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The Essential New Orleans

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The Essential New Orleans
Written By Rien Fertel | Photography by Chris Granger

From Bourbon Street to bánh mì, there’s a lot to love about the Crescent City—here’s how to take it all in.

We Invented Brunch

Brennan’s chef Slade Rushing takes a coffee break.

Start by raising a bloody mary (or bottomless mimosa, if you must) to the city that popularized the dining hour we all love to hate and hate to love. There is no finer brunching room than the recently remodeled Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ grande dames of French Quarter dining. I like eschewing reservations to surprise myself with a Sunday spot in the Roost Bar with its feathered flock of hand-painted mirrors and shadowbox tables filled with Easter-tinted egg shells. If there are no seats available, I climb the stairs to sneak a peek at the upper-crust dining rooms and sitting parlors before taking a time-wasting stroll down Royal Street to check out the tourists and pretend I can afford the art- and antique-filled galleries. Brennan’s ain’t going anywhere—it’s been here since 1946. Back at the Roost, an order of gumbo or turtle soup, something yolky (eggs benedict! eggs sardou!! eggs hussarde!!!), and a boozy, vanilla bean-y caribbean milk punch is more than enough to convert any brunchophobe.

You can experience all 300 years of the city’s history contained on a single street, though you might need a stiff frozen daiquiri or two to transport you back in time.

Take a (Smarter) Walk Down Bourbon Street

What if I were to tell you Bourbon Street is New Orleans at its most authentic? You probably know about the mirror-lined dining room at Galatoire’s, and decadently Gallic barrooms at Arnaud’s (both well worth return visits). But what about the street more famous for Huge Ass Beers, test-tube shots, and heat-lamped pizza slices? Read local cultural geographer and historian Rich Campanella’s immensely engaging Bourbon Street: A History (Louisiana State University Press, 2014) to learn that the city’s first library, synagogue, and Chinatown all operated along the corridor where tourists now swill overproofed, sugar-shocked Hurricanes and Hand Grenades (not that there’s anything wrong with trying one of each). The nation’s premier opera house and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire each called Bourbon Street home. Oyster saloons, burlesque dance halls, and neon-lit strip clubs—you can experience all 300 years of the city’s history contained on a single street, though you might need a stiff frozen daiquiri or two to transport you back in time.

Sandwich City

Like most urban centers, New Orleans aspires to build a better sandwich. Since 1906, Central Grocery has been slinging muffulettas, a heap of Italian meats and cheeses, topped with a carrot, cauliflower, and caper-rich crunch of olive salad, and stuffed into an oversized sesame loaf. Then there’s the po’ boy, best secured from neighborhood corner sandwich counters like Parkway Bakery & Tavern (I’m a diehard fried shrimper), Johnny’s (try the roast beef), and R & O’s (where parmesan everything—veal, eggplant, soft-shell crab—is king). Drive out to the far eastern suburbs and Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery to try the city’s most recent sandwich obsession, the po’ boy’s french-loafed cousin; the cold cut and pickled veggie-filled Vietnamese bánh mì. Or stop at either of the French Quarter’s two locations of Killer Poboys, where bánh mì bread meets elemental po’ boy ingredients to re-imagine a sandwich for the twenty-first century. Try the coriander-lime marinated shrimp with sriracha aioli, the roast sweet potato lavished in braised greens with a black-eyed pea and pecan spread, or the black beer-braised beef with pickled peppers and horseradish.

Left to right: Killer Poboys; roast beef po ’boy at Parkway.

A French Quarter Rum Renaissance

Order up at Cane & Table

New Orleans has long been known as a whiskey wonderland, but there’s no finer place to get rummy (after all, the Caribbean is only a rock-skip away). Start at the Palace Café’s Black Duck Bar, the official home of the New Orleans Rum Society, to sip a dram from their 120-plus bottle list, including everything from Appleton to Zacapa. Next, walk downriver for a trio of mai tai, hurricane, and zombie gummy shots at Tiki Tolteca. Two doors down, Latitude 29 is the home of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the man who almost singlehandedly saved tiki cocktail culture from oblivion. Order a round of grogs and punches, and fortify yourself with their incredible pork dumpling burger. Now follow the river to the far, opposite end of the French Quarter—steady on your feet—to Cane & Table, for the ever-changing menu of classic and modern rum-based cocktails, sometimes served in hollowed out pineapples and coconuts. If you’re all rummed out, remember, it’s perfectly acceptable to query the bartender for a pour of sherry or Basque cider.

Cruising the French Quarter

Keeping the Streak Alive

The past five years have bestowed an embarrassment of laurels upon our fair city. The James Beard awards, the Oscars of the restaurant and hospitality industry, continues to accolade New Orleans chefs, restaurateurs, and bartenders like no other city. A roll call is in order: Commander’s Palace: Best Chef for Tory McPhail, 2013. Gautreau’s: Best Chef for Sue Zemanick, 2014. Pêche: Best New Restaurant, 2014. Hansen’s Sno-Bliz: American Classics, 2014. Domenica: Best Chef for Alon Shaya, 2015. Dooky Chase’s: Lifetime Achievement Award for Leah Chase, 2016. La Petite Grocery: Best Chef for Justin Devillier, 2016. Shaya: Best New Restaurant, 2016, and Rising Star Chef for Zachary Engel, 2017. Herbsaint: Best Chef for Rebecca Wilcomb, 2017. Arnaud’s French 75 Bar: Outstanding Bar Program, 2017. It’s fun to predict future award winners (no jinxes!). Place your bets on Nina Compton, who melds Caribbean and Creole at Compère Lapin; Michael Gulotta, who spins imaginative takes on Southern and Southeast Asian fare at MoPho and his newest, Maypop; and Mason Hereford at Turkey and the Wolf, a (mostly) sandwich shop that, like New Orleans at its best and worst, will charm and confound, force you to laugh, and maybe even make you want to toss your plate across the room.

Protect, Preserve, and Perpetuate

Preservation Hall

I’d be a shame to ramble all the way down to New Orleans and leave without catching some live local music. My recommended spot is Preservation Hall, the city’s premier venue for traditional jazz since 1961. This is about as intimate as the concert experience gets. Sitting room only on weathered slatted floors. Plaster walls decorated with portraits of past musical legends. No drinks, no room for dancing, and no stage: just a group of musicians, acoustic and within arm’s reach. The talent changes nightly, from a revolving group of one hundred or so local masters of the horns, strings, and drums. Recently, the history of the Hall—not to mention its acoustics—has enticed preeminent acts to perform, including Elvis Costello, Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket, and Robert Plant. There are at least three shows scheduled each night (at 8, 9, and 10 pm), with a six o’clock curtain on many days. To score a spot, just stand in line about a half hour or so before the show (a limited number of reserved seats are available online and at the box office). Get in the mood by spinning the official and oft-touring Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s latest album, the hard-bopping, funk-dropping, Cuban-tinged, So It Is.

Consummate Hosts, Peerless Collectors

JoAnn Clevenger at Upperline.

Fancy some fine art with your food? A pair of New Orleans’ most cherished and cordially inviting dining rooms, both bastions of Creole cooking, also serve as salon-style museums of a sort. Upperline hosts owner JoAnn Clevenger’s collection of more than 400 paintings, sculptures, pottery, and photographs. I suggest sipping a pre-dinner sazerac at the bar to convene with one of JoAnn’s prized paintings, Noel Rockmore’s “Homage to the French Quarter,” a portrait of the great gallimaufry of bohemians that once haunted the downtown New Orleans neighborhood. Then tuck into some Oysters St. Claude, a bowl of duck and andouille gumbo, and “Hot & Hot” shrimp. Across town at Dooky Chase’s, Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine, has amassed the city’s most impressive collection of African-American paintings and prints. There might be no better seat in New Orleans than a lunchtime table in Chase’s main dining room, awash in a sea of red hues, within sight of the gorgeous stained-glass panels by Winston Falgout depicting New Orleans street scenes.

I’d gladly trade all of Brooklyn for Bacchanal, a wine-and-dine and modern jazz garden hideaway.

Enjoy the Humidity (Preferably at Night)

It’s no secret: New Orleans’s climate can be suffocatingly humid, oppressively dank (even in December). But when the sun sets, there’s no better place to be than outside. For the best in outdoor dining and drinking, head to the Bywater, a neighborhood you may have heard described as “the new Williamsburg.” Don’t believe such hogwash. I’d gladly trade all of Brooklyn for Bacchanal, a wine-and-dine and modern jazz garden hideaway. If it’s overcrowded—and it no doubt will be—stop into N7’s courtyard for a bottle of chilled rosé, wonderfully crisp pommes frites, and tin cans of imported European seafoods (squid in ink from Spain, perhaps, or Portuguese spiced calamari in ragout, and maybe some lobster rillettes from France). Head back to Bacchanal to grab a table just in time for the band’s second set. Enjoy another bottle (say, a minerally Old World white), order a cheese plate and a mixed bowl of olives. The sun set four hours ago, but it will still be hot. Sultry. Learn to love to sweat.

Twilight at Bacchanal

Recipe: Brennan’s Eggs Hussarde Brennan’s Restaurant, New Orleans