Music, cultural experiences and good times are incessant affairs on the bayou. But the serious tourist who wants the real authentic stuff or the best Acadiana offers won’t discover it all from a brochure or the local tourist bureau. In fact, when an uninformed visitor first enters the city of Lafayette, the “heart of Cajun Country,” she or he could feel disillusioned, even cheated.
Take the Evangeline Throughway exit off I-10 West from New Orleans and you officially enter the “Gateway to Lafayette” (the newly-landscaped median on the throughway that now houses the Lafayette Convention and Visitor’s Bureau). About the only thing that’s ethnic about this first sight of Cajun Country is the name of the throughway. Bordering either side of the throughway is your typical chain of homogenous, American-made, commercial pollution found in Any City, U.S.A.: fast foods, neon lights, hotels, motels, and trailer home distributors.
But get past all that, dig a little deeper, and there’s a wealth of riches to discover in Acadiana. The first part of this two-part outsider’s inside guide to Acadiana focuses on the best of Lafayette. The obvious—like Evangeline Downs, Festival International de Louisiane, Acadian Village, a museum of Acadian heritage and culture, or Vermilionville, an Acadian theme park opening April 1—are avoided in most cases for best kept local secrets. Save the clear-cut directions for the tourist bureau. However, in cases where a pointer is glaringly apparent to most any outsider, the suggestion has been considered nonetheless important enough to be duly noted by this writer. Unfortunately, some of the hippest things in life also happen to be popular.
First there was music, probably. Even though there’s no proof. In any event, it’s the most important aspect of southwest Louisiana’s culture. Acadiana is known world-wide for its indigenous music and masters like Clifton Chenier and Bobby Charles. This area has been rightly called the cultural outback of the world. However, in recent years, as musicians like Beausoleil, Zachary Richard, Sonny Landreth, Buckwheat Zydeco and Terrance Simien have become increasingly popular internationally, it is becoming more and more uncommon, if not rare, to find them playing in Lafayette.
Grant Street Dancehall, located in downtown Lafayette, is where you can hear favorite locals like Zachary Richard or Terrance Simien several times a year. Grant Street, locally considered the Tipitina’s of Lafayette, also caters to a wide range of top performing artists in the country, commercial and otherwise—like the Neville Brothers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton and Eric Johnson.
For the best reggae Lafayette has to offer, Genesis, located on the outskirts of town, books regional reggae groups, including Algorhythms, one of the few bands in the state that’s managed to gain a reputation playing reggae music. The club, run by a Nigerian who often books his “brothers,” is slick and offers about the best sound system in town.
Most good zydeco music is to be found in the country bars in little towns surrounding Lafayette. Sorry, you’ll have to wait until next month for that scoop. However, whether in town or out of town, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a zydeco band during the week. Also, zydeco being a black man’s music, it’s uncommon to find many whites enjoying this music at local clubs. When it comes to music in Lafayette, the races still voluntarily segregate themselves. What most local whites are missing out on is incredible.
I’ve been told by zydeco musicians that elsewhere in the country whites pack the clubs when zydeco musicians play. In Lafayette, about the only zydeco club whites frequent is El Sido’s Zydeco & Blues Club, also very popular with local Creoles. Sid Williams, the owner and manager, is the nicest club owner in town and will do you right. His brother, up-and-coming zydeco musician Nathan Williams (The Zydeco Cha Chas), generally plays at the club every weekend. When good friend Buckwheat Zydeco is in town, El Sido’s is where he plays. If you get lucky, you might catch music at El Sido’s on a “free red beans and rice” night.
Other recommended clubs in town for zydeco and blues are Hamilton’s Place, a wooden country bar with loads of personality and lousy acoustics, located on the outskirts of the city; then there are two northside bars, The Onyx and Billy Roy’s, both located on E. Simcoe Street.
Another good place to hear the best zydeco music weekly is on the radio. Tune into KRVS/FM Public Radio Station’s Saturday morning program, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales,” with Herbert Wiltz. It’s pure zydeco from 6 a.m. till noon. Worth taping and savoring, especially if you’re just passing through town. For Creole funk, soul, gospel and zydeco, tune into KJCB/AM. The radio station is also the best source in the city for zydeco night club listings. Drop by the station on Fridays to find out who’s playing where.
For traditional Cajun music and dancing, the best choice in Lafayette is Randol’s Seafood & Restaurant, open seven nights a week with live Cajun music and dancing. The atmosphere isn’t as warm and authentic as Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, but it’s the next best thing in this genre. For swamp pop, it’s Yesterday’s Club with Tommy McLain and Warren Storm performing regularly.
If you don’t hear it live in Lafayette, buy it recorded at Raccoon Records, a mainstream record store that specializes in Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop music. Or head over to House Rocker Records, the hippest little living-room sized record shop in Acadiana. House Rocker caters to the black market, and if it’s in the black line you can find just about anything here. The newest, hottest zydeco and soul releases are to be found here.
House Rocker also stocks oldies. They have a catalog you can thumb through to select records like “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino or “The Thrill Is Gone” by B. B. King. Also, check out House Rocker’s bulletin board before leaving. You’re sure to find something of interest worth noting—like where a new rap group is playing this Saturday or where the next Creole trial ride is taking place on Sunday.
In addition to their music, Cajuns and Creoles are internationally known for their fine cuisine. There are several highly recommended dining spots, depending upon your pocketbook size or your sense of soul. The best of the finer restaurants include Charley G’s, and Cafe Vermilionville. Charley G’s is upscale-casual, and puts an exquisite gourmet touch and mesquite flavor to local foods like gumbo, duck and crab dishes. Cafe Vermilionville is more formal, and it’s a toss up whether its food is better than Charley G’s. To try at Vermilionville: Stuffed Quail Gumbo or Kahlua Grilled Shrimp. Cafe “V” is also the best place to go for Sunday Brunch. The menu features everything from tropical fruits to steak and eggs and brunch includes live jazz.
If you’re anywhere around town hearing music until the wee hours of the morning, about your only choices for the midnight munchies are the chain restaurants like Shoney’s or The Kettle. Lafayette is sorely lacking in cafes that serve hot coffee and mama’s cookin’, especially late night cafes.
I know of only one café, Lindon’s Restaurant on E. Simcoe, just down the street from The Onyx and Billy Roy’s, where you can get a good burger or breakfast at 2 a.m. It’s a clean little family-run operation where mama really does make everything from scratch. Lindon’s is open seven days a week and on Fridays and Saturdays it’s open from 6:30 a.m. until (which is usually around 3 a.m. the following morning). Plate lunch menu includes entree choices like shrimp jambalaya, fried catfish and seafood gumbo.
For local soul food you have two great choices. Creole Lunch House, now with three locations, serves up your typical heaping plate lunch of greens, pork, and red beans and rice, but is locally famous for its stuffed bread. The original, and by far the most charming, Creole Lunch House location is on 12th Street. You can watch the soaps while you eat, or eat on the front patio tables.
The other diner, Laura’s Restaurant, is the stuff of which true soul is made. No lightweights here. The diner is inside a trailer and food is served cafeteria style. You’ll find everything soulful imaginable on the day’s menu, from fried chicken to candied yams to pork chops to garfish. And of course, everything comes with veggies, potato salad and a slice of white bread.
For the best crawfish, you’ll have to wait ’til next month. Lafayette doesn’t have the best. Boil crawfish in a neighbor’s backyard. For the best boudin and hogshead cheese, go to Comeaux’s Grocery. For the best crawfish pizza, go to Dean-O’s Pizza. For the best stuffed chicken breasts, go to Breaux’s Minute Mart. For the best stuffed pork chops or popcorn rice, go to Vernon’s Grocery. For the best French pastries and French bread, go to Poupart’s. For the best homemade biscuits, go to Dewyer’s Cafe.
During the month of April, when Festival International de Louisiane takes place in Lafayette (April 19-23), take time to visit local art museums and theater. Local art galleries will be hosting exhibits with the theme “Louisiana Open House,” also the theme of Festival International. A favorite local art gallery is the Artists’ Alliance, conceived after the Contemporary Art Center. On view April 6-May 11 at the Alliance is Louisiane En Papier, a statewide presentation of artworks of, on or about paper.
A few blocks away is newly-opened Uptown Gallery. On exhibit April 13 will be Portraits of Artists of Louisiana from the ’84 World’s Fair. The best theater house in Acadiana is The Abbey Players, in Abbeville. Check local listings to see what’s playing. If you can make the theater on patron’s night, it’s well worth the money for the delicious food and warm ambiance the theater offers these evenings. Another dinner theater on the outskirts of Lafayette at The Restaurant Angelle’s features works of Louisiana native playwrights. The production, Odd Fellows Rest by New Orleanian Ian Villarrubia, will run each Thursday through May 3.
Last but not least is Festival International de Louisiane. Sure, that’s obvious. But one of the best aspects of this festival is when the festival closes each evening and local and international musicians come together spontaneously at downtown Lafayette clubs. If you’re there at the right club at the right time, this is almost better than anything on the Festival stage—an intimate, instinctive reunion of local and international musicians whose only common bond is music.
Here are some of the locations of our favorite places in Acadiana. For more info on Cajun dance clubs, check the OffBeat listings.
Stay tuned next month for Part Two of our insider’s guide…