The Five Best Things About New Orleans
Some things never change
New Orleans—tropical in climate, lush in setting, exotic in architecture, sensual in atmosphere. A place of mysteries—especially at night.
The bad news, of course, was Hurricane Katrina raging through this charming place and destroying thousands upon thousands of homes—not just in the lower 9th ward, but in entire middle- and upper-class neighborhoods as well.
The good news, however, is that everything we out-of-towners love about the city was untouched by the storm: The French Quarter, The Garden District, Jackson Square, the trolleys, the riverfront … the spirit.
Because of both the good and the bad news, it’s morally imperative we bring our tourism and convention business there soon—and often. All areas must be rebuilt if people can live there again.
THE FOOD: We’re not just talking about marvelous chefs like Paul Prudhomme working their culinary magic; we’re talking food as a way of life. At every meal—from morning cafe au lait and beignets to mid-day muffulettas and po’ boys to evening crawfish boils, gumbo, and shrimp etouffee—diners come to the table prepared to spend hours savoring New Orleans’ inimitable dishes. A meal is never, ever, rushed.
Perhaps the best place to have one of these unhurried, sensuous experiences is at Galatoire’s. Jean Galatoire opened his doors in the Vieux Carre in 1904 and four generations later his family is still at the helm. And many of the restaurant’s career waiters have been on the job here for decades. The city’s prominent families have been coming for Sunday brunch, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, and other special occasions for more than 100 years. The crowd on Friday afternoons is composed of a seldom-changing cast of businessmen and grand dames.
The Shrimp Remoulade, Chicken Bonne Femme, and Creole Bouillabaisse are justly famous, but everyone saves room for the Bread Pudding with Caramel Banana Sauce and praline liqueur that makes grown men cry (including my husband—I saw him)!
And don’t plan on dinner at Galatoire’s the same day you have a lingering, luscious lunch at the incredible Bacco; there will be no room or desire for dinner.
THE MUSIC: New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, which, they claim, is America’s only original art form. It’s the genre shaped in part by the parlor pianists of Storyville, the legendary 20-square-block prostitution district that flourished (legally) from 1895 to 1917.
Zydeco, a blend of Afro-Caribbean, blues, and Cajun music was spawned here, too, and the city has a rich tradition of gospel, brass bands, soul, and blues. Wynton and Branford Marsalis, the Neville Brothers, Harry Connick, Jr., Fats Domino and, of course, Louis Armstrong, were all born here.
You can immerse yourself in the weeklong Jazz Festival in the spring and hear 400 different acts; you can go to Sweet Lorraine’s, Tipitina’s, Preservation Hall, and countless other venues to hear your favorite genre; but I think the best way to hear music in New Orleans is the organic way—walking around catching the blues pouring forth from Bourbon Street bars and nightclubs, pausing at a street corner where an impromptu trio sets up to jam, or listening to a noisy jazz funeral wend its way down the street.
ANTIQUES ON ROYAL: Nothing grabs the soul of the true collector like a stroll down Royal Street. This street has been the French Quarter’s most prestigious address since before the Louisiana Purchase. Shop through the centuries on both Royal and Chartes streets for extremely high-end antique furniture, crystal chandeliers, decorative arts, silver, and paintings. I’m willing to bet there is more outstanding antique European and American jewelry gathered in the area than anywhere else on the planet. Royal Antiques, Keil’s, Moss, Ida Manheim, and Antiques de Provence are just a few primo shops.
The five-block concentration of antiques purveyors is unique among American cities. But the most storied is M.S. Rau, established in 1912 to deal in rare and important American, French, and English furniture, cut glass, silver, jewelry, clocks, paintings, porcelain, and much more. Step into Rau’s and back into a series of quasi-secret rooms housing million-dollar-plus treasures—25,000-sq-ft of them in all. It’s the largest antiques store in the United States in terms of sales.
From the glittering, bejeweled animated clock, covering a whole table top, created for the Sultan of Brunei, to an extensive collection of Tiffany Chrysanthemum-patterned works in silver—tazzes, candelabra, and gigantic complete sets of flatware made for presidents and tycoons (in their original fitted chests—to huge Tiffany window panels, Monet paintings, and Napoleanic campaign desks, there’s a surprise around every corner.
I particularly loved Rau’s collection of Paul Revere works in silver—among the most rare and desirable silver in the world.
But the enormous deep pink diamond ring I tried on on the way out could be a satisfying impulse buy for a cool million-plus.
ARCHITECTURE: With more National Historic Landmarks than any other city in the United States, New Orleans has a mélange of indigenous styles. The lacy iron balconies and shuttered doors of the French Quarter yield to Queen Anne Revival mansions along St. Charles Avenue, and the charming houses of the Garden District—where large homes stood amid sprawling gardens, until many lots were cut up and populated by adorable late-Victorian cottages and one-room-wide shotgun houses. Whether large or small, every house drips with ornate gingerbreading. Even the cemeteries are miniature cities of ornate aboveground tombs and mausoleums.
Historic homes like the Beauregard-Keyes House, a raised Creole cottage in the French Quarter, aptly demonstrates the Louisiana preference for courtyards.
To experience this way of life yourself, stay at the Soniat House right next door. Named as one of Fodor Guide’s “20 best hotels in the world,” and listed (along with the pyramids of Giza!) in 1000 Places to See Before You Die, this elegant inn consists of three adjoining 1830s townhouses built by plantation owner Joseph Soniat. To my mind, the best part of our stay here—once we dragged ourselves out of the down-covered, gazillion-thread-count-sheeted bed—was breakfast in the courtyard. We learned not to expect it in less than half an hour, because the kitchen won’t even start making the dough for your order of their special biscuits until you call.
THE MYSTERIOUS NOCTURNAL CULTURE OF TAROT READERS AND PSYCHICS SQUATTING IN DOORWAYS TO TELL FORTUNES: In other cities, walking around alone at night can be a little creepy. It’s definitely so in New Orleans, but not because of any criminal activity going on. Deep in the shadowed doorways of closed stores, huddled in the bushes of a park, are the mystics, palmists, and tarot card readers that seem to flourish here as nowhere else. There are many, many storefronts where you can find practictioners of “New Orleans Voodoo Tarot and other expert divination; dream interpretation, and shamanic trance, and Voodoo rituals,” but somehow a whispered consultation in a dark alfresco setting seems the most “authentic.”
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