People have always been drawn to the bright lights and big stages of New Orleans, whether it’s a sprawling party like Mardi Gras or a world-class event like the Essence Music Festival, but the real heartbeat of the city is found in the hidden gems and the local institutions where New Orleanians themselves go to eat, shop, listen to music and play. New Orleans is a city on the rise where modern, urban clubs open up right next door to some of the most historic venues in the nation, and it creates a rich tapestry of experiences to enjoy. Some of these destinations are right in the downtown mix of things, and sometimes they lie just off the beaten path in one of the many unique neighborhoods that surround the French Quarter and CBD, but these are a few of the clubs, restaurants, shops and more that keep New Orleans marching to its own beat.
French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny
The most famous neighborhood in New Orleans is home to two of the city’s finest trumpeters who hold sway with their own music clubs. Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse is one of the best destinations on Bourbon Street and hosts an extensive calendar of music seven days a week featuring modern jazz from many of the city’s best players. Located in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, the Playhouse strikes cool balance between modern and vintage with its chic interior design and intimate atmosphere.Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, 300 Bourbon St., (504) 553-2299
Meanwhile, Jeremy Davenport holds court at the Davenport Lounge, located in the swanky club level of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. With its long bar, large dance floor and swinging tunes, the Davenport Lounge harkens back to the glamour and style of the Rat Pack days. It’s a great place to party or just kick back and enjoy the music along with a gorgeous view of the city through the picture window.Davenport Lounge, Ritz-Carlton, 921 Canal St., (504) 524-1331
Shop in the Quarter at California Drawstrings, which carries cool, comfortable cotton clothing for men and women that’s perfect for weathering hot New Orleans summer weather.California Drawstrings, 812 Royal St., (504) 523-1371
Nearby is Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny, which boasts its own collection of both hip and down-to-earth music clubs such as Snug Harbor, the Spotted Cat, d.b.a., the Blue Nile, Maison, Three Muses, the Appel Barrel and more. Nestled in among the highlights of this strip is a pair of terrific dining and cafe destinations for anyone in need of great food and good people watching. The Praline Connection serves “down home” culinary delights since 1990 and has perfected local favorites like filé gumbo, fried fish plate, BBQ ribs, jambalaya with a side of greens or their signature “Taste of Soul” platter.Praline Connection, 542 Frenchmen Street, (504) 943-3934
Just down the street, Café Rose Nicaud is a perfect stop for after dinner coffee with its sidewalk seating and picture windows looking out onto the Frenchmen Street action. The café is named for a slave from the 1800’s who became a free woman of color and early entrepreneur with her own French Quarter coffee shop. They also serve breakfast until 2pm on weekends for those late risers.Café Rose Nicaud, 632 Frenchmen St., (504) 949-3300
Downtown, CBD and the Warehouse District
With its converted loft apartments, thriving arts scene and urban appeal, the downtown area and Warehouse District have become home to many of the city’s newest and hottest nightspots. One of the most unique and popular, especially during summer months, is the Indulge Island Grill which is like a split-level, tropical oasis in the midst of downtown. Guests can order specialty cocktails, take a dip in the swimming pool, indulge in the fresh-cooked Caribbean cuisine or even a take a turn in the fitness club. It’s also a great place for private parties with VIP cabanas and numerous decks, patios and rooms to suit any occasion.Indulge Island Grill, 845 Carondelet Street, (504) 609-2240
The nearby Victory Bar offers a more urban vibe with its designer cocktails, small plate menu and chic lounge setting. Billed as a “gastro lounge with mixology flair,” this new spot is fast becoming a favorite among the downtown set who take advantage of daily specials and relax amid the sophisticated atmosphere and down-tempo grooves. This intimate bar is a perfect place to meet friends, start the night or unwind after a long day adventuring in the city.Victory Bar, 339 Baronne Street, (504) 522-8664
The Wine Bistro is another downtown hot spot for the more sophisticated crowd. A cross between a wine bar and a nightclub, this spacious venue opens on weekends to host weekly events including drink specials, guest DJ’s, live bands, themed parties and, of course, a beautifully-constructed wine list. Combine all that with great service, a low-key atmosphere and a solid food menu, and it’s easy to see why this has also blossomed into one of New Orleans favorite date night destinations.Wine Bistro, 1011 Gravier Street, (504) 358-1742
For ladies looking to make a stylish statement, New Orleans’ own Magnolia Makeup has opened a flagship store in the heart of the Warehouse District. Known for their innovative use of color and pigment, Magnolia Makeup is a go-to source for vivid, festive and fun fashion. They offer designer product lines as well as full makeup services and party options.Magnolia Makeup, 612 Julia Street, (504) 684-4844
If you are interested in visiting one of the city’s better galleries of Black Art, seek out the Stella Jones Gallery, in Place St. Charles, 201 St Charles Ave., (504) 568-9050
This may look like a sleepy neighborhood bordering the French Quarter, but the Treme is steeped in the history of the African American experience and continues to be a unique and vibrant melting pot of food, music and culture; so steeped, in fact, that it was the title of the recent HBO series. Stretching back to the 1800’s, the neighborhood was built and populated largely by free people of color. It’s also home to Congo Square (now inside Louis Armstrong Park) where slaves gathered during the French, Spanish and American eras to play music, dance, and set up a marketplace. This is the birthplace of jazz. As the people from many nations—African, Caribbean, American and more—came together on this spot to demonstrate a remarkable resilience, they birthed the first truly American art form. Named after one of the forefathers of jazz, Louis Armstrong Park has been converted into a beautiful setting of rolling hills and arched bridges that stretch over meandering lagoons. The original Congo Square is marked by inlaid stones and continues to be the site of drum sessions, music festivals and numerous local events. Nearby, the St. Augustine Catholic church maintains a reminder of the darker side of this American history with the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. The haunting memorial is made from rusted ships chains welded into a cross and covered in dangling shackles leftover from that violent legacy of American slavery.
Another local institution is just around the corner from St. Augustine and focuses on the more unique aspects of the African-American experience in Treme. The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a small, funky and fabulous destination dedicated to the traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands and second line traditions. Backstreet hosts special exhibits, musical events and an incredible collection of New Orleans and African American history through photos, costumes, artifacts and more.Backstreet Cultural Museum, 1116 Henriette Delille Street, (504) 522-4806
Treme is also home to one of the most famous restaurants in New Orleans, Dooky Chase, which has served its specialties since 1941. Leah Chase, known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, is the owner, operator and head chef, and has won numerous awards, including the lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Her restaurant holds a special place in the heart of many New Orleanians, and not just for the food. It was known as a gathering place for Civil Rights workers in the 1960’s and continues to dazzle with its extensive African-American art collection.Dooky Chase, 2301 Orleans Ave., (504) 821-0600
Kermit Ruffins is another of New Orleans’ favorite personalities, and one visit to his club, Kermits Treme Speakeasy, will tell you why. Not only is he one of the most popular musicians in the city with regular gigs from one end of New Orleans to the other, but his warm personality creates a party wherever he goes. Famous for his barbeque and red beans and rice (which he gives away freely at many of his shows), Kermit also offers a full dinner menu and full-on nightlife experience at his bar and restaurant. Just blocks outside the French Quarter, Kermit hosts a fantastic weekly lineup of music and a raucous good time.Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy,1535 Basin Street, (504) 309-5828
With so many neighborhoods and destinations, the city can seem daunting to visitors, but one of the great New Orleans experiences is striking out to find an adventure that no one else has had. Whatever it is that creates that perfect New Orleans moment for you, the neighborhoods all around the French Quarter and downtown are filled with cool destinations to get a person started in the right direction.