This will be the first in a series on this blog called City Reviews. Because this one, like many city reviews, will also include discussion of local eats, this will also be the first in a series called Local Eats. I will be discussing cities which I have visited for some length of time, sharing my overall impression of the city as well as some recommendations or things to see and things to avoid.
I have visited the city of New Orleans, LA twice. Both times for professional conferences. My first visit to New Orleans was in the Spring of 2009 for the Southern Sociological Society meeting. I drove to the city with a friend, stayed in a downtown hotel, and spent Thursday night through Sunday morning in the city. My second visit to the city was for the Urban Affairs Association annual meeting in the spring of 2011. On this trip, I flew to the city with a research colleague, and again spent a long weekend in the city. You can read a story about a specific adventure my colleague, a friend we met, and I had on the last evening of that trip here.
As we drove into the city on the first trip, about 30 minutes away from the hotel, I suddenly realized that I was going to see first hand the impact of Katrina and the effectiveness of the rebuilding efforts just a few years after the disaster. After driving across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, moving closer to the city, we saw lots of lasting devastation. Billboards and metal signs that had fallen were still laying across parking lots. Buildings were dark and missing windows, and houses were boarded up. It looked kind of like a zombie apocalypse movie. I felt like we had showed up a little too early for a friend's party, and they were still attempting to clean the place before things got going. Closer to the city, and in the better, or more economically important neighborhoods, things were much cleaner and more polished. It was clear, though, that the rebuilding efforts had not reached everyone everywhere.
Once in the downtown area, things were much less apocalyptic. On both visits to New Orleans, I found some great food and great fun. The simple rule seemed to be to follow the advice of locals, and avoid Bourbon Street.
Things I liked:
First off, the food was as amazing as promised. The places that made the most lasting impressions on me were Coop's Place, the Bulldog, and Cafe Du Monde.
On my most recent visit, while standing in line at Coop's place at 9:30 pm on a Friday night, watching a parade pass by, a local told my colleague and I that Coop's Place is the only place they would stand in line for. Their food is great. I recommend the Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya, but everything else is great.
The uptown location on Magazine Street is the location of the Bulldog I have visited twice. The Bulldog is interesting because it is a hip bar in a gentrified neighborhood with a great patio. I swear, the two old guys sitting in the patio smoking cigars were the same two old guys I saw on both trips. Maybe you'll see them there when you visit. The Bulldog has great food, I recommend the waffle fries and a draft Abita Amber.
The best thing about the Bulldog may be in the past. A sly visitor used to be able to sneak a few pounds of crawfish from The Big Fisherman and enjoy them with a few of the Bulldog's beers on the patio. From my last visit, it seems they may be cracking down on this, though, so don't assume you're going to be able to do this if you visit.
While Cafe Du Monde is the place everyone goes to, I want to mention it for a couple of reasons. Yes, everyone goes to it, but if you visit it at the right time, the crowds are not too bad. Also, if you're looking to enjoy New Orleans on a budget, one of the cheapest tourist experiences in the city is a a plate of beignets and coffee from Cafe Du Monde. I recommend stopping here around 11pm on one of your more leisurely weekend nights, like we did on both of my visits. The coffee and beignets serve as a a great nightcap, and the experience is better than any late night visit to a diner I have had.
I know there is supposed to be an awesome burger joint in New Orleans, and I've failed to visit it on both trips. Hopefully, next time I will.
Also, I don't want to give too much away, but if you ask the right local, they will tell you there is a street that runs at an angle from the end of Bourbon that is worth a visit. This street hosts jazz clubs and a nightlife that is a more subdued, but also more interesting, than anything on Bourbon.
Overall, I really appreciated the "feel" of New Orleans. In my experiences the locals are very friendly and helpful. The architecture and history is great. Walking around narrow city streets is fun. You feel as if you've been transported to Europe.
Things I wished I had avoided:
Bourbon Street is loud and in your face. Bouncers stand outside of many of the bars on Bourbon Street, cajoling you to enter their place. They shout things like "No cover!" as if their place is any different than the next. House bands cover all the songs you hear at wedding receptions. And they commit what I believe is one of the most awful musical crimes - playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" before midnight. Bourbon Street is worth seeing once, I suppose, but it's just not my thing.
Also, I have had a couple not so great but overpriced Po' Boys. You gotta be careful where you eat. There are great establishments everywhere, but there are also tourist traps.
Perhaps because I flew into the city on the second visit rather than drove in, but probably because the rebuilding efforts have moved farther along, things looked much better this past spring. New Orleans hosts all the things you want to see in a city you're travelling to for fun - great food, interesting culture, and friendly locals. I have spent more time in New Orleans than most other cities I have traveled to, and I would visit it again any time I had the opportunity.
And here is a postcard I sent from New Orleans.