Now that Mardi Gras has run its perennial course, we figured we’d walk you through New Orleans the right way, with an alternative guide to a most unorthodox city.
Most surveys of the best places to visit in New Orleans pay homage to the French Quarter and leave it at that, as if this spectacular American original consisted of nothing more than a few square blocks on one side of the Mississippi. If you do that — forgive the phrase — you’re doing it wrong, falling prey to the very same one-size-fits-all tourist mentality that cranked that neighborhood into consumerist frenzy in the first place. Now that Mardi Gras has run its perennial course, we figured we’d walk you through New Orleans the right way, with an alternative guide to a most unorthodox city.
“Hurry up and wait” absolutely applies in this slow-moving, slow-eating environment. Head a ways uptown to Jacques-Imo’s for reservations-free, come-as-you-are meals; you may have to wait up to two hours, but that shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake is 100% worth it, especially if Jacques himself stops by to socialize. Speaking of which, nothing gets the conversation flowing as reliably as beer and po’ boys — half fried shrimp, half fried oyster — at Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar, the unpretentious king of the idiom. Head a bit further to Black Pearl and you’ll hit ground zero for fresh shucked oysters, Cooter Brown’s. Newer but no less appetizing, Cochon presents an education in pork and Cajun flavor in a converted warehouse space that’s perfect for groups. Not to be confused with the snow cone, its inferior cousin, the sno-bliz at Hansen’s unassuming stand has set the standard since 1939 — it makes a capital low-key dessert, as does the buttered pecan pie fresh from the flattop grill at the fabled Camellia Grill, served with a friendly fist-bump by waiters sporting natty vintage bow-ties.
Street eats are the name of the game at W New Orleans — French Quarter. Make no mistake: chain though W may be, they’ve unquestionably done their homework. Far from an eyesore, this iteration blends right into its French Quarter setting, paying homage throughout with wrought-iron elements, plentiful (and charming) lanterns, and sensual greenery to soften the edges. If you’re dead-set on getting into trouble, it’s nice to know you have experienced and impeccably trained service to fall back on — not to mention a menu of piquant shareables to line the stomach beforehand.
What to do while waiting for a seat at Jacques-Imo’s? Head next door to Maple Leaf Bar, naturally, a tin-ceilinged neighborhood staple with just-right cocktails and a weekly appearance by Rebirth Brass Band. If that sounds a little…orderly…sidle up instead to Ms. Mae’s The Club for double-take cheap, 24-hour drinks; you’ll leave smelling like a chain-smoker, but you’ll probably also run into post-set jazz musicians in a voluble mood. Plenty of tunes to be had at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits as well, what with the roomy courtyard and daily live music; make a day-drinking session of it and take full advantage of their cheese pairings. As long as you’re keeping it in Bywater, rumor has it one Kermit Ruffins shows up every week at Vaughan’s Lounge for a live set in an archetypically neighborly New Orleans fixture. If it’s the people you’d rather watch, nothing better than Mimi’s in the Marigny for suds, small plates, and quirky décor.
International House’s Loa bar absolutely sets the standard for botanically charged cocktails — remember, they were invented here — under the painstaking direction of professional eccentric Alan Walter. It also happens to jibe well with jazz standards, a motif informing everything from the hotel’s delicious floral aromas to its black-and-white photography. The elegant light fixtures, pillars, and requisite balconies all contribute to its powerful sense of place, and that’s before you even consider the vodou rituals.
A day in Audubon Park is a day well spent, if you ask us, especially if you situate yourself riverside for a local-favorite picnic intensive with views to write home about (drive-through daiquiris and po’ boys, you’re welcome). For more of a macabre turn, Metairie Cemetery’s history encompasses not only a stint as a horse racetrack but a Confederate army campsite as well; no better way to acquaint yourself with the region’s trademark above-ground tombs, and you won’t have to jockey (pun intended) as much for space compared with the teeming crowds at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. A quick jaunt outside the city center rewards you with the evocative ruins of Fort Pike, these days a lovably dilapidated relic of the War of 1812 — in fact, military buffs have a whole slew of such forts to choose from. Whatever you choose to see, do it on two wheels via the family-owned American Bicycle Rental Company and, if you need a bit more structure, sister company Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours.
We see you, Frenchmen Street devotees, and we raise you the Frenchmen Art Market, a nightly craft bazaar, Thursday through Monday, with “outdoor living rooms” to keep the dogs from barking. Celebrate your finds across the street in one of D.B.A.’s cozy booths for (what else) live music and stiff drinks. The wild and the weird converge at Gasa Gasa, a catchall performance venue with equal parts sonic and visual appeal; get into the right mindset en route at House of Broel, an antebellum-meets-Victorian mansion with a fashion and a dollhouse museum crammed inside. Then slingshot downriver for an unmissable trio: Euclid Records New Orleans for two stories of vinyl treasure-hunting, Island of Salvation Botanica for spiritual readings and accoutrements in the Haitian Vodou tradition, and the singular Music Box Village for an enthralling exhibit of artist-made, interactive music houses and regular high-profile performances.
Trust the team at Ace Hotel New Orleans to make the most of the city’s burgeoning Warehouse District, situating another Roman and Williams stunner against a snappy, revitalized Art Deco backdrop. It’s vintage chic par excellence, spicing the rooms’ Smeg fridges and Tivoli radios with, in the upper tiers, turntables and Martin acoustics. This being Ace, of course, the public thoroughfares are the point; when you’ve had your fill of the Italian-meets-Southern cuisine and locals-welcome pool scene, it’s only natural to saunter over to the in-house music venue and see the real deal in action.
Alright, logic wins. To skip old-school mainstays would be to commit a sin of the sort not usually appreciated in such a freewheeling city. Cafe Du Monde heads the all-star roster with justly famous beignets and chicory coffee; given that it’s open 24 hours, get your fix at 4 am when the line is reasonable. If it’s daytime propriety you’re after, try Galatoires for French-Creole wizardry in an unapologetically jacket-required dining room. Pascal’s Manale fuses Italian with Louisiana cuisine instead, but far and away their greatest culinary contribution is BBQ shrimp. And yes, we’re not too proud to let loose at Tipitina’s. Speakeasies be damned: this is how you put on a great show. Just ask Dr. John.
As true-blue boutiques go, Soniat House is classic New Orleans’s magnum opus: three converted townhouses bedecked in sumptuous 19th-century decadence and staffed by the very definition of Southern hospitality. Sweetness and discretion suffuse the rooms and public spaces alike, the better to digest the heady enchantment on one’s own terms. Bourbon Street is just a couple blocks away, but it might as well be in another (and tawdrier) city altogether. They just don’t make them like this anymore.
Not to sound like a broken record, but when it comes to the best place to stay in New Orleans, it’s the locals again who carry the day — the old-timers, sure, but also those willing to experiment with the inimitable city’s forms in the spirit of deep, abiding intimacy. Boutique hotels in New Orleans, thankfully, aren’t all cut from the same cloth: the people make the place.
That attention to detail is obvious in the five hotels we listed above, but it’s also apparent at the Henry Howard Hotel, which bears the name of the man behind much of the Garden District’s signature architecture, here displayed in all its genteel Greek Revival glory. And just in case all those Colonial façades get to be a bit much, Loft 523 stands out in stark contrast with hyper-contemporary minimalism that wouldn’t be out of place in lower Manhattan. That, on the whole, is a good thing; what would come off as ho-hum or go-along in NYC instead reads as refreshingly innovative and roomy in NOLA. Living large, indeed.
Check out our list of the Best Boutique Hotels in New Orleans.