By: Uma Ramiah, for The What List
The city’s like a dream, so abounding with food and drink and grace and pain and mirth and music. It’s American but also entirely not – the mix of West African and Southeast Asian and Central and South American (in this city that laughs at all the rules, like all the best places) just kills me. It’s a little startling the level of welcome outsiders still receive upon arrival and all the way through our hilariously bedraggled departures, no matter our bad behavior on Bourbon Street, nor our awful pronunciation of street names and neighborhood names and the name of the city itself, nor how little we grasp of what the town’s been through and continues to fight. Still, it’s always “we’re glad you’re here.” The best time in the world, with the best people, guaranteed.
This is an outrageously incomplete list, made with help from a few key insiders (like this one) and a lot of wandering, but it’s a good place to start. Places and schedules and bands and opening hours change so make sure to confirm before you go, of course. And, if you know a NOLA resident, ignore this completely and get everything you need from them.
One. Situate. Start central and fan out from there. Support local hotels if you can. You could stay in the French Quarter, it’s right in the middle and a good place to be based, but don’t spend too much time there. Try Balcony Guest House (Bywater), Ashton’s B&B (Uptown), Fleur De Lis Mansion (Lower Garden), Jazz Quarters(Treme), Soniat House, The Troubador, Catahoula, Henry Howard, Pontchartrain, The Old No. 77, Hotel Mazarin, Bienville House or a zillion others.
Two. Dig in. Off to wwoz.org with you, for where all the bands are playing on your NOLA days. They’ll also list any events or festivals the city’s got going on.
Three. Parade. Will you be in NOLA on a Sunday afternoon? Each Sunday in a different neighborhood, they’ll have a Social Aid Club Parade – brass bands marching down the street and people following with coolers of beer and BBQ trailers and dancing all day. They’ve had trouble the last few years with funding and some safety issues so the season gets shorter and shorter – you can try WWOZ or here for schedules, or you could just ask around a bit. Like at one of the bars below.
Four. Learn. Before you join a parade, make a point to stop by the most excellent Backstreet Cultural Museum, which if it’s open, will teach you all about the Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, and those social clubs – they do so much more than parade.
More weird and wonderful NOLA museums here. I’m also partial to the tiny shrine that is the Voodoo Museum. Get tours whenever and wherever you can, stories from the guides are everything.
Five. Dance. Avoid Bourbon Street, unless you must. Frenchmen Street is now default for music, and it’s bit of a circus: wild and crowded and approaching spring-break levels. Seems it used to be chill and full of legendary music but the overflow from Bourbon Street has it bumping. There will be decent to great music in every bar, but one night was enough for me. Rather spend as much time as you can in the neighborhood bars, where the best music and the best community lives.
Friday nights are for The Pinettes (they city’s only all-woman brass band), who play at Bullet’s Bar (which was featured heavily in the series Treme). It’s in an area people may try to tell you not to go to. Don’t listen. Just grab a Lyft and enjoy the splendor that is The Pinettes at Bullet’s. There’s a food truck parked outside the bar – an uncle in an apron frying up beautiful fish – give him your order and he’ll deliver to you inside. The bartender when we went was a lovely force of nature, and Bullet’s son himself was holding court behind the bar. He made sure we got our taxi home. Everyone dances. All night. The Pinettes kill it.
Monday nights at Sidney’s Saloon (once owned by Kermit Ruffins) are for seeing King James and the Special Men. White boys with soul. King James himself cooks red beans and rice for everyone, a NOLA tradition. Go late-ish.
Ooh Poo Pah Doo is a small dive in the Treme – owned by Miss Judy, who’s warm and wonderful as the day is long (her father wrote the song the bar’s named after). Rumor has it Trombone Shorty (Judy’s nephew) shows up and plays when he’s in town. Plenty of old legends call it their home bar (they’ll be happy to tell you their stories), it’s loving and welcoming and the music is always good. Catch a good band and you’ll dance all night.
Six. Cruise. Rent bicycles at Second Line Arts & Antiques on Decatur. The shop is wild and wonderful and staffed by the best sort of characters – have a look around. They rent adorable cruisers, the perfect way to get around the city for a day (head through Bywater & the Marigny for the best wide boulevard biking).
Seven. Eat. In New Orleans, Friday lunch is an institution. See if you can get into Galatoire’s. Or call early (at least a week or so) for a reservation for lunch at August – they have a $20 prix fixe for Fridays. Sylvain, Compere Lapin, Cavan, Shaya, Le Petite Grocery, Jamila’s, Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar and just everywhere, everywhere, everywhere for food. Magasin Kitchen or any number of others in honor of NOLA’s growing Vietnamese soul. Peche and Cochon are hip but maybe try Herbsaint – a little less of a scene and just as delicious, same chef. Verti Marte (little 24 hr corner grocery store) for gorgeous Po’ Boys in the Quarter. The creole soul food buffet at Lil Dizzy’s on Esplanade in the Treme is for weekend brunch. The chef there is Dean Baquet’s (editor of the NYTimes) brother, but everyone in New Orleans says the NOLA brother is the real talent. Hansen’s Sno-Blitz for sno cones on a hot day – there will be a long line, but for a reason. Coffee and cafes and beignets and other solid suggestions here.
Brunch at Commander’s Palace ($35/person) is old school campy over the top fun. The waiters will charm and ply you with 99 cent martinis. Stay and see how many you can handle. Afterwards, wander across the street to the ever haunting Lafayette Cemetery. Take a tour or just soak it in. If you’ve still got walking in you, stroll Uptown and take in the expansive streets and curated mansions.
Eight. Drink. The Roosevelt Hotel bar is where Huey Long drank Gin Fizzes, and has that legendary, steeped-in-history sort of feel to it. Bacchanal is a hipster haven wine bar in the Bywater – great food (get a cheese plate) and live music. It’s a wine shop with a lovely green garden, where you buy your bottle and take it to a table out back to soak in the music. Once you’ve gotten wine drunk and eaten cheese to your heart’s delight, wander over to The Joint, also in the Bywater, for great BBQ. Other bars to check out:
Nine. Cool off. For a break from revelry, head north to City Park, where the most excellent New Orleans Museum of Art makes its home. Wander through the gorgeous green, paddle boat or bike if you like (rentals abound), spend some time at the museum. It’s quiet and centering.
New Orleans. Lucky, lucky you.