in to Chris Owens’ place and watched a band doing B.B. King covers and the like.

You know I love music, so I’m sure you can guess how much fun that was.

Street musicians.

5.  The Food

I left the best for last.  I love the food of New Orleans more than I can possibly even begin to explain.  I love spicy food, so for me, Cajun cuisine is a perfect match. 

Jazz brunches abound in New Orleans, and we loved the one at Commander’s Palace.  We’ve had wonderful meals at Mr. B’s Bistro, another Brennan family restaurant, and at Besh Steak, one of several John Besh restaurants in the city.  There are so many restaurants lining the streets of the French Quarter, it’s hard to know where to start.

Our favorite “nice place” is Emeril Lagasse’s Nola. His least dressy and least expensive place in the city, the food and service here are absolutely top notch.  We’ve had dishes at Nola that we still talk about years later. We try to go there once every trip. 

Our go-to “dress down” place is probably Mother’s, with their deliciously messy “po’ boys,” the traditional Louisiana version of the submarine sandwich. 

Our favorite “Oh My God” place is Café du Monde, home of the beignet.  A beignet is a French donut made of fried dough covered with powdered sugar.  They’re served piping hot, and usually with a cup of café au lait.  For $15, including tip, two people can eat an early morning breakfast at Café du Monde while watching the world go by up and down Decatur Street.  It is of course a tourist trap, but unlike a lot of tourist traps, it lives up to it’s reputation.  We tried one of their well-regarded rivals last week, Café Beignet, just so we could see how it compared.  Their beignets are good, much larger than Café du Monde’s, and much doughier.  Their café au lait is also good.  But it’s not Café du Monde.  We won’t stray again.

The Real Thing.
So, thanks, New Orleans, for another wonderful visit last week.

See you again soon - though not soon enough.

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