Hidden New Orleans
Everyone knows New Orleans, the craziest party-hosting, cocktail-drinking, convention-going, Mardi-Gras-Parading, jazz-music-playing, levy-bursting, Brad-Pitt-loving, most reputation-rebuilding city in the USA, especially right now. From Fat Tuesday to Ash Wednesday—OK, really between New Year’s and Easter—this is the place to be for Mardi Gras.
But what if you’re not the party type? What if Mardi Gras doesn’t mean to you what it does to millions of other visitors? What if you want just a nice romantic weekend or a getaway that doesn’t involve the usual tourist sights? Then you want to know the hidden spots, which will remind you of the New Orleans of long ago as well as give you a delightfully fresh look at a city you may have thought you knew.
I learned early on that New Orleans is nothing—nothing—without its food. Tell anyone you’re going to NOLA and his or her first question to you will be, “Where are you eating?” This pastime alone can take you all day every day if you choose, with the city offering food tours galore and dozens of restaurants (especially seafood) laying claim to being founded nearly two centuries ago. So go and eat at the Galatoire’s, the Arnaud’s (and the Emeril’s!) and the other denizens that make up the usual suspects, then check out these hidden spots (some in plain view) that will make you glad you paid closer attention.
In a city with more than 100 old seafood restaurants, GW Fins is a total upstart. Founded a mere 14 years ago, chef Tenney Flynn has made a name for himself by being pickier than the local sushi chefs. Flynn prides himself on serving locally sourced fish and other ingredients; his co-ownership of the 200-seat restaurant shows in everything from the décor to the melt-in-your-mouth drop biscuits the knowledgeable waiters distract you with as you wait for your meal.
The restaurant changes its menu daily by around 25 percent, rotating 60 sauces and preparations to serve a variety of fish caught off the Gulf and Carolina Coasts. The day I visited, a local fisherman was bringing lionfish he bagged that morning. While everything we tasted was outstanding, there are some can’t miss dishes, including the smoked sizzling oysters (the shells are heated to 500 degrees then cold-smoked oysters soaked in drawn butter are dropped in, brought to the table semi-raw and sizzling). In a land of charbroiled oysters (“Chuboils,” in the local vernacular) usually slathered in cheese and heavy sauces, this was a delicate standout. Scalibut—a filet of halibut with carved “scales” of New Bedford scallops—was not only delicious, but also the presentation was spectacular. If you can possibly manage to fit in a side dish, the cauliflower roasted with sumac was an unexpected pleasure.
Hidden in plain sight in the Loews New Orleans Hotel, Café Adelaide is the kind of place the upmarket locals frequent, since Sunday brunch offers free cocktails—when you come wearing a hat. The bonnets on display were definitely not those you would pack in a suitcase! They have, hands down, the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever drunk—and I should say eaten, since the garnishes (including pickled okra) were almost a meal. It’s the sort of restaurant that features a barbecue bacon cheeseburger, but the cheese is Manchego and the barbecue sauce has absinthe—in other words, only in New Orleans. The bacon-crusted oysters were a delightful twist on a standard, and the restaurant’s take on corn dogs (Tasso-crusted shrimp drenched in a buttery hot sauce) was worth the raves our waiter gave it.
For Sunday brunch, skip Court of Two Sisters (tired food and constant flow of tour groups) and Commander’s Palace (the general consensus is it’s best for lunch, including the 25-cent martinis!) and go to a dive in the Marigny. Just a 10-minute walk from Bourbon Street, Buffa’s jazz brunch will remind you what made New Orleans great. The restaurant features such local treats as bratwurst jambalaya, a delicious Bloody Mary for less than $4, and a whole wall of hot sauces, plus staples including crisp bacon, snow-white, perfectly done fried eggs, and thick buttermilk biscuits.
But the brass jazz band is perfect; everyone’s been doing this a long time and they’re terrific at it. A female trumpet player whose smile lit up her face like Lily Tomlin traded lead vocals with a male banjo player. A female drummer (so thrilling to see!) and a bass player rounded out the group, along with a morose clarinet player who nonetheless killed his solos along with the rest of band. Ask for cheery Bonnie to be your waitress—she’s been there so long the band even wrote her into their rendition of “Alice’s Restaurant.”
And where else but in New Orleans can you find a mobile, pop-up pirate ship that makes grilled pizza served by two guys named Matt and Matt dressed in pirate costumes … at midnight … on a corner of Frenchman Street? This one is so hidden I can’t even promise you’ll ever find them, but if you do, the pizza looked awesome! Be sure to follow them on Twitter.
New Orleans is also a prime spot for jazz fans. Start on Royal Street during the day in the French Quarter and you’ll see some terrific bands—really wonderful brass, electric violin, not a lot of vocals, but it’s so much fun. It’s not too hidden, but you might miss it if you stick to Bourbon Street so veer off and enjoy.
Lush, sophisticated, and hidden in plain sight in the middle of one of the oldest hotels in the city, this is where the locals and visiting celebs go to jazz it up on a Friday or Saturday night around 11 p.m. Go much earlier if you want a seat, especially with any view of the band (the place is large but crowded all the time). Order the seafood po’ boys, tiny takes on the classic NOLA sandwich that pair perfectly with that cocktail in your hand.
Although most people never get out of the French Quarter, Frenchman Street is widely considered the place to listen to jazz and it’s a quick 10-minute taxi ride away. One of the best places I found is the Spotted Cat: small and extremely live, the music changes often so check the website. A $5 cover will get you into a smoky, crowded room where constant chatter flows under the stylings of a young brass quintet sporting an upright bass and a female guitarist who keeps her eyes closed most of the time as she strums. The age range in this place is 21 to 81, and it feels like a true, authentic nightclub, a little like Greenwich Village in the ’70s.
Only go here if you are a jazz snob, but if you are, you’ll absolutely love it. The two-level speakeasy with a $25 cover is hidden in the back of the restaurant. On the postage stamp stage, a modern, Miles-Davis-y band of all white, middle-aged, passionate musicians is observed by a tiny crowd of fiercely attentive jazz fans. Warning: There is a strictly observed no-talking policy once you enter the back room venue.
Like the eating and the drinking, when it comes to shopping there are a lot of places to enjoy. Royal Street is known for antiques, Canal Street (the big wide street that marks the end of the French Quarter) has shopping along both sides of the street, and in general the French Quarter has lots to offer the wandering tourist. Here are some special stops you won’t want to miss.
Frenchman Street Night Market
If you found your way to Frenchmen for the music, stop by the so-called Flea Market, which is actually a collection of local crafts and colorful artisan pieces. It’s open until 1 a.m. for your late-night shopping pleasure.
Remember the first two seasons of “Mad Men,” and the wonderfully handsome (and totally in the closet, even to himself) character of Sal? Well, the actor who played him has spent his earnings well, opening the acclaimed (yet still stumble-worthy) Hazelnut in the heart of Magazine Street. Featuring unique home tchotchkes you had no idea you absolutely needed until you walked in, Hazelnut feels artistic, curated, and charming, as if the gay BFF in your life knew exactly what you needed to get for a wedding gift and for your own home.
The front room is an exquisite, handpicked selection of stationery, cards, travel journals, and briefcases; the back room is local printing for custom stationery. There’s also an online store, but it’s obvious these people really appreciate the quality and feel of the alphabet on beautiful paper.
A couple words about Magazine Street: it’s long. And some of it is seedy. It partially reminds me of Seattle back in the grunge of the early ’90s, with co-ops and a lot of rundown fun spots, but enough of it was so seedy for me to think I wouldn’t go back. And that’s how this made the “hidden” list—because it’s so long the neighborhood changes completely into an upscale, village feel. Go for Hazelnut (alone worth the trip) and stay for some of the spots around it.
While you might know NOLA has been handcrafting perfumes practically since the city was founded—and that its French roots mean its parfumeries were the offspring of the famous Parisian scent houses—you might not know some of these places still exist, as is the case with Bourbon French Parfums, which has been in operation since 1843. Make an appointment to choose a handcrafted, original perfume based on a survey you take, your personal preferences (“Nothing fruity,” “I love the woods,” etc.), and even the perfumes you already wear. The consultant will mix batches, moving closer and closer to the scent you enjoy until you have a unique mix all your own. For $85 (at the time of writing) your consultation includes an ounce of finished perfume, and they keep your record on file so you can re-order your unique scent and have it shipped to you, too.
Walgreens and CVS
I swear. These big chain pharmacies—both with locations on Canal Street—are totally local sources of discount souvenirs (T-shirts, hats, and many of the items sold in the tourist markets), just as in every big city. Love Café du Monde coffee? Buy it here for $1 cheaper than anywhere else, including at Café du Monde!
Salon D Nola
It was so hard to find a local, reasonably priced salon for a quick cut and style. I have to give a shout out to Salon D, a sweet little five-chair salon where the owner said, “Come on and don’t worry if your plane is late. I’ll wait for you.” The service and the results were just as terrific.
The hotel choices in New Orleans are also myriad. I so enjoyed my time at the Bourbon Orleans a year ago, but the following two amazing spots might be overlooked with all the big name choices. Honestly, the whole Orleans Collection (about a dozen properties in all) have terrific options in most budgets, but you’d never know the selection unless you looked!
If you thought the French Quarter was only home to big, loud hotels and the daily impromptu drunkfest down Bourbon Street, then you are in for a major treat. Tucked just a couple blocks off Bourbon in the heart of the French Quarter is the amazing Audubon Cottages. Behind a green garden fence in an unassuming white stucco wall, an arch of trees beckons you to a small saltwater pool. Each of the seven individual cottages—two one-bedroom and five two-bedroom—has its own little garden patio.
Though they have been updated with air conditioning, fully modern bathrooms, and built-in refrigerators, pains have been taken to retain the century-old feel of the locale. From period furniture to the Audubon prints hung on the walls, you will think you are in an entirely different world, on retreat from the bustle of the city. The cottages are conveniently appointed with everything you could want for your stay (free Wi-Fi and gourmet snacks, anyone?) and the attentive staff stays in the background so you can relax in your own private getaway. In the mornings, the pool cabana converts to a well-stocked, free breakfast buffet before you start your exploration of the best hidden spots of this town.
If a boutique hotel is more your style (and budget), the Hotel Le Marais may be just the place. Ignore the ultra-modern pictures on the website, the swath of purple neon over the bar is a style nod to a place that is purely about comfort, elegance, and attention to your every need. The hotel boasts a charming, walled, outdoor lounge around a saltwater pool and a free full breakfast; the arched doorways and French doors in the main areas combine with your room’s soft white duvets and elegant furniture to make you feel right at home. Use your free drink coupon in the bar to order a Sazerac, New Orleans’ original drink, and let the bartender handcraft it for you as she explains the history of the first cocktail. (Though I drank them all over town, this one was the best!)
If you’re a true New Orleans local most of these spots will be known to you, but for visitors to my favorite city in the US, it’s time to take a deeper dive into your vacation. Enjoy yourself and add an extra layer of love for NOLA to your next trip.