New Orleans is one of those places with a rep. At least for me, it was hard to imagine anything beyond the stereotypes of this city so I didn't expect it to take me by surprise the first time I visited. Well go figure...as in most cases in this world of ours, stereotypes are just that. Yes based on some level of reality, but most definitely not to be taken as an absolute truth or given fact. New Orleans stomped on any preconceive notion I had. In short, New Orleans is awesome.
1. The best time to visit New Orleans is probably not for Mardi Gras
I say probably because I have never gone to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Having visited though, I cannot imagine wanting to deal with New Orleans during Mardi Gras. December was perfect. The weather is fabulous, there are decorations everywhere which magnifies the quaint qualities of the city, it's not too crowded so the amount of garbage on the streets (specifically Bourbon Street) is minimized and it's not so hot that the garbage that is present has the chance to become hot, stinky garbage. Honestly, the perfect time for a getaway to this wonderful city.
2. Beignets are not that good
I know people rave about these things but let's look at them for what they are...deep fried grease bombs covered in powdered sugar. How is this better than a donut? Spoiler alert...it's not. There's a reason food items aren't typically covered in a mountain of powdered sugar. It's because normal humans don't particularly like a lungful of anything but air. I also don't want my hands, face, clothes and anything else within a 12-inch radius to be covered in powdered sugar. I was even drunk when I ate these and still wasn't impressed! Maybe one day I’ll be swayed but for now I'm not on team beignet.
3. Beignets aside, I was blown away by how amazing the food was
I'm talking crazy good. This applies to basically everything that I ate in New Orleans and was by no means limited to the traditional cuisine of the region. But for example, where the F have gulf oysters been? They are some of the fattest, tastiest oysters I've had. How did I not know these existed until now...why are these not on more menus? I had two of the best meals I've had in a long time in New Orleans which has unfortunately had negative side effects in that I compare everywhere else I go to these two experiences! Luckily I live in Chicago so there are restaurants that can contend. Let's start with the best.
Holy shit was this place amazing. There was literally not one bad thing that we ate. It's relatively small with a decent bar area. Great atmosphere, great service. I literally use the line, "it's no Herbsaint" with my friend when we talk about new restaurants we try. We started out strong on the appetizer front with house made spaghetti with guanciale (cured meat...can't go wrong there) and a poached egg...basically a carbonara of sorts as well as watermelon gazpacho with a super fresh crab salad in the center. For the main event we shared duck leg confit with dirty rice, a butter poached fish dish and home made lamb lasagna. HOME MADE...meaning all the pasta sheets were hand rolled. So delicate, so good. For dessert there was a banana, brown butter tart that was delicious. If you go to New Orleans...make a reservation and eat here. Oh, it also may be haunted. That or it has weird lights that make taking a good picture near impossible. I tried to take a video to prove it. It was literally just a normal dining room...creepy.
Here's an example of what I mean when I say the barrage of delicious food was not limited to the regional specialties. Shaya is self-proclaimed "modern Israeli cuisine"...and freaking amazing modern Israeli cuisine...in New Orleans. It's a little ways away from the center of the city but man oh man is it worth the cab fare. Again, not one thing we ordered was mediocre. We tried the lamb ragú hummus (yes lamb ragú hummus, I mean...mind blown) and an assortment of other dips which came out with the most delicious, soft, fresh bread EVER made in house in the main dining area. We had the shakshouka which was wiped clean (using said amazing bread), the matzo ball soup and a chicken schnitzel sandwich. The only item that I'd say was cast into the shadows by the other phenomenal dishes was the sandwich. The chef of this restaurant won best new chef South last year and is a semifinalist for the best new restaurant category for this year's James Beard Foundation Awards. It was very apparent why. I crave this place...Chicago expansion please?
If you end up in New Orleans, I highly recommend you try these two restaurants. Here were some additional, memorable meals.
Coquette New Orleans
We went here for brunch. Everything was very well executed and the atmosphere was on point in my opinion. I had a beef cheek dish with oats and poached egg. The oats were a pleasant surprise...I wouldn't normally think to pair these items but that's the reason I'm not a chef. It was delicious.
We went to Stanley for one reason and one reason only...bananas foster french toast! We shared it as a table though because, let's be honest, it's basically a dessert. This place had a solid normal breakfast selection as well. I had the Breaux Bridge Benedict which contained boudin, a regional specialty. Thought I'd give it a whirl. It was yummy.
This place has been around since 1913! No joke...so it must be doing something right. It's famous for its barbecue shrimp but also had some delicious oysters (duh). The rest of the menu has an Italian vibe. It's always cool to head somewhere with character and a history. They had a menu hanging on the wall from 1935, very cool.
4. There is a pretty legit music and art scene going on
I don't know why I never hear people talk about music or art when they refer to New Orleans. Quite likely I'm just talking to the wrong people! I associate places like Nashville or Austin with a vibrant music scene but never New Orleans...until I finally visited. There is music everywhere. From live jazz to dueling pianos and everything in between. As far as ways someone can be surprised, more live music than expected is a solid one.
Another great way to be surprised is, more cool, local art than expected. A lot of super talented people live in this city (I don't blame them) and that leads to some pretty cool opportunities to view and purchase one of a kind art which is one of my favorite things when traveling...right up there with eating! While we were there we discovered Frenchman Art Market which is a great, open air art market with tons of character where I found some great jewelry and a couple original art pieces to bring home with me. We discovered another art market which I believe was temporary, set up in Lafayette Square. It even included a cool installation with disks that changed color when stepped on. These are just two examples of the creative vibe that I witnessed throughout the city which gives it another fabulous layer of awesome.
5. There are better places to listen to live music and get blasted than Bourbon Street
As appealing as it sounds, showing off my tatas for beads on a filth lined street is actually the last thing I'm interested in doing these days. Bourbon Street has its appeal as a debaucherous, anything goes, bars every 10 feet (and it seems like strip club every 5), drinks in mass quantities and throngs of people also excited to act like drunken idiots type of place. I get it, but I fear I've outgrown that type of scene. I wasn't attracted to Bourbon Street when I finally made it to that part of town. But good news...Frenchman Street offers the same in terms of a lot of bars along one road and all the live music you can stand without it smelling like garbage. I would definitely explore this area more the next time I'm back.
This is just one alternative place to hang out besides Bourbon. New Orleans is actually quite large and we wandered through a few cool neighborhoods. Get out there, step away from the beads....explore.
6. If you do find yourself on Bourbon Street, all is not lost
So you end up on Bourbon Street...now what? Well shit, you have fun anyway! With all New Orleans has to offer it's not my favorite part of town but there are always diamonds in the rough. Everyone needs to let their hair down once in a while and we ended up dropping it like it's hot in a couple of the bars along our way. There is also a jazz club (the oldest operating jazz club in New Orleans according to what seems like an equally old website) called Fritzel's that had a pretty decent vibe inside and some solid music.
That wasn't my favorite option though. As you walk towards the end of Bourbon Street you'll notice that the bars are more sparse and the throngs of people dwindle...when you get to this part of the street don't get nervous and turn back, keep going. That's where the best Bourbon Street secret is kept. It's called Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar. The original building was built between 1722 and 1732 making this supposedly the oldest building used as a bar in the U.S. The outside looks pretty updated to me but the inside has an awesome vibe. There was a guy playing piano, taking requests but also a jukebox if that's your thing. I would definitely visit this bar again. You guys can hang out on the strip club lined, bustling portion of Bourbon drinking frozen hurricanes and I'll be waiting for you at Lafitte's.
7. I would not be opposed to living there
I personally haven't had many immediately strong attractions to places I visit and apart from living abroad a few times during my education, I've been firmly planted in the midwest my whole life. So I mean this as a great compliment. New Orleans made such a great impression on me and I would totally live there if the chance arose. With all the traveling I have done I have only felt this in two other places, Ireland and Mexico City. Now I have another U.S. option if I get sick of Chicago. I really was not expecting to come away with that from this trip.
New Orleans is just so full of history, character and mystique. I happened to have another lover of New Orleans on the trip with me and he told me all sorts of crazy stories about the city, including some freaky ghost stories. It's such an interesting place, I really can't wait to go back and explore even more. If you had preconceived notions of what this city would be, like I did, I highly recommend you check it out for yourself. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised.