NEW ORLEANS — The scene opens on a young man swaying as he tries to steady himself along the side of a building on Bourbon Street. He jerks, and then veers to the other side of the sidewalk with the urbane polish of a well-dressed zombie. After wobbling like lime Jell-O in a magnitude 6 earthquake, he falls and drops his tall plastic cup of rotgut (a poorly mixed sazerac, perhaps?) onto the street. Soon he’s on the pavement in a puddle of his own sick.
Now here’s the bright side of this cautionary tale. It never happened. Maybe it did, but I was never on New Orleans’s famed Bourbon Street to witness this brand of licentiousness. Unless you’re in New Orleans for an epic hen party, or Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street is a place that is best sipped rather than gulped. Give yourself a night, and move on to other pursuits.
If you want to go on vacation for the purpose of getting drunk, may I suggest Las Vegas, or your own backyard? Don’t party full time in New Orleans or you’ll miss out on a city that can be a spiritual experience. I know, because I had that experience, and I’m not remotely spiritual.
I didn’t travel to New Orleans seeking enlightenment. I came to write a story about the city’s impending 300th birthday. New Orleans’s 2018 tercentennial will offer still more reasons to party. I’m not encouraging abstention from the festivities, but I am suggesting that you leave your beads in the closet for a few hours and remain sober long enough to appreciate the culture and cuisine (there’s more than Cafe du Monde and po’ boys!).
I began my visit on a somber note at the Presbytere’s “Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” exhibit. Yes, I used the word “somber” in a New Orleans story. The exhibition, which went up seven years ago, should be high on your to-do list. It’s engaging, at times enraging, and a moving look at the megastorm that changed the face of the city. Did I cry? Only museum security cameras know for sure.
After the museum I wasn’t looking to linger in the French Quarter, I was looking to reflect. What I found was Studio Be, the latest project from New Orleans artist Brandan Odums. Housed in a once-abandoned 30,000-square-foot warehouse, Odums transformed the space into an eloquent, ad hoc, civil, and human rights museum through his art.
The afternoon I visited, I had all 30,000 square feet to myself, which only made the experience all the more stirring.
By now you’re probably thinking I’m the Sylvia Plath of travel writers. It was nearing happy hour in the Big Queasy (typo, and it stays), and I was shoegazing my way through a sunny afternoon. My only plan was strolling from Studio Be to the newly-christened 20-acre Crescent Park. The river front stretch runs 1.4 miles and as you walk you can enjoy public art, gardens, or just sit and read “The Bell Jar.” It’s probably one of the most well-manicured, and well-mannered, spaces in the city.
I’ll confess that I lingered in the park, and nearby Euclid Records, a bit more than I should have for the purpose of procrastination. I had a list of places I wanted to visit longer than Crystal Gayle’s hair circa 1979, but I couldn’t figure out a strategy for hitting them all. I was intimidated, but I had to start somewhere, anywhere. I walked to the Country Club, also in the Bywater neighborhood, and ordered a glass of liquid fun.
This restaurant, bar, and accompanying swimming pool is best known for what it used to be — a clothing optional den of indulgence. Patrons are now required to keep their bits and bobs covered, and I was happy to oblige. Bring your suit, and for $15 take a swim on a muggy afternoon.
From the Country Club it was a short walk to Bacchanal Wine. If you arrive at lunchtime you can sit in the leafy courtyard with a cheese plate, a glass of wine, and a notebook to plan your adventures. Or, head over at night for the al fresco entertainment.
As I mapped an official plan, I resigned myself to the fact that I would not have time to return to some of my favorite cocktail haunts, such as Cure and Bar Tonique. The bar and restaurant scene here is an embarrassment of riches.
I wanted to see additional hot spots in the Bywater, plus the Garden District, the Lower Garden District, the Central Business District, the Arts District (also known as the Warehouse District), and Faubourg Marigny. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? Indeed.
I had a bushel of suggestions from friends, because everyone thinks they’re a New Orleans expert. Off I went. On a multi-night dive bar crawl I hit Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, Saturn Bar, Chart Room, and St. Roch Tavern. According to a seasoned local named Loretta, my best chances of getting someone to buy me a drink were at Chart Room. To prove her point, she bought me a drink.
Nearly every Nola-it-all recommended that I club hop on Frenchmen Street, so I found myself ending two very late nights at Blue Nile and the Spotted Cat listening to local musicians, along with some fine spontaneous Zydeco from a band giving a concert on the street. Was I dancing in the streets like a latter-day Martha Reeves? Only outdoor surveillance cameras know for sure.
While it was easy to hit multiple clubs in one evening, especially because my tonic of choice was diet Dr Pepper, restaurants were more of a challenge. Of course I ate at the Commander’s Palace. It’s the perfect balance of traditional, touristy, and classy, and I love putting on a jacket and having lunch there. It also put me in the Garden District, which is one of my favorite places to pretend I’m house hunting while visiting with the cats that stretch out on warm sidewalks. I downloaded an app on my iPhone that gave me a tour of the neighborhood. Sadly it did not give me a tour of the cats.
A packed trolley brought me to the Warehouse District where I could try the buzzed-about Cochon Butcher. I contemplated a dainty dinner, until I came to my senses and just ordered the ham hock with quinoa, and goat yogurt. If it’s got yogurt, it’s healthy.
During my three days in New Orleans I tried everything from the quirky and super-hyped (Turkey and the Wolf), to the elegant (Maypop), to the French (Cafe Degas), to the unsung (Beach Bum Berry’s Latitude 29), the perfect brunch spot (Willa Jean). I even took a cocktail class at Drink Lab in the Central Business District. I’m skimming here because there were far too many to hit. When I wasn’t eating at restaurants, I was snacking at the beautiful St. Roch Market food hall.
I ate so much that I found myself loosely paraphrasing Judy Blume with the question: “Are you there Jenny Craig? It’s me, Christopher.”
But where I felt most calm was back in the museums. The National WWII Museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian, was an unlikely place to spend three hours on a Saturday afternoon. Trip Advisor rates it the top museum in New Orleans, the number two museum in the United States, and the number two museum in the world. It lived up to those accolades. Not only do you have an opportunity to see the equipment and vehicles that were used, you also get to hear the stories from those who fought. It’s an intense experience. Not intense in a “Saving Private Ryan” way, but in soul-searching way.
I was at the WWII Museum shortly after Veterans Day, and there were families talking about loved ones they had lost in the war. I sat down and started thinking about my late grandfather who received a Purple Heart after he was shot in the leg in WWII. He never talked about fighting in the war when I was growing up, or his bravery, but the museum helped fill in some gaps for me.
It was another somber New Orleans moment. Did I cry as I thought about him and his service? Only the museum security cameras know for sure.