My only knowledge of New Orleans was Mardi Gras (boobs and beads) and whatever I remember from Disneyland’s “New Orleans Square” (Haunted Mansion is my favorite Disneyland attraction to this day). But in the spirit of making my husband happy, I packed up a suitcase and tried to keep an open mind. I thought, “When was the last time we went on a trip where neither of us knew our way around?” and it gave me a slight feeling of adventure. I mean, YOLO, right? We touched down at MSY on Wednesday afternoon and hopped into an Uber to get to our hotel. (Rookie mistake #1, we had booked one in Gretna, just across the river from the French Quarter.) After checking in and dropping our suitcases in our room, we called another Uber to take us into town. Since it was the night before the official start of the French Quarter Festival, we were able to explore without any crowds. Upon the recommendation of our friend Carol, we found Coop’s Place, a dive restaurant on Decatur with a small but formidable menu of local favorites. Usually, Coop’s has a line out the door, but because we got there on the early side (maybe around 5pm?) we waited about 5 minutes before we got a table. They specialize in gumbo and jambalaya, but to get the best of both world’s, Le Hub ordered Coop’s Taste Plate – a cup of seafood gumbo, shrimp creole, one piece of cajun fried chicken, red beans & rice with sausage, and rabbit & sausage jambalaya, all for the bargain price of $13.95. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Coop’s is way too dark to take any decent food photos, so I’ll leave you with this picture of their sign. Would definitely come here again. And again. And again!
Not gonna lie – that first meal already had me hooked. I love hole-in-the-wall restaurants, where the drinks are stiff and the waitstaff is friendly but no-nonsense. We were done with dinner before the sun went down, walked around the Quarter a little bit, and I started to feel the somber, haunting soul of the Crescent City emerge. It was quiet – the hordes of tourists hadn’t descended just yet – and I walked around, wide-eyed, admiring the wrought-iron balconies and dusty colonial Spanish and French buildings that seemed to hold a thousand tales. I couldn’t wait to see how it would look during the festival.
As luck would have it, Carol and her husband Michael were going to make their way to NOLA for the festival too. She has come to this city dozens of times and armed me with a giant list of places to eat and drink, so we wandered around with food on the brain (impossible not to do in New Orleans, I tell you). Thursday morning, we hopped on the bus in Gretna and rode it into the French Quarter, and headed to the one place that was a “must-visit” on my rapidly growing list of recommendations – Cafe du Monde. I’ve made beignets at home before but never really had anything to compare them to. This was the mother ship, and as luck would have it, we got there when there was no line. We found a table quickly and put in our order – two orders of beignets (3 per order) and two frozen Cafe au Lait. When they arrived, the look on my husband’s face was priceless. I have to say, they are completely worth every calorie and minute you have to wait for them (which, when they aren’t busy, isn’t very long at all). Crispy donuts with a fluffy interior, topped with a mountain of powdered sugar – the perfect accompaniment to unsweetened chicory coffee. To be fair, the cafe au lait was probably a bad idea since it was sweetened, but since the infamous Southern humidity started to kick in, the “iced” part was much needed.
We spent the rest of the day walking around and listening to music at the stages placed around the quarter, stopping to look at antiques on Royal Street, snapping photos, and sightseeing. I ended up buying a hat (New Orleans is very much a hat city) to shield my face from the sun, and I can’t recall exactly what happened after our visit to the absinthe pirate bar that is Pirate’s Alley Cafe, but we completely lost track of time and realized we needed to figure out plans for dinner. After browsing a few restaurants on Yelp and looking at menus posted in doorways, we decided we should go to a classic Creole restaurant – and we ended up at Arnaud’s.
Arnaud’s has been around since 1918 – they are a fine dining establishment located in the heart of the French Quarter and was one of the first to reopen after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In hindsight, I probably would have gotten a little more dressed up for this place (the wait staff is in tuxedos if that gives you an idea of what the ambiance is like). But we were there to witness classic New Orleans, and Arnaud’s delivered in a major way. We opted to sit in the Jazz bistro, where a trio of musicians played some of my favorite jazz hits at every table (jazz always reminds me of my Dad, who played in his dad’s big band at age 14!). The food was incredible: crab cakes for me, crawfish O’Connor for my husband, and of course, souffle potatoes (twice-fried potatoes that puff up to create an ethereal potato cloud served with Bearnaise sauce). For dessert, Strawberries Arnaud (ripe strawberries soaked in port, served with ice cream and Chantilly). He’d deny it if you ever asked him, but my husband got teary-eyed from the experience.
By the time we got to Friday, we needed a change of pace. The French Quarter was super crowded thanks to the festival, and we wanted to see more of New Orleans. So we headed to the Garden District, where we found ourselves at a modern-Israeli place called Shaya, the former restaurant of chef Alon Shaya. It was happy hour, and they were offering 50% off hummus plates and $5 glasses of wine. We weren’t even that hungry, but I am beyond happy we went here. They make their beautifully fluffy house pita bread to order, and it keeps on coming. It’s definitely a must-visit if you find yourself on Magazine Street and in need of somewhere (arguably) lighter to eat, as most of our meals consisted of fried things or stick-to-your-ribs stews.
We finally hooked up with Carol and Michael on Saturday, and the French Quarter Festival was in full swing. We managed to find them on a field by the water listening to Le Roux perform “New Orleans Lady” (apparently everyone in New Orleans knows the words to this song). We headed deep into the Quarter to find more music to listen to (most memorably, Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers and Jerome LeBorde), danced a bit, had more drinks (cause you can drink on the go in the French Quarter), and then Carol insisted we go to Pat O’Brien’s for a couple of Hurricanes. A dark and divey piano bar with a somewhat surly waitstaff (or maybe it was just our server), this place churns out high-octane cocktails that will knock you on your ass if you’re not careful (Hurricanes are a must but you might not need more than one!). We walked off our booze (kind of) and strolled down the street to look at jewelry (I wonder how many alcohol-fueled jewelry purchases have happened over the years here?), and then found ourselves at the Hotel Monteleone Carousel Bar. A Sazerac is the quintessential New Orleans cocktail, and I definitely had at least one here. Yep. At least. And how beautiful is this bar?
Our final meal in New Orleans was with Carol and Michael in the Garden District at Gris-Gris, named after what the owner describes as “Voodoo magic”. This charming, modern restaurant on Magazine Street is known for its contemporary take on New Orleans cuisine, and they also have an amazing cocktail menu. I can’t off-hand remember what everyone ordered – all I can remember is my Creole Redfish Court-Bouillon (a whole fried red snapper, served on a delicious tomato-based sauce and rice). We had the pleasure of dining in the “Salle du Samedi”, a private dining room that felt like someone’s home, tucked in the back of the restaurant. After many bottles of wine and pretty much getting gently prodded out (they had another seating, and we were taking our sweet time), I was already planning our next trip back.
My takeaway from this visit? New Orleans is a magical place. It’s hard to describe, but this city – whether it be the posh parts or the gritty parts – has a way of seeping into your soul and never letting go. I’ve thought for a long time about how to talk about it, and all I can say is that there is such a deeply haunting aura that lingers in air there and an easygoing vibe that made me feel instantly comfortable. I have never been so relieved to be wrong about something, and I cannot wait to go back.
Got any favorite recs for my next visit? Leave them in the comments below!