Four Delicious Days in New Orleans
Some say New Orleans is the best food city in America. I recently booked a week-long visit, though friends warned that there aren’t enough non-eating activities to warrant such a long stay. As a result, I scheduled a mid-trip overnight to Lafayette as a getaway to the “countryside.” That was fun, but turns out more time is warranted in New Orleans. The ever-growing National WWII Museum is worth a potential full day in itself; there’s also the Southern Food & Beverage Museum for food-lovers to explore. The flatness of the city makes it ideal for a bicycle trip. And while one can walk the French Quarter many times and still see something new, visitors absolutely should get out to the other neighborhoods. This is just scratching the surface of possible activities.
Never before have I spent so much time studying the history (especially the recent Katrina-era) of a city. New Orleans is fascinating in terms of its people, its culture, its history, its music, and of course its cuisine. After all the city has been through, it’s a place I want to cheer as it continues to recover and grow.
I usually outline “3 Delicious Days” in a city, but for New Orleans I offer an additional day. The food’s that good. This eating itinerary is heavy on more classic NOLA institutions with a few finer dining options, but one could easily substitute out po-boy places and some soul food stops that would also be satisfying. I’m not sure if New Orleans is the absolute best food city in America, but it’s certainly in the top tier.
Start the day the iconic way: at Café du Monde. Purists may scoff at chicoried-down coffee (chicory helped stretch coffee during shortages of beans in the Napoleonic era of France), but it’s good to try either straight or au lait (with about an equal amount of steamed milk). It has less caffeine than regular coffee, so you might want more to offset the piles of powdered sugar atop your warm beignets. (Be careful if you wear dark clothes while eating these!) Café du Monde is open 24 hours if you get addicted, and they’ve been at it since 1862.
Somewhat perked up with coffee, transition into New Orleans with a slow morning sauntering through the colorful French Quarter. You can find numerous walking tours in books and pamphlets, great if you want background information, but no harm in just wandering rather aimlessly. Among the highlights to consider are the adjacent French Market (and farmers/flea market), the Moonwalk behind it for views of the vast Mississippi, and of course the streets. Circle around and by noon Jackson Square has come alive, likely with the sound of music. Welcome to New Orleans!
By now you’ve built an appetite, so take an early lunch a ten-minute walk from Jackson Square at the historic Galatoire’s. This restaurant was founded in 1897, and its been at the current Bourbon Street location since 1905. Friday’s the popular day to be here with some of the reveling regulars, but a different weekday will give you a good feel to the spirit of the place without need to wait in a long line. (You can make a reservation for the upstairs dining room, though many prefer the downstairs scene.) Your server will tell you what fish is freshest—and what preparation is most suitable for it. Check the entire menu for its many Creole classics.
After lunch, change into more casual clothes in time for your fitting at FreeWheelin’ Bike Tours. You’ve reserved a Creole & Crescent bike tour. One of the guides will take you through the French Quarter, giving information about some of its history, architecture, and quirky characters. From there it’s on to Faubourg Marigny, then just into Bywater (where you’ll see the Plessy v. Ferguson plaque), and then up Esplanade Avenue for a brief stop at St. Louis Cemetery #3 with its 10,000 burial sites—including a “Chefs’ Corner” contains family tombs for the Prudhomme, Galatoire, and Tujague families.
Further up Esplanade takes you to a break at Morning Call coffee stand at City Park, with its beautiful oak trees. If you didn’t get enough beignets and coffee earlier, or want to do a comparison, you can refuel here. You’ll then head back through the Tremé, with a stop at Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square (the birthplace of jazz) before the bike trip comes to an end. New Orleans is flat (though riddled in places with potholes), making the ride easy, scenic, and fun. Here’s a video with a look at the bike tour, as well as a preview of a restaurant and museum you’ll experience later in this itinerary:
Seafood is a specialty in New Orleans, and tonight’s dinner is at a restaurant that serves some of the best: GW Fins. This place has maintained its buzz for 15 years, since being named one of Esquire magazine’s “top 20 best new restaurants in America.” Not all of the seafood is local, but it’s all meticulously sourced and of high quality. It’s so fresh that there’s a new menu printed daily, though there are also mainstay dishes.
If you still have energy, it’s an easy stroll over to the no-frills Preservation Hall to see if you can get into one of the hourly acoustic jazz performances. The space is intimate, with seating limited to the folks who’ve reserved seats or are at the front of the non-reservation line. Even if you need to stand, you’ll enjoy the short show in this unique setting.
Jazz show or not, you’ve got an easy walk back to your base: the Maison Dupuy hotel. The hotel is convenient in being just on the edge of the French Quarter, and yet it’s surprisingly quiet. A good thing, as you’ll surely sleep well tonight.
(I was lucky to arrive in New Orleans just minutes before the start of the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc, aka the Joan of Arc Parade. This small but fun parade gives a good idea of what the Mardi Gras festivities are like—especially for someone who wants a small taste, but not the crowds and chaos. That same night, appropriate enough for a food writer, I accidentally stumbled upon a big group of men dressed as chefs, escorting a giant replica of a 5-layer cake. Turns out it was the Twelfth Night Revelers, whose procession marks the symbolic start of Carnival.)
A little more familiar with the city, it’s time to go beyond the French Quarter, through Faubourg Marigny and back into the funky Bywater neighborhood for breakfast at Elizabeth’s. This cute corner restaurant is famous for its praline bacon, but there are other delicious dishes as well. Note the colorful, whimsical artwork on the walls. “Real Food Done Real Good.”
Much of the artwork at Elizabeth’s comes from Dr. Bob’s Folk Art; if you find it enticing, you can see more by visiting the studio a few blocks away. On the way there, you can’t miss the steeply pitched Piety Street Bridge, also known as the Rusty Rainbow. Cross it to visit Crescent Park, a multi-use space with a walk that can take you all the way back to the French Market if so desired. But come back over, as you’ll instead walk through the Bywater neighborhood to check out other galleries and boutiques. Then continue your walk through the residential streets to St. Roch Market. Here you’ll find an at-times bustling upscale marketplace with interesting eateries. Of historical interests: the original St. Roch Market opened in 1875, before the advent of grocery stores.
You might want to avoid the temptation of eating, though, as you’re now heading to Canal Street (you can jump on a bus) and your starting point for a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar. For just $1.25 (though even better, get a Jazzy Pass for $3.00 so you jump on and off all day—and use all the RTA buses and streetcars for 24 hours), you can ride the historic streetcar along St. Charles Street and see all the beautiful buildings. The clang of the bell serves as a reminder that streetcar service started way back in 1835 (making it the second oldest streetcar in America)—it was horse-drawn until electrified in 1893.
But don’t go too far yet, as first you’ll get off in Uptown at Napoleon Avenue to make your way just a few blocks north for lunch at Pascal’s Manale. Operating since 1913, this is the place that created the famous (though perhaps misnamed) barbecue shrimp dish back in the mid-1950’s. Don’t be afraid to don the bib. It’s for your own protection!
After lunch it’s back to the streetcar, which you can take further down St. Charles, and then turn up Carrolton. But if you’re concerned about time, just go as far as the college campuses and Audubon Park. To the north of St. Charles, it’s worth a walk through the beautiful Tulane University campus. Crossing to the south side, the park awaits for a walk partly or fully around the lake. Leave time to take the streetcar back to the Garden District, and with a map as your guide take a tour to see some of the stately mansions as well as Lafayette Cemetery #1, the oldest city-owned cemetery in New Orleans.
Depending on your timing, you can walk along Magazine Street to see some of the interesting shops. Or discover one of many cafes and bars for coffee or a cocktail. But don’t fill up, as dinner tonight is at Shaya. This restaurant, on many lists voted the best new restaurant of 2015, transports you out of New Orleans for incredible Israeli cuisine. (It gets my vote as best restaurant of my recent trip.)
If you’re tired, it’s now time to rest. But it’s New Orleans, and hopefully with newfound energy after a fabulous meal, bypass the hotel for now and go beyond it to Frenchmen Street. You’ll find all kinds of music venues here, and many will let you in for free to sample the music. One recommendation: Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. It’s another intimate “listening room,” with the musicians playing at low volume to make you listen. House rules are no talking—except to the cocktail waitress.
Today starts with “Breakfast at Brennan’s.” That’s really a thing, and you’ll hear those three words together for good reason. After a recent closure, Brennan’s has come back. The restaurant bursts with charm, elegant service, and fantastic dishes. Some say that New Orleans isn’t really a breakfast town, but that what makes Brennan’s extra-special. Plus, hey, it’s the home of Bananas Foster. You’ve got to go. (It was my favorite “epitome of New Orleans” meal of my recent trip.)
You probably haven’t gotten enough of the French Quarter, so today’s the day for further exploration. If you can break away from your leisurely breakfast at Brennan’s, go back to Jackson Square for a visit to The Presbytère. Part of the Louisiana State Museum, this historic building (which matches the nearby Cabildo) houses a fascinating pair of exhibits. The ground floor gives a sobering and yet ultimately hopeful look at the impact of Hurricane Katrina—or more specifically the subsequent flooding from Katrina (and Rita, which followed less than a month later). Take time to hear the testimony of those who went through the flooding, and learn more about the science of the levee problems. Then head upstairs for the more lighthearted Mardi Gras exhibit. Some come to New Orleans just to party, but you’re here to learn more about the history and evolution of this festive event, from the costumes to the beads to king cake.
Lunch keeps you in the French Quarter with a stop to Coop’s Place. What a contrast to Brennan’s! You’ve got to get to at least one dive bar while in New Orleans, and you might as well try one that serves some good food. Coop’s Place more that fits the bill. Sidle up the bar and peruse the menu, then head out the back to the bathroom to also see where your food’s getting cooked. But don’t worry; it’ll be delicious.
After lunch, your afternoon is free. This gives you plenty more time to wander around the French Quarter. Or, if you loved the Mardi Gras exhibit, consider a visit to the Backstreet Museum in the Tremé to see a costume collection, or Mardi Gras World in the Lower Garden District to see some floats. But allow time to change hotels, as today you’re checking in to The Roosevelt New Orleans (a Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). Built in 1893 and original known as the Grunewald Hotel, it’s still majestic even after devastating damage from Hurricane Katrina. When you see your classically appointed room, you might be tempted to just hang out there and relax.
It’s back to the French Quarter again, for dinner tonight is at Mr. B’s Bistro. This low-lit lounge-like restaurant has an energetic vibe to it, and if you want to eat in the quieter back room, you can walk through the kitchen to get there. This is a good spot for contemporary Creole cooking, with gumbo and barbeque shrimp two specialties of the house. (I personally liked Mr. B’s barbeque shrimp better than the one at Pascal’s Manale, as the flavor at Mr. B’s is more rounded and less peppery. My server said that Pascal’s Manale invented the dish, but Mr. B’s perfected it.)
When you finish your dinner, you’re just a three-minute walk from the Royal Sonesta hotel, home of Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. Feel free to duck inside the black velvet drapes to see if you’d like to sit down for a set of music. If it’s not to your liking, you know that other options abound.
From the hotel, head to Willa Jean. You’ll want just a light breakfast ahead of the meals later today, but once you see the croissants—especially the chocolate-pistachio croissants—you’ll be in for a heavy load. Get one with coffee, as the caffeine will help with this museum-heavy day.
From here, walk to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. It’s the only general food museum in the whole country (and a non-profit one at that), and a great place to learn about the food of Louisiana and surrounding states. In addition to interesting exhibits, it’s a place where you can take a cooking class and even eat at the on-site restaurant.
Unless you’ve timed it right to be Friday, in which case you’re instead going to Restaurant August, in the Central Business District. The special Friday lunch menu is the price of the year, so it’s currently $20.16. For that reasonable price, you get an amuse bouche and three courses—with a choice within each of those courses. (You can also order a la carte from the rest of the lunch menu.) Service is elegant and execution of the dishes is terrific.
Next up is the incredible National WWII Museum. Time your visit to start with the Beyond All Boundaries movie, narrated by Tom Hanks and a powerful introduction to your museum experience. Then take in as many exhibits as you can, especially the “Road to Tokyo” and “Road to Berlin” exhibits, which wind their way through the history of the war efforts. New Orleans is lucky to have this museum in the city, and you should definitely carve out time to learn and remember.
The museum can easily take your entire afternoon, and after the heavy experience you’ll be happy to return to the hotel and make a stop at The Sazerac Bar. Its plushness is part of its old-time splendor. Yes, you’ll likely want a Sazerac here, and there are numerous other drinks (and friendly bartenders to tell you about them) to enjoy if you want to spend time at the 45-foot bar.
You can’t relax too long, though, as dinner tonight is in the Warehouse District, at Peche. In contrast to GW Fins, the seafood preparations here are bolder and more eclectic. The raw bar is great for oysters, and it’s worth trying whatever they’re serving out of the wood-fired grill—especially whole fish. You’ll see why Peche was the 2014 James Beard winner as best new restaurant in America.
How are you feeling now? Ready to hit the town for more music? Go back to the hotel for another Sazerac? And did you remember to stop by Central Grocery to get a muffuletta for the plane ride home? (The sandwich gets better as the olive oil sinks its goodness into the bread.) They open at 9am if you want to wake early and scoop up a sandwich for your last taste of New Orleans… for now.
Special thanks to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau for assisting with many aspects of my latest trip, including the stay at the Maison Dupuy hotel (thanks for hosting!) and many of the restaurant visits.
Restaurants also recommended from my previous short trip: Cochon/Cochon Butcher, Liuzza’s by the Track, Root, and Verti Marte.
Restaurants that didn’t quite make the list this time, but provide incentive to return: Angelo Brocato, Atchafalaya, Domilese’s, Herbsaint, Parkway, and Toups Meatery. And for soul food: Dookie Chase, Li’l Dizzy’s, and Willie Mae’s Scotch House.