Food and Drink in New Orleans
New Orleans is the best food town in America. Those might be fighting words (sorry Napa, apologies Manhattan), but there's no better place to connect with a culture through its cuisine than the Big Easy. Order lunch there, and you get a history lesson on the side. The New Orleans table has been set by the French and Spanish, enlivened by the West African and Caribbean cuisines of the enslaved Africans, and spiced by the wave of Irish, Italian, German and Asian immigrants who landed on these shores.
With the rich bounty of the Gulf at its doorstep, New Orleans seafood is unparalleled, and its down-home comfort food is legendary. For a casual munch, try a muffuletta on crusty French bread, stacked with Italian meats and cheeses and garnished with chopped green olive salad. Typical Creole fare is on the rich side, simmered seafood bisques and garlicky etouffee stews with crawfish and sausage. Jambalaya is the local version of paella, made with seafood, chicken and sausage.
For traditional Creole fare, you simply can't do better than Commander's Palace. The grand dame of New Orleans cuisine, the kitchen housed in the sprawling turquoise building manages to excel at Creole favorites such as turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish, cochon de lait and bread pudding souffle, while remaining relevant (with kitchen alums that include Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, the kitchen continues to attract James Beard award-winning talent). The Sunday Jazz Brunch, where you're serenaded as you sip your Bloody Mary, might be one of the most fun, and certainly one of the most indulgent, meals you've had in your life. (1403 Washington Avenue; 504-899-8221)
For more contemporary stylings, head to chef John Besh's August for extraordinary European-style cuisine with Gulf Coast ingredients in an atmospheric, circa-1800s French-Creole building. A must-have signature dish is the BLT -- buster crabs, lettuce and tomato on pain perdue (a Cajun take on French toast that means "lost bread" in French). (301 Tchoupitoulas; 504-299-9777)
Located in the swanky Roosevelt Hotel, Domenica, another restaurant owned by Besh, dazzles with regional Italian cuisine, what might be the best thin-crust pizza in town, spicy seafood and bean brodetto (stew) and fazzoletti (squares of pasta) with house-cured guanciale (Italian bacon). Many ingredients are grown on Besh's farm outside of New Orleans. (123 Baronne Street; 504-648-6020)
If you get a hankering for soul food, check out Praline Connection, where great gumbo, fried pickles and excellent fried chicken should keep you full -- at least until you're ready to eat again. (542 Frenchmen Street; 504-943-3934)
At Cochon, chef co-owner Stephen Stryjewski (who earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef South 2011) and partner Donald Link (who also owns Herbsaint) pay homage to the old-style Cajun Boucherie with the hand crafting of boudin, andouille, smoked bacon and head cheese. Local seafood also stars in succulent crawfish pies and roasted gulf fish done "fisherman-style," along with comfort foods that include spoon bread with okra and tomatoes, roasted oysters and suckling pig. Try the black-bottomed brown butter banana cream pie for dessert. (930 Tchoupitoulas Street; 504- 588-212)
Seafood is the star at Peche, another Warehouse District-Donald Link offering that won the coveted Best New Restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation in 2014 (chef Ryan Prewitt tied for Best New Chef South). If you're daring, order the whole fish -- although an entree-size portion will more than keep you satisfied. (800 Magazine Street; 504-522-1744)
For a true New Orleans experience, stop by Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets, a N'Awlins version of the doughtnut, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. It's open 24/7, so go anytime the spirit moves you. (800 Decatur Street; 504-525-4544)
Also open 24/7, the Clover Grill sticks by its motto, "We Love to Fry and It Shows." The Clover, seen briefly in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," is known for its juicy burgers, cooked under a trademark hubcap (yes, really). (900 Bourbon Street; 504-598-1010)
It's not big and fancy, but Green Goddess is the real deal. Tucked away behind Royal Street on Exchange Place, GG's progressive take on soulful cuisine makes use of great Louisiana seafood and produce in an alchemy of flavors and presentation styles that rival anybody in town. Chefs Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues blow the doors off this tiny eatery with dishes like crawfish cakes served with Spanish romesco sauce, crushed avocado and wasabi tobikko caviar; and seared yellowfin tuna, dusted with fennel pollen accompanied by local watermelon. And "notorious" isn't understating the bacon sundae made with Nueske's Applewood bacon over pecan praline ice cream with a creamy bacon caramel sauce. (307 Exchange Place; 504-301-3347)
In the heart of Frenchmen Street, Three Muses serves up delicious small plates while providing a cabaret atmosphere with live jazz. The lamb sliders are highly recommended. (536 Frenchmen Street; 504-252-4801)
If you'd like less commitment with your Marigny musical wanderings, the popular hot dog chain Dat Dog has a Frenchmen location; on Friday and Saturday, food is served until 3 a.m. Try the crawfish sausage. (601 Frenchmen Street; 504-309-3362)
Best Cocktail in New Orleans
In a town where many bars never close and daiquiris are served from drive-through windows, the cocktail culture is as thick as the New Orleans humidity on an August day. But you won't get too many arguments if you head for the Sazerac Bar, a Roosevelt Hotel landmark for decades. The Sazerac is home to two real-deal libations: the Sazerac, made with rye, bitters and absinthe, and the Ramos Gin Fizz, a frothy shake of gin, lemon and lime juice, egg whites and sugar.
Don't Miss in New Orleans
To see some of New Orleans' prettiest homes, take the St. Charles streetcar into the leafy Garden District, with its many live oak trees and stately mansions. Once home to new-money Yankee entrepreneurs shunned by the French Creoles in the Quarter -- and now a base for celebrities such as Sandra Bullock and John Goodman -- the Garden District is primarily a residential area with gorgeous architecture and fun shopping on Magazine Street, which features small, unique shops selling antiques, secondhand books, art, fashion and luxury items. Walking tours, either with a group or on your own, usually include a stop at Lafayette Cemetery, the setting for numerous movies and Anne Rice's vampire books. The author used to own a home a few blocks away, which plays a role in her novel "The Witching Hour."
Wandering Jackson Square (between Decatur, Chartres, St. Peter and St. Ann streets), with its cast of ragtag tarot card readers, buggy drivers and street artists, is a definitive New Orleans experience. The iconic statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse, with St. Louis Cathedral looming in the background, might be the one photograph no tourist can resist. Surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence and filled with banana trees and flowering shrubs, the small green park was once a training ground for the military. Rechristened to honor Jackson's triumph over the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson Square is bordered by a flagstone pedestrian mall dotted with shops and street artists.
Make time to stroll Royal Street, a shopping mecca that runs parallel to Bourbon Street, just three blocks from the river. Although known for its concentration of antique shops and art galleries, there's a little bit of everything on this thoroughfare, from well-known bars such as the rotating Carousal in the haunted Hotel Monteleone to funky little boutiques and bars. The mix of artwork is just as quirky. The Rodrigue Studio (721 Royal) showcases the iconic Blue Dog in all manner of settings, while Painted Alive (827 Royal) is devoted to artist Craig Tracy's adoration of fine art painted on the human form. There's a culinary antiques store, a shop proffering military hardware and the list goes on. It's great fun, even if you're not a shopper.
Countless walking tours are offered in the Quarter, with themes as varied as ghosts and voodoo, and art and architecture. A few to check include a haunted history stroll (504-861-2727), cemetery tours (504-525-3377) and a scandalous cocktail tour (800-979-3370). A free tour offered by the National Park Service includes a dose of history and visits several areas within the French Quarter.
Spanning the length of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street is known the world over for its strip joints, tacky souvenir shops and concentration of bars and live music venues. Expect mostly tourists along this stretch of town, with the usual collection of drunks and amateur drinkers on weekends and anytime a convention is in town. Thanks to the city's open-container laws (it's legal to walk around with a drink in a plastic cup), the street is packed with tourists drinking potent hurricanes, hand grenades and "Huge Ass Beers" from the Steak Pit at Bourbon and Toulouse. While it's fun to experience the scene at least once -- taking in the party, popping in and out of music venues -- don't define New Orleans by this hopped-up, endless party. As a rule, eat elsewhere.
In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall is a premier venue for straight-ahead jazz and brass dating to 1961. One of the few all-ages music venues in the Quarter, there is jazz nightly from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. If you're lucky, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, cultural emissaries for New Orleans jazz around the country and the world, will be off tour and in the house. (726 St. Peter Street; 800-785-5772)
With a few days to explore, reach beyond the grace and sass of the French Quarter to Faubourg Marigny, an original Creole neighborhood that's now is home to nightclubs, bars and restaurants frequented by more locals than tourists. There, you can hear traditional jazz from patriarch Ellis Marsalis, who plays every Friday at Snug Harbor with his trio (626 Frenchmen Street; 504-949-0696), and see an incredible collection of jazz memorabilia at the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Avenue; 504-568-6968; open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; free). Items on display include Louis Armstrong's cornet, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet with its famous "bent" bell and some 10,000 photographs dating to the 1950s. You'll be just across the street from the French Market, with its clean public restrooms, inexpensive food kiosks and endless souvenir options -- a great stop before you head back to the ship.
Explore the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, located in the historic U.S. Custom House on Canal Street. This is a cool museum all about bugs, butterflies and everything creepy-crawly. See the world from a bug's perspective as you wander through a mysterious Louisiana swamp and a butterfly-filled garden. The museum boasts more than 75 live and interactive exhibits in addition to thousands of mounted specimens. (423 Canal Street; 504-524-2847; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $16.50 adults, $12 children 2-12)
Located in historic Uptown New Orleans, the Audubon Zoo can be accessed by the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line, which stops in front of Audubon Park, Nola's version of Central Park, complete with jogging paths, gardens and sports fields. At the zoo, you'll find an exotic mix of animals from around the globe, engaging educational programs, hands-on animal encounters and lush gardens. Two natural habitat exhibits are worth a look: the award-winning Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle. (6500 Magazine Street; 504-861-2537; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $17.50 adults, $12 children 2-12)
The Audubon Institute's Aquarium of the Americas features an IMAX theater in addition to its marine life. (1 Canal Street; 504-565-3033; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $22.50 adults, $16 children 2-12)
Ticket packages for the zoo and aquarium are available.
The growing museum district around Lee Circle will interest art-lovers. The handsome Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street; 504-539-9650; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday, after-hour concerts Thursday nights; $10 adults, $5 children 5-17) features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street; 504-528-3805; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; $8 adults.) across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture.
Even in a city as full of cultural gems and attractions as New Orleans, the National WW II Museum stands out from the crowd. Originally named the National D-Day Museum and located in New Orleans because the flat-bottomed Higgins boats used in the invasion were made there, this museum is a must-see for every history buff. Besides extensive and interactive exhibits on the Pacific and European theaters, the museum includes a special section on the Normandy invasion and thousands of 3D artifacts, representative of the war years both at home and overseas. From the "steel pot" helmet to the impressive Sherman tank, the museum's artifacts bring the people and places of World War II into sharp focus. On a lighter note, enjoy the retro 1940s vibe in the American Sector, a canteen tribute to 1940s comfort food, and the Soda Shop for hand-crafted sodas and quick bites. Grilled pimento cheese, anyone? (945 Magazine Street; 504-528-1944; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $23-$33 adults, depending on how many exhibits you see, $20-$30 for seniors, WWII veterans free)
Although heavy plant growth has ended canoe trips into Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, the park is still a prime place to spot alligators, egrets, turtles, blue herons, bald eagles, moss and more. Located 20 minutes from downtown in Marrero, the park offers wetland hikes and ranger talks. Mosquito repellant is a must. (6588 Barataria Boulevard; 504-589-3690; open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday)
With another 20-minute drive from downtown, you can visit the gators at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban refuge in the U.S. Walking trails offer great wildlife and bird-watching. Daily one-hour and 45-minute boat tours are offered along the refuge canals, and free staff-led interpretive programs each weekend include canoe tours, bird-watching trips and explorations by bike and trail. (61389 Highway 434; 985-882-2000)