Thursday, February 20, 2014

Beyond Bourbon Street

Getting ready for Mardi Gras

Most visitors to New Orleans come ready to party.  The city is made for good times, famous for its cuisine, jazz, bars, and esprit de corps.  It is common, though, for tourists to only experience those wonders within the French Quarter, centered on Bourbon Street.  I have enjoyed the French Quarter, for sure. There are great restaurants to be found and some fun shopping, but there is much more to New Orleans beyond its boundaries, with local charms that conventioneers, frat boys, and their companions cannot provide.

The neighborhood that I like to frequent most is the Faubourg Marigny.  Its quiet, angled streets are filled with houses like the one above, proud and pretty.  Head to Frenchman Street, where you will find the best jazz clubs in town.  Beginning mid-day, there is continuous music coming out of clubs up and down the block.  We started at cocktail hour at The Spotted Cat where music was free and the band was filled with musicians we had heard elsewhere. A cheap glass of wine, a diverse crowd of young and old, and we had a rousing start to a terrific night.

We have heard John Boutte at d.b.a., Kermit Ruffins at The Blue Nile, and Nova Nola, comprised of the talented members of the Masakowski family at Snug Harbor.  Each club has a low cover charge ($5-$15), with plenty of good tunes and congenial folks to share your time.  Another fun spot a few blocks away is Mimi's, where on Monday nights there is swing dancing which may be even more entertaining to watch than to dance!  When you enter Mimi's it looks like just a bar, but head on upstairs for some good music and great times.

We have stayed in "the Marigny" (pronounced mare-in-yee) twice, both times at lovely bed and breakfast inns.  This type of lodging abounds in the neighborhood, and offers the added feature of a chance to meet the local owners who offer up good stories about life in The Big Easy, as well as helpful tips of where to eat and what to do.  I recommend The Elysian Fields Inn for its location, comfort, spaciousness, and decor, let alone the friendly innkeepers, Leigh and Jim.

Beyond the Marigny is Bywater, another local neighborhood that welcomes visitors to its fun restaurants and clubs.  Check out The Joint for outstanding barbecue -- the pulled pork and the brisket melted in my mouth.  But do come hungry because the portions are huge.  From there, head to Bacchanal Wine just a few blocks away, an interesting combination of wine shop/restaurant/bar/jazz club, where you can taste a variety of small batch wines while listening to more New Orleans talent in the garden.  They also serve dinner there which I am told was spectacular.

Perhaps my favorite outing, though, in the Bywater was to take part in a second line parade.  The origins of second line parades are varied, but the draw is enthusiastic folks taking part in strutting their stuff throughout the neighborhood.  This one started out a little crazy, but it was all part of the fun. Everyone is welcome!

Moving outward from the Marigny and Bywater, we spent time in the entirely contrasting neighborhoods of the Ninth Ward and the Garden District.  These two areas point out the wide disparities in American fortune, good and bad.  We wanted to see an area hard hit by the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina, and to see what nine years of rebirth might have brought.  Confederacy of Cruisers offers a 4 hour bike trip to to explore just that.  While there is new housing stock thanks to a few non-profit organizations, there are sadly also blocks of empty lots, broken down pavement, and a quiet from the lack of services, and even street lights.  Those who live there now are rightly proud, and we had a chance to meet Ronald Lewis (featured in "Nine Lives", the wonderful book about New Orleanians by Dan Baum) who has his very own House of Dance and Feathers, a museum which serves to acknowledge the rich history of the Ninth Ward.  

After that day of austere reminders of tragedy and its remaining challenges, we finished a recent trip with a reminder of old world New Orleans, filled with grand dames and dandies.  Commander's Palace, in the majestic Garden District, had not interested me.  I thought it would be stuffy and not my cup of tea, but a friend convinced me that I must go, and I'm glad I did.  Yes, it looks like a country club, but the service was warm, friendly, and approachable.  The food outdid the service, and we ate what they call "haute creole" - a meal of turtle soup, oysters, cochon de lait, and strawberry shortcake.  At lunch, they serve 25-cent martinis (no kidding!) which just contributes to the impression that you have entered another time and place.  

So if you leave the French Quarter, how do you get around?  You will do a lot of walking and can easily take cabs, but there are also busses and the slow but historic streetcar.  Check out a map -- look beyond the bars of Bourbon Street and discover the real New Orleans.  You'll meet what are perhaps the most generous, enthusiastic, and unjaded 21st c. Americans around.  They are proud of their strong city, quirky by nature, and have so much to offer -- this is why I hope to go back again and again!


  1. Thank you for such an invigorating post about New Orleans! It has awakened my memories of how unique a place it is. While many people visit the cemeteries there, with the rituals and mysteries of voodoo lurking around every corner, this post reminds me of the living spirit of the people and the music that seems to magically connect everyone present-both visitors and residents alike. NO embodies the eternal allure of return to community. You got it! Thanks.

  2. Thank you for directing me to these fabulous posts! I have about 15 tabs open in my browser, all based on your recommendations. Looking forward to planning our trip and (hopefully) visiting some of your top NOLA spots!