Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Truth About New Orleans

If your only source of information regarding the City of New Orleans is CNN you most likely believe the place remains in shambles.

Step #1 – Stop listening to this douchebag:

A handsome fellow to be sure, but he’s full of shit and he and the network he works for need the current narrative to continue…at least until the next epic tale of misery on which he can breathlessly emote....with killer ratings.

If you are thinking about going to New Orleans, for vacation or business, by all means, you should go, and here is some info I’ve gathered from two trips there since Katrina and numerous friends and associates who’ve done the same. I’m obviously neither a politician nor a reporter. My only agenda is that of a guy who really enjoys New Orleans and its unique culture, food and music.

Are parts of New Orleans Still Depressed or Dangerous?
At the risk of being coarse, yes, but you likely wouldn’t have visited those areas anyway. On our last trip I spoke with a musician during one of his breaks who related the following point of view that was mirrored by a number of other locals who I spoke with;

Many of the parts of town that were worst hit were in fact the worst area’s of town, the parts with the worst crime and the people responsible for it - The drugs, the hookers the people that gave New Orleans a bad name. The loss of those areas drove a lot of those people out of town. Unfortunate for Atlanta and Houston which received many of them but on the bright side for New Orleans, crime is down all over the city compared to pre-Katrina. The city is a much safer place today than it once was.

In every city, there are parts of town you need to stay away from, and that remains true here. Common sense is the rule in New Orleans, as it is in New York, or San Francisco, or anywhere these days.

Through the efforts of area business men, and celebrities like Brad Pitt, Harry Conick Jr. and Drew Brees many of the hardest hit area’s are being rebuilt and repopulated with hard working good people dedicated to the revival of their neighborhoods.

New Orleans is Alive & Well
The French Quarter, and the parts of the city you’d want to visit and those which it would be safe to visit were not appreciably damaged by Katrina in terms of infrastructure. By virtue of how the city was originally layed out, with its commercial center on high ground, the Quarter looks pretty much as it has for years. Jackson Sq. in front of St. Louis Cathedral is it’s old beautiful self, surrounded by artists, fortune tellers, spooky tour guides, and street musicians. Its funky bohemian vibe is as strong as ever. The restaurants, hotels, and clubs are vibrant and welcoming, as always.

If you like lots of cigarette smoke and walking in the vomit puddles of raging twenty-somethings then rock on. The "MTV-Spring Break" version of New Orleans is there for you as it has always been. There are still some of the seedy joints on Bourbon St. including strip clubs for all tastes, and rest assured there is a nightclub playing any form of music you might wish to dance to at ear-splitting volume. Most of these types of places are at the South End of Bourbon.....  However, if you are reading this you are probably not in that demographic and would prefer something leaning toward the enjoyment of fine food, Jazz, Blues, scenery and history. If that is your aim, it’s nigh impossible to be disappointed if you are a returning visitor, for you know what to expect—The culture of “NOLA”, music, food, and fun.

The Streetcar system on St. Charles is up and running, and the gorgeous homes and moss covered oaks are nearly intact. It’s a great way to see a large chunk of the nicer parts of town including the Garden District. I think the best and most educational way to see this part of town is to take advantage of one of the many tours that start near the Lafayette Cemetery near Commanders Palace. If you are looking for something to eat while out that way know that Commanders Palace will not let you in w/o long pants and a collared shirt, if you are dressed more casually, the epic Camellia Grill is open. Get there early, the lines are prodigious.

The museums, art galleries, and entertainment, of the Warehouse District is much the same, less bohemian than the Quarter, not as upscale as Uptown, but way cool and it's spreading like wildfire through the area with nary a hint of hippster douchery. New places are opening, and old places are thriving.

But what about Restaurants, Hotels and Other Touristy things in Post-Katrina New Orleans?
Yeah, there are still a few shuttered storefronts in some areas of town. Some small businesses suffered after the hurricane due to insurance issues, personnel problems, and other financial concerns. While many smaller businesses have struggled, lots more are killing it. Tons of new stores are open on Magazine Street and it’s among the more successful retail areas in town. Antiques stores with both elegant and funky offerings are mixed with stylish clothing stores in the Quarter as well.

The main thing is that there are more restaurants open now then before Katrina. New Music venues have opened. The middle of Bourbon Street and bits toward the North end are returning to the jazz roots. My personal favorite on Bourbon is “Fritzels European Jazz Club”. It’s a little hard to spot but totally worth the effort.

A great combo at Fritzel’s playing 1930's era jazz

 I also recommend you make a point of visiting Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon St. They claim it’s the oldest bar in America. Not sure if that’s true or not but it’s an awesome, divey little place that usually has good entertainment if not at the piano then provided by the cast of characters at the bar.

The best quality and density of good music is found off of Bourbon on Frenchmen St. Head for the 500-600 blocks and you’ll find no less than 6 clubs within spitting distance. Each of them has a unique offering of music and more affordable drinks than at the Bourbon St. establishments. If you time your trip right you may be able to catch Ellis Marsalis who usually plays at Snug Harbour on Fridays.

The food, the food, the food:
The following is a list of places I like in no particular order:

Yeah, it’s a tourist trap, but you have to go to CafĂ© Du Monde. If the line is long, come back later, they are open 24hrs. Remember when you pay your bill though that the average tab is less than $5. Tip well. Those folks work their butts off.

 One place you have to visit for lunch is Willie Mae’s Scotch House @ 2401 Saint Ann St. By all accounts this is one of the best “Soul Food” places in the country. Many will tell you that Willie Mae’s has the best fried chicken in the world. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s by far the best I’ve ever had. Amazing. Seriously. The sides, such as the red beans & rice seen below are equally mind blowing as well. It’s hard to imagine that two dishes as simple as fried chicken and red beans could be “THAT” different, but trust me…they’ve done something special here.

 Willie Mae’s is a bit far from the Quarter out in the 7th. It’s not in a bad area, but there are a couple of “less nice” area’s on the way. Either take a cab or streetcar out to it.

Also great for lunch or dinner and much closer to the Quarter and Garden District is Cochon @ 930 Tchoupitoulas. They feature phenomenal Cajun fusion-ish cooking and they also have a world class butcher on site if you want to take home some porcine goodies. Best Boudin in the country according to San Francisco Chef Chris Cossentino.

 Oven roasted oysters

 Fried Rabbit Livers with a Habanero jelly

 Braised Pork Cheeks with “Boston Baked” peanuts and a pickled radish salad

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