There are few cities that have a spirit like the city of New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong, other cities have their own personalities, but Nola is something different. This year, New Orleans is celebrating its 300th anniversary or Tricentennial, but they’re also celebrating a long awaited rebirth.
As Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu said on the city’s website, “We honor our city’s history. New Orleans is a resilient city, as history has proven many times. We have faced and overcome the challenges of rebuilding a great city after fire, war and disasters—both natural and manmade. With the Tricentennial, we now have the opportunity to celebrate the hard work of generations of New Orleanians who have made us one of the world’s most authentic and beloved cities and to remember the fullness, richness and diversity of our history as it should have always been remembered.”
The beauty of New Orleans is that parts of it are always changing, while others have weathered the test of time. If you’re a foodie, a history buff, an art lover or the life of the party, there’s something for you in The Big Easy.
New Orleans is home to more than 20 historical districts on the national register, but my first stop on a weekend trip with my partner, Matt, is an hour outside the city. While there are many beautiful plantation homes in this region, Oak Alley Plantation is one of a kind. You might recognize it from Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” music video or the 1994 movie, Interview with a Vampire.
Its shining feature is also its namesake; an alley created by a double row of 28 oak trees, planted in the early 1700’s. It’s more than two and a half football fields long. At 300 years old, the towering oaks are awe-inspiring. Wisdom seeps from their bark.
Although the preservation of plantations is a contentious topic—some argue that it glorifies slavery—the curators of Oak Alley have taken care not to ignore the horrors which took place here. Their Slavery Exhibit replicates slave quarters, filled with various items like real tools used to produce sugar cane to furniture and clothing. The most moving element is the stories of the slaves who lived there written on plaques, so their names may never be forgotten.
Next, we head to a quaint bed and breakfast, Chez Palmiers, located just a few blocks from the French Quarter. Its bright turquoise doors, traditional shotgun style, with beads upon beads shimmering on an iron gate, I feel as though the city is welcoming me with one of her arms open and the other holding a Pat O’brien Hurricane.
The first event of the evening is a concert at The Orpheum Theater featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, famous for their song “Wagon Wheel.” After the building flooded in Hurricane Katrina, it sat dormant for ten years. Originally built in 1918, the iconic space is one of the few remaining vertical hall designs in the U.S., according to their website.
Today, the venue hosts a variety of events from ballets to musical acts and comedians. The renovations are beautiful, made to match the original terracotta ceiling and color scheme from 1921. Our balcony seats give us a perfect view of the stage, and the audience comes alive with the music.
As a Texan, one of the most overwhelming aspects of New Orleans isn’t the constant partying on Bourbon, but the food. There’s so much of it, and it’s all delicious. While planning my trip, I made reservations far in advance. On weekends, the best restaurants are always full.
We head to Bourbon Street for dinner at Arnaud’s; founded in 1918 the restaurant is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Walking in, it’s like we have traveled back in time; chandeliers shine among fans that hang several feet down from the coffered ceiling, and a wall of textured glass transforms the harsh lights of Bourbon Street into purple and green twinkles. Many items on the menu have remained nearly untouched over the years, served today the way they were in 1918.
First up is a round of drinks and their signature dish, Shrimp Arnaud, Gulf shrimp marinated in their famous Creole Remoulade Sauce. The tangy flavor dances on my tongue as I bite into the fresh shrimp. For my entree, I can’t resist the Pontchartrain, a fresh snapper fillet with fresh Louisiana crabmeat. Seasoned simply with a hint of lemon, the snapper and crab shine in their bath of butter. We finish with coffee and Crème Brûlée.
The evening takes us to the Carousel Piano Bar & Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone. A longtime favorite establishment of the city, this is the only lounge with a revolving bar. If you’re lucky, snag a seat on the slowly rotating circle or venture down a little farther towards the entrancing music coming from a piano. Another beautiful element about New Orleans is the many talented musicians who live and work here. (Austin, Texas claims to be the Live Music Capital of the World, but I, personally, would contest that.)
After a few drinks, we end the evening at a lowkey local around the corner, the 21st Amendment Bar where a jazz band plays in the corner just feet away from patrons. This cozy establishment pays tribute to the Prohibition Era with a menu boasting select vintage cocktails like The Sazerac and The Last Word.
There’s no brunch like a Jazz brunch, and in New Orleans the place to go is the Court of Two Sisters. On Royal Street in the French Quarter, the heart of the restaurant is its massive courtyard. Champagne bottles pop all around us as we quickly order a round of Bloody Mary’s.
The hungrier you are the better. They offer classics like eggs, bacon, grits and a cold bar with fruit and salads, along with Cajun favorites like Creole jambalaya, and Chicken and Andouille Gumbo. Normally at buffets, I try not to fill up on bread, but at the last minute I decide to grab a biscuit. I believe fate led me to one of the best melt-in-your-mouth-biscuits I’ve ever had. Lesson learned.
We eat until we’re uncomfortably full, and sit back, listening to the elegant jazz trio as sun shines through a canopy of ivy and umbrellas. Finally able to move again, we stroll down Royal Street, exploring the art galleries until it’s time for our next stop.
As a museum lover, it was difficult to choose from all the city has to offer: the New Orleans Museum of Art, walking tours on architecture or the popular ghost tours. Yet, there’s one everyone should make time to visit: The National WWII Museum. Since its founding in 2000, the museum has made significant expansions and is now considered one of the best in the country.
Set aside at least two hours to walk around the immersive exhibits, complete with multimedia experiences, first-person oral histories and artifacts. The U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, is the largest building on the campus, which houses an impressive collection of fighter planes—many in working condition. A tour guide tells us how one plane was flown to New Orleans after the museum acquired it. Walking through “The Road to Tokyo” and “The Road to Berlin” in the Campaigns of Courage pavillion, U.S. and Nazi artifacts are preserved in mint condition. Finally, see the award-winning 4-D film, Beyond All Boundaries, produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, shown solely at the museum.
Before we know it, it’s time for dinner at NOLA, a contemporary and critically-acclaimed restaurant that fuses traditional Creole, Acadian and Southern Cuisine with global influences by Chef Philip Buccieri and celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse. Renovated just last year with a new interior and new menu, the recently reopened, two-story eatery buzzes with people from wall to wall. A glass of wine in hand, we’re ready to dig in.
A pair of Alligator Sausage Bao, also known as Japanese buns, make their way to our table and quickly to our mouths. The house-made hoisin and kimchi pack a punch of flavor. For large parties or just a pair of very hungry people, order the One Foot Eggroll, a vegetarian dish served with duck sauce and smoked shiitake salad. For entrees, we share Shrimp & Grits, made with stone ground cheddar grits, mushroom, mirliton and chow chow (which we did, indeed, chow down on). I insist we also order the Ora King Salmon, known as the Wagyu of salmon, which did not disappoint; prepared medium-well and served with rice almondine and skillet vegetables, our appetites and bodies are well nourished.
End the day—or start the night—at the oldest bar in the South, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar. Lit only with natural light and battery-powered, this unassuming corner bar can be overlooked by tourists who run towards neon-green “Grenade” signs. Unexpectedly, we meet another couple from North Texas who generously buy us a round of Bloody Mary Shooters. Made with vodka, tomato juice, a splash of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce and a pinch of salt, it’s the perfect way to kick off the night and toast to new friendships.
We leave Bourbon Street and head north to Frenchmen Street, famous for live music clubs like The Spotted Cat and The Maison. We browse through an artist’s market, asking locals about their work and admiring everything from canvas prints to jewelry. Jazz music floats through the air grabbing our attention. We find a band playing inside Bamboula’s and quickly grab a table in the front, soaking in the beauty of the historic building and enjoying the talented musicians.
As we reluctantly pack up our bags, I reflect on the weekend. Throughout our trip, every time we took a rideshare we made a point of asking the driver: how long had they lived in the city and what was their favorite thing about New Orleans? We spoke to those born and bred, and some who had lived in the city for only a few years, but their answers all went somewhat the same. They loved the food, they loved the music, but most of all, it was the people; the people of New Orleans who cumulatively give the city it’s unique spirit. As the people of Nola say,
“Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
This story was originally printed in the May 2018 issue of Plano Profile under the title, “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”