New Orleans: The Insider’s Guide
For a city that saw more than nine million visitors last year, it may seem like New Orleans is a city built for tourists.
But for 1.2 million residents, the Big Easy is simply the best city in the world, and home sweet home. What makes it so is a natural mélange rooted in a spectacularly mixed cultural gumbo - a world capital of flavor and rhythm savored and celebrated like nowhere else in the world, every single day of the week.
The real question for travelers seeking true Crescent City vibes, however, is what do the locals love? Unlike cities so huge that residents protect their insider secrets (we’re talking to you New York and Paris), New Orleanians are more than happy to enlighten and even inundate eager explorers with hot tips from all corners of this effervescent metropolis.
Whether it’s food, drink, music, or queer camaraderie you seek, you’re in the right city.
Chicory, Fried Chicken and More...
Most people start off a New Orleans visit right where they should: the French Quarter. No doubt this centrally located National Historic Landmark District - aka the Vieux Carré, or "old square" - is a can’t-miss destination. And fortunately, it’s still home to a slew of both new hotspots, and old-timey joints that can seem frozen in time, if not for their décor then perhaps for their throwback prices.
Of course there are unrivaled classics like Café du Monde, Preservation Hall and the always gay-friendly Café Lafitte in Exile. But dig a little deeper and you’ll turn up places like the old-school Fiorella’s Café which has dished up juicy fried chicken and heaping fried-seafood po-boys since 1937 (and so old-school it has no website). Or try the new rum-centric cocktail bar Cane & Table, with its chill courtyard and Caribbean-centric menu.
Head to the other end of the Quarter to hit Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel, where you can join the locals catching the club’s namesake bandleader-trumpeter-Grammy winner live every Wednesday. Duck into the Hotel Monteleone’s recently renovated Carousel Bar, where you can sip a goody or Vieux-Carre cocktail at the place where they were invented: a 64-year-old revolving merry-go-round bar.
Kingfish and Peche are two newer, upscale-yet-affordable restaurants around the French Quarter/Central Business District border. Both serve up impressive seafood and Cajun dishes, luring in just as many locals as tourists who come for the food and mean drink selections served by friendly in-house mixologists.
The Ultimate Cocktail Culture
If innovative cocktail culture strikes your fancy, consider an overview to kick off your trip with the New Orleans Original Cocktail Walking Tour, where even a local or two may join to see the birthplaces of old-fashioned libations like the Pimm’s cup and Sazerac, and newer Cajun standards like hurricanes and hand grenades.
From there you can head to "the local’s Bourbon Street," a.k.a. Frenchmen Street, to research those newfound concoctions at favorite venues d.b.a., Snug Harbor, The Spotted Cat where all genres of live music are respected nearly to the point of religion. It will help to get informed as the locals do, so grab a Gambit weekly newspaper for upcoming shows city-wide, or log on/tune into 90.7 WWOZ radio to catch great local programming and the latest concert calendar.
And while in the Frenchmen/Marigny district, plan an after-sunset visit to the Frenchmen Art Market, which sells wares from exclusively regional artists every Thursday through Sunday nights, and recently celebrated its successful first year.
Gay-Centric Local Haunts
You don’t have to stray far from the Quarter to find still more cool shops, venues and events. Cruise around the Marigny and the neighboring Bywater ’hoods to discover a bounty of local haunts, including the recently renovated, gay-centric, Country Club New Orleans, with a solid menu, friendly lounge, and private, clothing-optional outdoor pool area (plus a fun Thursday ladies night).
To catch local-fave bands (think Cyril Neville’s Swamp Funk and Stooges Brass Band), try the free outdoor music series Jazz in the Park at Louis Armstrong Park every Thursday during fall and spring. (Think of it as a poor man’s Jazz Fest...even though Jazz Fest is quite affordable, especially considering what an incredible festival it is.)
The park’s entrance is on North Rampart Street, and nearby you can also fill up on the city’s best mac ’n cheese and other French and Louisiana fare at Meauxbar Bistro, or chill with a handcrafted cocktail at the photogenic Bar Tonique.
Uptown and Beyond
Venture further outside the touristy areas to the neighborhood called Uptown. There you can kick way back with the uber-local set at Maple Leaf Bar, and sip heavy-handed cocktails while enjoying true New Orleans musicians like Papa Grows Funk and the Rebirth Jazz Band.
As you head from Uptown back towards the Quarter, there are two notably worthwhile strips where you’re guaranteed to be in the fine company of real New Orleanians. The first is Freret Street, which has gained steam lately as an up-and-coming arts-and-entertainment and dining district. On Freret try a crawfish or alligator sausage at the incredibly inventive Dat Dog, or a po-boy at the High Hat Café, which also serves great tamales and a tasty shrimp remoulade salad.
Strolling and Shopping
Get your daily dose of bespoke cocktails at Cure, with its revolving seasonal menu and custom-made libations.
A stone’s throw from there, follow the neon glow of the vintage marquee at Freret Street Publiq House to hear live music (don’t miss Brassaholics Brass Band every Thursday; do expect a small cover charge) in an industrial-chic venue complete with chandeliers, serving up drinks in mason jars - which are good and sturdy, especially when the New Orleans Saints are gracing the airwaves and the crowd gets a little rowdy. Note: This may be the only club in town with a DJ booth inside an old army jeep.
The other enticing strolling and shopping strip is Magazine Street, one of the great, if narrow, Big-Easy boulevards. One could enjoy a whole day on Magazine, which runs for about five miles starting at the French Quarter (hop on the St. Charles Streetcar for the most memorable route there).
If your time is limited, start with the few blocks between Louisiana and Washington avenues, where you’ll find that quintessentially New Orleans-style mix of restaurants, bars and t-shirt shops - as in custom-designed, often hand-silkscreened styles, or in some places, pick-your-blank-t-shirt-and-graphic and they’ll print your new favorite shirt right before your eyes.
The Welcome Mat is Out
Fleurty Girl is a great starting point for cool one-of-a-kind shirts (women, kids and unisex), as well as "everything New Orleans" stylish housewares, records, shoes, and very cool accessories, many of which don the city’s trademark icon, the fleur-de-lis. Nearby, don’t miss the always-fun Funky Monkey, with a terrific assortment of vintage clothing and accessories, and a startlingly impressive selection of wigs (hello Halloween-costume headquarters!). They also have a great silkscreen-transfer t-shirt section, with everything from Saints emblems to old-school name-brand logos.
Despite being a capital of the notoriously conservative Deep South, one only has to attend one Southern Decadence celebration every Labor Day weekend, or Gay Easter Parade each spring to know the city of New Orleans also is a bastion of wild and welcoming liberalism of all stripes and flamboyant colors. So for local queers, the Big Easy is just that: easy with its bigness. And for their new and old visiting friends, it means the welcome mat is out - and the party is just beginning.