A wise man once said that he loved New Orleans because it was the kind of city where anything could happen, anywhere, at any time. On a warm evening in the French Quarter recently, my wife and I saw that truth play out yet again. Magic moments are many on the Mississippi.
We were on Decatur Street, having just emerged daiquiri-less from a daiquiri bar, chased out by the loud dance music and the tacky names of the concoctions on offer. The French Quarter as a whole remains stubbornly enchanting, but Decatur is a shopworn shadow of its former self—louche T-shirt shops, a Jimmy Buffett-owned restaurant, a Hard Rock café, and other generic national chains. Seeing what the street has become, a veritable Shangri-La for the Tommy Bahama set, my wife and I began to seriously worry for the survival of authentic New Orleans.
But then we heard it, across the street, right in front of the Hard Rock—the sound of more than a dozen joyous African-American schoolgirls chanting schoolyard versions of modern R&B hits, clapping out rhythms and cross-rhythms, stomping their feet, shrieking and laughing in a joyous, living expression of New Orleans tradition. The impromptu street parade headed toward Canal Street, and we followed.
The girls were being closely supervised by two women, who strolled calmly a good ten feet behind. As the procession moved west, a tubby, fifty-something patriarch caught the spirit and started dancing too, to the utter delight of the girls, who let out a raucous cheer, and to the dismay of his own mortified wife and kids.
“We’re the Ross family!” shouted one girl, when my wife asked to take a picture of the group. “It’s my birthday!” exulted another. “There are 17 of us and we are all real cousins!” hollered a third. “And we out,” yelled still another, as the girls headed home via the bright lights of Canal Street. Way back when, the Dixie Cups classic “Iko Iko” was born in just such a manner, it occurred to me, composed by girls just like this.
Our appreciation of this performance was enhanced by the meal we’d just enjoyed, one of many Magnitude 8 tastequakes my wife and I survived over the course of the weekend. “New Orleans food,” Mark Twain wrote in 1884, “is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” If anything, that assessment is even more on the money today.
New Orleans’s Creole fusion of cultures—French, Spanish, African, German, Irish, Italian (especially Sicilian) and Balkan—has long been a net exporter of great food: It has already given the world gumbo, bananas Foster, shrimp Creole, oysters Rockefeller and the po’boy, not to mention jambalaya.
Practically immersed in water full of crawfish, frogs and turtles; close by the sea and its gifts of shrimp, oysters, crabs, flounder, and redfish; ringed by farmland fecund enough to produce native sugar cane, bananas, yams, grapefruit, pecans, pomegranates, and all manner of greens; for centuries, New Orleans has been blessed with foods of extraordinary variety. What chefs and common cooks have done with that bounty!
And continue to do: At Bourbon House, a newish French Quarter outpost of the Brennan family, we had raw oysters sprinkled with Gulf caviar, or bowfin fish roe, which gave the bivalves a salty kick and a hint of crunch. The seared tuna salad was a nod to the city’s new Vietnamese influences: wide rice noodles served cool, dressed with cilantro oil, citrus and hoisin sauce, topped with perfectly seared slices of heavenly tuna.
A generation before the Vietnamese arrived in the 1970s, many of New Orleans’s shrimpers and oystermen came from Croatia. One of these, Drago Cvitanovich, eventually opened Drago’s Oyster Bar, now housed on the ground floor of Poydras Street’s elegant Hilton Hotel. Drago’s chargrilled oysters—bathed in pecorino romano, butter and garlic, and then seared over an open flame—are the best you’ll find this side of Gilhooley’s in San Leon, tired old Rockefellers and Bienvilles be damned.
And here’s the thing about NOLA: you don’t need luxury surroundings to find tastes that will chicken-bump your thighs. On Dick & Jenny’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, I had a smothered steak with wild dirty rice that made me literally weep, so nostalgic I felt for the cooking of my late Gulf Coast mother.
And consider the “Peacemaker” po’boy at Mahony’s, a humble sandwich shop in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood. There was nothing unusual about the ingredients: fried oysters, a strip or two of bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickle. It was the same sort of thing you’d find on restaurant menus from DC to LA, although the sandwiches there bear about as much resemblance to a Mahony’s creation as a Thomas Kinkade painting does a Vermeer.
It’s about quality of ingredients: the locally famous Leidenheimer bread, the oysters that meld seamlessly with the perfectly seared bacon, and the cheddar—lord, the cheddar—fireball orange, as life-giving as the setting sun. In a weekend of incredible dining (space doesn’t permit description of the Sunday brunch rhapsodies brought on by the shrimp, tasso ham, and stone-ground grits at Coquette on Magazine), that po’boy was likely the best thing I ate.
Much as it reigns in the categories of cuisine, music, and magic, pound for pound, New Orleans is quite likely America’s finest hotel city. There are places with budget European quirk and more-than-a-little spooky charm, like the St. Charles Guest House on Prytania Street, and any number of boutique hostelries in the Quarter. And there’s classic swank at grand palaces like the Monteleone, the Roosevelt and the Loews. That last, on Poydras Street, was our lodging of choice on this trip. Featuring stunning views of the Mississippi, it’s a brief stroll to both the Quarter and the main conduits uptown. The St. Charles streetcar line, with its leisurely bell-clanging thrum, will take you past miles of sumptuous old mansions on the way to Audubon Park and the New Orleans zoo. Also a must: the bus to Magazine Street’s antiques, boutiques, restaurants, and bars.
I’ve had New Orleans trips that astonished my ears as much as this one amazed my taste buds, although this latest jaunt didn’t quite meet the mark. Most of the bands we went to see said “Thank you and good night” minutes after we arrived, and the music scene seems to have shifted from the wee hours to pre-midnight. We kept assuring ourselves that a Sunday afternoon Central City street parade led by the Stooges Brass Band would save our bacon; sadly, the concert was canceled due to the threat of rain.
Nevertheless, there are hot spots, among them Frenchmen Street, just east of the Quarter in the old Creole suburb of Faubourg Marigny, where you’ll find a mélange of crusty hipsters, Tulane and Loyola college kids, and musically adventurous tourists from all over the world. If safe versions of tried and true classics are what you’re after, head to Bourbon Street, but Frenchmen’s the place to hear the younger generation cut loose on many of the same songs, albeit with hip-hop swag and R&B sultriness. It’s a street of rumbling bass drums and blasting sousaphones, wailing trumpets and moaning trombones, sizzling tambourines and rat-a-tat snares, not to mention the syncopated, deadly-dangerous gospel of HBO’s Tremé.
And in April, the music scene only gets hotter. There’s the Jazz Fest, of course, which this year runs from April 26 through May 5, and features hundreds of Louisiana bands supporting headliners such as Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Hall and Oates, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Cliff, Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Black Keys.
The four-day French Quarter Fest (April 11-14) features jazz, funk, soul, blues, zydeco, second-line, and Cajun tunes from more than 1,400 musicians on over 20 stages scattered about the French Quarter, all for free. Street parades will kick off around sundown each day, and big names on this year's bill include the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, George Porter Jr., Kermit Ruffins, Glen David Andrews, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, and Terrance Simien.
This was only my second trip back to New Orleans in the eight years since Katrina, and it’s hard not to feel qualifiedly optimistic about the city. Hipsters have flocked to both the Bywater (east of the Quarter) and Uptown, bringing with them an influx of youthful energy not seen since before World War II, not to mention sky-high property values and an insensitivity to local customs. The national chains have moved in, and there’s no use pretending that some of New Orleans’s special charm hasn’t been lost amid corporate America’s bullishness on the Big Easy.
But a great deal of it remains. The good times still roll and the night air hangs heavy with jasmine and magnolia. Ferns still sprout from the magnificent limbs of live oaks in the Garden District. Real-deal voodoo shops still peek out from hyper-funky Orleans Avenue, waiters still offer gifts of empty bourbon boxes for little reason you can discern, and oyster shuckers still slide you plates of “free” oysters before extorting a hefty tip on your way out the door.
And most importantly, girls still dance down the street, laughing and singing and clapping their way through downtown with impunity, marching in the irreplaceable, irrepressible parade that is New Orleans.