The first thing to remember about New Orleans is that it isn’t really America.
Traditionally isolated—historically, geographically, morally—from the rest of the country, it was settled in the early 18th Century by a combination of French military men, camp followers, deportees, members of Catholic religious orders, and a variety of exiles. American fur traders and trappers came by boat down the river, but the city remained isolated and for many of its first hundred years, changes of flag and allegiance, French to Spanish and back again, were common.
It was not until early in the 19th Century that Anglo-Americans arrived in numbers, and settled on the upper “Uptown” side of Canal Street. They were followed by large waves of Irish, German and Italian immigrants. Each group, including the emancipated slaves, left its mark. The architecture is a mixture of French and Spanish with a later Italian influence. The cooking is a mixture of all of the above.
New Orleans has always enjoyed a reputation for, if not moral laxity, then a good bit of laissez-faire on the part of its people. This open atmosphere brought artists and writers in numbers during the 1920s and ’30s, and again in the ’50s. It is this attitude, along with its unique cultural amalgam, that gives the city its alien charm.
Laissez-faire permeates all aspects of the city’s life—locals are more interested in food and drink and gossip, in parties and parades and ordinary pleasures, than in the protestant ethic values associated with the rest of this country. The atmosphere often seems more Latin than American. So the city’s flair for excellence and organization—manifest through top-rank hotels, restaurants and large public spectacles—may seem paradoxical and surprising. In this respect it is a bit like Italy, where people seem to have a good time, but which excels in those areas about which the people feel most strongly.
New Orleans is no longer the great chimerical bargain it once must have seemed, despite relatively low costs. And don’t expect Southern drawls, or Cajunized cops, as in “The Big Easy”—the local accent is closer to Brooklyn, if anything.
In the winter you’d best be wary of the weather, as the mercury can be more mercurial than usual in January. So be prepared for either Chicago or Miami wind chill factors.
In either event, you’ll probably want to do some of the standard sights—Jackson Square and the French Quarter, the Garden District and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, check out some of the city’s art galleries, elaborate cemeteries, or the plantations upriver. But one of the things you will especially want to do is eat.
If you’re as xenophobic as you may think the inhabitants of New Orleans are, you need not even leave your hotel to find a decent meal. Try the Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel, the Restaurant Henri at the Hotel Meridien, or the Sazerac at the Fairmont. You have probably heard of the most established French Quarter restaurants—Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s and so forth. Of the old Creole places a top pick is Galatoire’s, on Bourbon just off Canal Street, which doesn’t take reservations and at peak hours you stand in line outside, regardless of weather. Famous for seafood dishes like Oysters en Brochette, it affords good value—a first class meal for about $35. For a more contemporary style of cuisine with a nouvelle Creole-Mediterranean flair, we like the Bistro at the Maison De Ville, just off Bourbon on Toulouse Street. The atmosphere is intimate and Parisian and the grilled fish can be spectacular.
A fine, less expensive place that serves very good traditional and nouvelle Creole cuisine, is the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. This gem at 1204 Decatur Street is a traditional 1920s-style jazz cafe, a gathering place for New Orleans music buffs where live, authentic sounds are frequently featured. The gumbo and red beans and rice are delicious bargains here, and be sure to try Abita Beer, the quality local brew. The Gumbo Shop near Jackson Square also offers good value—we like the Cajun-style chicken and andouille gumbo, but this place offers a fine range of traditional Creole favorites as well.
For oysters, the Acme Oyster House at 724 lberville is a first rank oyster bar. Homey and informal, it also features very good, inexpensive plate specials and sandwiches (including a superlative fried oyster Po-Boy). Considering the city’s large Italian population it should come as no surprise that there are many Italian restaurants. Some are small neighborhood places. One that offers fine Italian specialties like Mama used to make is Mamie’s Restaurant at 3240 South Carrollton, a classic, intimate place famous for its pasta, veal and chicken delicacies.
Perhaps surprisingly, this has not been much of a pizza city. However, the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen at 2808 Esplanade, not far from the Quarter, may change all that with its acclaimed wood-fired gourmet pizza, as well as other exotic Louisiana specialties, in a comfortably artistic setting.
While most local Italian is of the southern or Sicilian variety, a unique exception can be found on Decatur Street. Maximo’s, at 1117 Decatur Street, features fine northern Italian cuisine, including sublime grilled fish and pasta dishes, in an elegantly contemporary setting.
Chez Helene, one of the city’s most famous Black restaurants, serves a variety of local dishes ranging from Oysters Rockefeller to the more humble red beans and rice, all exotic and spicy, worthy of the fame this place has attained.
For Cajun food, Michaul’s, conveniently located at 701 Magazine Street in the business district, features music and dancing as well as Cajun culinary delicacies.
And on Bourbon Street there is the Cajun Cabin. There is also Patout’s Restaurant, or Ralph and Kacoo’s, or Copeland’s, a local chain operation that manages to produce rather good quality Cajun cuisine. Or you could go to K-Paul’s, where locals never go because they regard it as too cramped and impersonal even if the food is good—there’s always a line, and locals regard comfort as a necessary compensation.
Just to set the record straight, Cajun country lies to the west, between New Orleans and Texas, which is why there aren’t many Cajun restaurants in this city. New Orleans French culture is Creole, culinary and otherwise, not Cajun.
For interesting, innovative food, some of the best places are located uptown. The Upperline, a few blocks off the streetcar line on Upperline Street, features an innovative menu that uses nouvelle Creole as a starting point and branches out into imaginative directions.
For the real local seafood experience in all its splendor, a trip to the lake is required. Bart’s, (8000 Lakeshore Drive) located at West End near the yacht clubs, is a restaurant-disco featuring seafood and sometimes-live music, comfortable and civilized with an urbane big city atmosphere. Deanie’s, located in Bucktown—a run down fishing village now part of the suburban sprawl of the city—is famous for large portions of fried and boiled seafood in an earthy, informal atmosphere.
This brief orientation should get you started and then some. Local products that make handy souvenirs include Zapp’s Potato Chips, thick, crispy and spicy, as well as Abita Beer (amber is preferred), or even a quart of the olive salad (packed in unbreakable jars for traveling) at Central Grocery—famous for its zesty Muffaletta sandwich. Rather than the usual t-shirts, mugs and ashtrays, we suggest these mementos—impermanent, but practical and evocative.