New Orleans. Nawlins’. New Orleeeeens. NOLA.
No matter how you say it, those who’ve been there can agree, never has there been a more artistic city than the Crescent City.
I’ve been to The Big Easy time and time again– I have family there, I’ve celebrated the born day of numerous friends and I’ve survived the only Mardi Gras celebration in the world that matters, twice. However, my two travel companions, my best friends beccA and Melanie, were first-timers to the city and we couldn’t have picked a better time to visit. The city was lively without the unbearably crowded feels of Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, and we lucked out in experiencing special events that happened to be on-going. Part vacationers, part tour guide, seeing the city through their eyes renewed my admiration for New Orleans- and to my surprise, I experienced quite a few “firsts” myself!
THE FOOD, DRINKS AND DRANK
It’s practically impossible to find bad food in New Orleans, and damn did we eat! I often avoid Cajun or Creole fare outside of Louisiana since I end up disappointed due to the lack of authenticity and compare it to that of my family’s specialties. I wanted Melanie and beccA to try all of the staples of New Orleans and I was on a mission for spicy and all things seafood. We started the trip with fried shrimp and crawfish po’boys at 24/7 dive bar Deja Vu and ended the first night at Cafe Beignet. beccA suggested a precious bank turned cafe called the Ruby Red Slipper Cafe with a hipster vibe, 1950’s menu flare, inside an art deco turn-of-the-century building, dishing out breakfast and brunch charms all day long; we loved it so much we went twice. Amazing staff (ask for Allie!) and even better food. Between the three of us over two days we had shrimp and grits, their twist on eggs benedict, the eggs blackstone, banana pecan pancakes, a breakfast sandwich, classic platter special and french toast- made with french baguette! In a city full of local gems- especially when staying in or around the French Quarter, Ruby Red Slipper Cafe is an absolute stand-out, must visit establishment.
While roaming around Algiers Point on a particularly excruciating day, we stopped to beat the heat several times ducking into the Crown and Anchor to sample New Orleans IPA brews. Before leaving the neighborhood, we stopped in the Hollywood favorite Old Point Bar, the setting to numerous film and TV shoots-adorned with photos of the stars who’ve brought their talents to the bar. Full of sweet local residents, we collectively ordered what was my favorite drank from the entire trip- a combination “strawgator” on tap: Abita strawberry and Abita Andygator. I’m a big fan of the Louisianan beers as individuals and the fusion of these two flavors were perfect for the hot day.
At some point on Friday I remember us all craving gumbo which led us to Turtle Bay; this bar also provided us a delicious brick oven pizza we almost devoured before snapping a photo! One of the best decisions made all weekend was a trek to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, a 76-year-old family owned staple of New Orleans. So worth the wait in line! I ordered a cream of almond/vanilla snow cone topped with condensed milk, Melanie ordered a peach cone with crushed pineapple on top and beccA ordered a watermelon/lemon basil mixed cone.What a refreshing treat.
To beccA’s suggestion again, we dolled up and enjoyed a slightly more upscale dinner on our last evening at Royal House: Oyster Bar. Our tremendous server, Tina, was lively and fun and co-signed our choices to get a “Taste of New Orleans,” sampling of the city’s best dishes: chicken & andouille jambalaya, crawfish etouffée and seafood gumbo, shrimp platter and seafood pescatore washed down with a spiked blackberry lemonade- an unforgettable dining experience. No trip is complete without cafe au lait with chicory and fresh, powdery beignets from the iconic Cafe Du Monde– a fine send off before leaving the Quarters to travel home. Of course, we partook in hand grenades, daiquiris, hurricanes and voodoo juice, but New Orleans is what you make of it- you can either cherish your trip there or forget your life and “walk on ankles” into the gutters leaving everything you own down Bourbon Street- I’ve lived both; there is no wrong answer here.
THE NIGHT LIFE
Just because this was the most tame trip I’ve ever taken to New Orleans post 21 years of age, doesn’t mean we didn’t indulge in some depravity and our wild sides! Bourbon Street has to be one of the most foul and rank but most entertaining, places on the planet. Frenchmen and Magazine Street are my speed now- comparable to Westheimer, these streets offer a diverse crowd, live music, excellent restaurants, LGBT bars, “frat” scene, chill lounges and dance-clubs. If you can [literally] get past the trash and smells, Bourbon Street is worth experiencing at least once in your life time. Although we’re far from Mardi Gras season, boobs and beads still flashed and flew in abundance. Did I mention we spent a dance or four in my favorite strip club, Babe’s Cabaret? Beautiful dancers and a great time- Thrillist agrees! There wasn’t a single bar/lounge/club/dive we walked into where we didn’t take away a story, laugh or memory.
The spirit of New Orleans lives in its residents. In true Southern fashion, locals are polite and talkative with light to incomprehensible French-Creole accents. We encountered an array of humorous personalities as well as wise old souls– many of which were born and raised in New Orleans and had never left or transplants that moved there as soon as they could. Everybody’s somebody’s “bey-beh,” THE term of endearment for all.
While there, we were lucky enough to experience a large event for the city, the Red Dress Run benefiting local 501(c)(3) non profits and charities- upwards of 100 organizations! Locals shamelessly dawned frilly, fashionable, tacky and over the top red dresses and hats ALL day long. Everyone we met (and complimented) was incredibly friendly and willing to explain the significance of the event. “Red Dress Runs are put on by hashing groups all over the world – Hash groups are drinking clubs with a running problem. The New Orleans Red Dress Run is sponsored by NOH3, Inc. for the New Orleans Hash House Harriers, one of the local hash groups.” There was a real feeling of camaraderie in the air: work [run] hard, play hard- all for the good of their city. I can attest that this was not a rarity; New Orleans is a city of resilience, all due to the dear public that loves it so.
A city with a history as rich as New Orleans can’t help but to be a melting pot full of differing backgrounds. The crazy names of the streets and swamps? You can thank the French and Native Indians for that; the food and music are from the influence of Black slaves; the architecture is pure European elegance; the eerie feeling in the air near any of the 44 cemeteries: spirits and ghosts of the past?! Voodoo is experiencing a resurrange according to our tour guide- thanks American Horror Story! Countless museums can detail the evolution of Louisiana and its significance in the grand scheme of the United States from that shifty Jefferson, to the Founding Father’s handling of the Louisiana Purchase, to the trade game and the introduction of the railroads, fast forwarded to life pre and post recent events like notorious Hurricane Katrina. I won’t bore you with a History 1301 lesson, but to gain credit in understanding the beauty of a city like New Orleans, you do have to look into its conception and metamorphoses into the place we all know and love today.
We were lucky enough to experience White Linen Night (WLN)- fresh off of the Houston event, too! WLN started in New Orleans as a way to help the city bounce back from the horrors of Katrina and awaken the artists there; it now continues every summer and has spread to cities across the nation. I was disappointed by Houston’s WLN as the event has grown significantly and I personally felt the 2015 event had lost the art and culture that attracted me to it in the first place; for most it was about a night of heavy drinking, staining white clothes with brown beers. NOLA renewed my love for WLN. Every other storefront in the French Quarter is a gallery of some type and all doors were opened to welcome curious and excited patrons. We found ourselves away from Julia Street where WLN is most active and ended up experiencing “Dirty WLN” down Royal street. Dirty WLN was a bit younger and the art reflected it- influences of hip-hop and modern hipster culture were affluent in the wardrobe of the crowd’s version of whtie linens and the art itself. We met some reps from That Sounds Cool that definitely lead us in the right direction of which galleries to puruse. We even saw a live painted model! Our favorite galleries visited included: Graphite Gallery, Harounis Gallery and Martin Lawrence Gallery.
We also stumbled across an arts and crafts market on Frenchmen street with a beautiful crowd of tourists and locals alike, purchasing one-of-a-kind, handmade treasures, photographs, clothes and food. The market was casual and cool and I just knew Solange would pop up somewhere! Although we didn’t see her, plenty of colorful artists inspired us all the same. Some of our favorite vendors included Wooden Bowties, fair trade/ethical clothing company, Passion Lillies and what is sure to be a Christmas gift for a friend or two- pet paintings from Portraits for Pits! Did I mention some proceeds benefit animal shelters and pet charities?! The fair is open daily from 7AM-7PM.
During my first trip ever to the neighborhood of Algiers Point, we met the owners and artist behind Rosetree Blown Glass Studio and Gallery. Creative Mark Rosenbaum was busy on the phone while we were there (the couple was preparing for a show in Washington D.C. as well as gearing up for holiday season) but his lovely wife took us around the studio and showed us a video from HGTV featuring her husband’s work. She also explained some of the science and artistry behind blowing glass as we watched a worker take objects in and out of a wicked hot, giant furnace, safely behind a glass wall above where the magic happens. Awards and features from newspapers and publications around the globe were all over the walls. Rosenbaum has created his magnificent works of art for over 30 years. They were an absolutely beautiful and inspiring couple. I bought a gorgeous, delicate red and white/clear Christmas ornament. I can’t wait to add it to my tree this year!
Music is everywhere, all day, 24/7/365 in New Orleans. If Austin, Texas is the “live music capital” of the world, then New Orleans is the best live music capital of the world because the street musicians, amateurs and professionals are all mind-blowingly talented. My unexpected favorite from the weekend was catching Debauche at The Maison on Frenchmen. The band reminded me of Gogol Bordello and beccA of Flogging Molly (both excellent bands themselves). What we did agree on? Debauche was awesome; their album “Russian Mafia Band” is on iTunes.
It totally helped that a Tulane fraternity dressed in elderly drag were having the times of their lives in the strange but welcoming crowd as well all danced to the gypsy punk at the dingy venue. Another NOLA band stole our hearts with their jazzy, funky hits including James Brown, Sam Smith and Bruno Mars covers called Soul Company. I hope to see more from them in the future. Can’t escape the south without hearing some down-home rock and blues and Johnny Mastro and Mama’s Boys served just that at the cramped Apple Barrel bar. A 90’s cover band at Famous Door had the crowd in full-blown karaoke riffs and the lead singer was hugely pregnant and belting No Doubt lyrics like a boss ass queen! The charismatic house jazz band at Maison Bourbon temporarily transported us all away from messy Bourbon Street into a sophisticated world of rhythm and horns. It’s been a long time since I was blown away by local musicians and every band/group/artist we encountered in New Orleans deserved to be discovered.
I’m a sucker for a good farmers market, so the French Market was a must to tour! The Tennessee Williams STAN and theatre person that I am had to travel on a streetcar [named Desire], and the wannabe writer in my soul was adamant about visiting the former home of famed, Southern As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury author William Faulkner; now a bookstore, I purchased some beatnik, jazz poetry to commemorate this particular trip! One can only have so many souvenir magnets.
If given an opportunity to visit New Orleans at some point in your life, by all means go. However, take some time away from the chaos and casinos; I highly encourage you to appreciate the art, culture and people of the Crescent City- the most soulful and animated city in the South.
C’est la Vie!