Jambalaya and Jazz, Beignets and Bayou in New Orleans

December 18, 2017 by

The festivities begin as soon as I step into the streetcar.

I sit next to a woman wearing a large hat adorned with flowers and illuminated by tiny, white lights. This might seem a bit odd anywhere else, but I’m in New Orleans, where nobody needs a reason to don a costume or have a parade.

Although the streetcar named Desire no longer exists, I’m riding the 187-year-old St. Charles Avenue line, the world’s oldest continuously operating street railway system. For $1.25, I get to sit on an original mahogany seat as I ride along “the jewel of America’s grand avenues” right back into 19th century New Orleans on a route lined with Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne Victorian mansions.

Some folks joke that New Orleans is the only foreign city Americans can travel to without a passport. A melting pot of various cultures formed the city’s unique identity resulting in a city that is distinctly American with its own unique music, food, festivals, traditions, and even superstitions.

Each of NOLA’s neighborhoods offers a different flavor and experience. In the French Quarter, tourists partake in a nonstop boozy party, whereas in the Garden District and Uptown neighborhoods, locals and visitors alike stroll along quiet, tree-lined streets dotted with charming restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and historic mansions, some of which are now elegant bed and breakfasts.

Suffice it to say, there are many ways in New Orleans to laissez les bons temps rouler — let the good times roll.

Where to Stay in New Orleans

Hotel Monteleone

Stepping into the historic Hotel Monteleone you’ll pass right by its revolving Carousel Bar & Lounge, a bona fide merry-go-round for grown-ups where you can sip its signature Vieux Carré (Old Quarter) cocktail invented there in 1938. One of the city’s original landmarks smack dab in the center of the French Quarter, the fifth generation of Monteleones continues to run this luxurious hotel that Antonio Monteleone established in 1886. Like many French Quarter hotels, rooms may be on the small side, but the Monteleone’s traditional elegance makes up for it.

Hotel Saint Vincent

Originally built in 1861 as The Saint Vincent’s Infant Asylum,  the Lower Garden District 75-room Hotel Saint Vincent has been reborn in high fashion style. Sip late-night or pre-dinner cocktails in The Chapel Club, the guest-only bar with an atmosphere evocative of a grand hotel salon, or take a seat on the Paradise Lounge’s outdoor porch and patio for a coffee, cocktail, or meal.

The hotel’s all-day restaurant, The San Lorenzo, features coastal Italian cooking punctuated with regional New Orleans influences in dishes that include Grilled Creole Oysters, Scampi Risotto, and Gulf Flounder Piccata.

The Chloe

You might miss the Chloe if you pass by too quickly because this 14-room Uptown charmer is housed in a 19th-century mansion set behind a sprawling front courtyard garden. The vibe draws from the old-world Southern glamour to make guests feel like New Orleans is home. Enjoy a cool drink on the porch or reserve a table inside the bar where happy hour is often paired with local music. Sit under the trees in the front garden and enjoy the Chloe’s menu featuring modern takes on classics like beef tartare accompanied by black garlic ice cream or shrimp étouffée dressed as a dumpling.

Le Meridien

The modern Le Meridien Hotel speaks sophistication en français. In its refined and cultured Parisian-style setting, guests can settle in with a book pulled from one of the lobby’s many library walls while sipping one of the hotel’s signature sparkling cocktails, bubbly twists on traditional drinks.

I opt for the Sparking Sazerac, a spritzer version of New Orleans’s most iconic drink made with rye, bitters, and absinthe. The hotel’s mixologists will also shake up a Sparkling Elderberry Wine, a refreshing white wine cooler with a dash of elderberry syrup.

Just on the edge of the French Quarter, the Le Meridien is a short walk to the Vieux Carré, but far enough away from the action to serve as a calm respite from it. After a few hours of sightseeing, I suggest unwinding with a dip in the rooftop pool, then taking cover from the hot sun in one of the cool cabanas.

Hotel Peter & Paul

Nestled among colorful shotgun homes between the French Quarter and the Bywater in the Marigny neighborhood, the Hotel Peter & Paul occupies the four buildings of a former historic church, school, rectory and chapel. Meticulously restored to pay homage to its history, the hotel features furnishings designed and constructed locally by regional artisans, fine antiquities collected from New Orleans’ distinguished estates, as well as pieces imported from European antique fairs. Guest can stay in the Rectory, Convent, School House, or Church buildings, each with its own unique decor. In the hotel’s Elysian Bar restaurant, the team from James-Beard-nominated Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits leads the culinary experience with dishes meant to be shared.

Eating Your Way Through New Orleans 

New Orleans is famous for many unique culinary delights including the beignet (pronounced “been-yay”), square pieces of dough, fried and dusted with powdered sugar. The most well-known spot for beignets is Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter where they’ve been serving them up since 1862.  Served in orders of three, the sugary delights are often accompanied by Cafe du Monde’s signature a cafe au lait, a milky mix of coffee and chicory developed by the French during the Civil War. For those in need of a late-night snack, the place is open 24/7 except on Christmas Day and during the occasional hurricane.

To experience another local mainstay, you’ll want to try a po-boy–a hearty sandwich filled with anything you can dream of, but often meat or fried seafood, in between a soft version of French bread. The iconic New Orleans sandwich is “dressed” with a topping of shredded lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pickles. Try one at the famous Domilise’s In the Garden District, at Parkway Bakery in Mid-City, or at Verti Marte, a corner store in the French Quarter.

If you’re in town during peak crawfish season from early March through mid-June, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the art of eating the small freshwater crustaceans. More than just local food, the traditional crawfish boil is a Cajun ritual where friends and family commune together outdoors to cook, play music and socialize. Everyone stands or sits around a table to help themselves, peeling and eating the crawfish together.  But how you eat them is an acquired skill. “Pinch the tail and suck the head” isn’t a crude phrase, rather it describes the proper way to eat crawfish. First, you rip the tail from the body, pinching it to loosen up the spicy meat, then after consuming that part, suck the head to savor the juices. There are many places around to enjoy them, from the super casual to the slightly fancier spots.

While jambalaya and gumbo represent typical New Orleans home cooking, NOLA is host to many talented chefs who serve up a modern spin on these and other Cajun and Creole staples, reinterpreting classic recipes that elevate the city’s culinary reputation to new heights. New Orleans gastronomy spans the globe, with a multi-ethnic population that brings a variety of international flavors to the table, from Vietnamese to vegetarian, Mexican to Middle Eastern. The combination of sophisticated and simple dining makes NOLA one of the country’s most-revered culinary hot spots.

Though the French Quarter’s restaurants will be packed with tourists, it’s still worth a visit to some of those legendary restaurants. Head to Galatoire’s for the shrimp remoulade, to Antoine’s for Baked Alaska, and sample the flaming Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, where the dish was first created in 1951. Grab a café au lait and sugary beignets at Café du Monde, and some pralines at Leah’s Pralines. To venture off the beaten path, I suggest these three culinary jewels:


Gautreau’s is a hidden treat — literally because the Uptown/Carrolton neighborhood restaurant has no sign, tucked away unobtrusively on a residential street. To find it, you need to look for the number 1728 just to the right of the front door. It may also take you until after the appetizers to realize that the gorgeous curtains lining the walls are not real, but rather trompe-l’œils, realistically painted murals that create an optical illusion.

The contemporary, New American-French menu uses regional ingredients but feels more international, featuring dishes like Blue Crab and Black Garlic Fettuccini and Hamachi –a fresh departure from traditional New Orleans fare. You’ll be happy you left the French Quarter.

Blue Oak BBQ

Blue Oak’s motto is “Vegan Free Since 2012.” Vegetarians could slip by with the roasted garlic mac n’ cheese (I had to have a second helping), but it’s the smoked meats with three kickin’ sauces at this upscale-ish BBQ joint that draws the crowd. No wonder they won the Hogs for the Cause Championship and are regularly featured in top ten lists.

Located in the Lakeview area not far from City Park, Rosedale is a casual spot led by owner-chef Susan Spicer of the more upscale Bayona restaurant in the French Quarter. Once a police station, there’s still a graffiti-covered jail cell that’s been reborn as a restroom. Sit in the large outdoor space and enjoy the duck pastrami sandwich or the fried chicken thighs with mac’n’cheese and smothered greens.

Where to Drink in New Orleans

The birthplace of many cocktails, including the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, Absinthe Frappe, Vieux Carré, Hurricane, and the Hand Grenade, New Orleans’s colorful drinking history lives on today in many of its landmark bars.

Although once described as “the cradle of civilized drinking,” imbibing in NOLA doesn’t always appear so decorous. With the city’s liberal attitude toward libations, cocktails-to-go are de rigeur there, where — especially in the French Quarter — people cruise the streets sipping adult beverages in “go-cups,” the term for the generously-sized plastic take-out cups.

And where else but New Orleans would one expect to find drive-through daiquiri stands or “daq shacks”? The caveat: while inside the vehicle, the drinks must remain in sealed containers so daiquiri go-cups come with tape over the lids and straw on the side. Passengers riding on parade floats are exempt from this rule as are people in large motor homes. Go figure.

Pat O’Brien’s

Head to Pat O’Brien’s bar — “Paddo’s” in local speak — for the joint’s signature Hurricane, an almost too sweet red drink with copious amounts of rum that may have you belting out tunes with the dueling piano players. But no matter, you’ll have no memory of it to embarrass you the next day.

Sazerac Bar

Originating in the 19th century from Creole apothecary Antoine Amadee Peychaud’s family recipe, The Sazerac is so quintessentially New Orleans that the Louisiana legislature proclaimed it the “Official Cocktail of New Orleans.” Although considered folklore, the word cocktail is rumored to have originated in New Orleans from the French word, coquetier, a jigger used in making the Sazerac.

The elegant Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar is known for its namesake drink, but every bartender in New Orleans can mix one up. Want to dive into more cocktail lore? Visit the Museum of the American Cocktail inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum.

As we say in New Orleans, come visit and “pass a good time.”

Photos: Robin Plaskoff Horton.


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