Heading to New Orleans to attend Bouchercon? Leave your Midwestern sensibilities at home and prepare yourself for America's most remarkable city.
New Orleans is a rich gumbo of cultures, food, sounds, music, history and life. It is the Crescent City, the City that Care Forgot, the Big Easy. It gave birth to Jazz, Louis Armstong and Dr. John. It is a place where piano players are called Professor, and the greatest of all was Professor Longhair.
New Orleans is where there really is a Streetcar named Desire. It was home to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, who both lived for a time in the historic Monteleone Hotel. William Faulkner began his career writing character sketches for various New Orleans newspapers in the 1920s, and there is a small bookstore on Pirate’s Alley that bears his name and is worth a visit.
New Orleans literary heritage includes characters as diverse as Walker Percy's Moviegoer and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. It was home for Kate Chopin and her Awakening, and John Kennedy Toole, whose personal story is as compelling and more tragic than his unforgettable character Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. And of course, only New Orleans could have given birth to the Vampire Lestat, dark hero of the Vampire Chronicles created by Anne Rice, that forever changed the vampire legend.
I first fell under the spell of New Orleans in 1987. I've been back more than thirty times, attending conferences, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, researching -- and just enjoying the city. I've gotten there by car, on my motorcycle, by plane and by riding the famed CIty of New Orleans train.
I've ridden the St. Charles Streetcar, walked Bourbon Street at 4 a.m., danced with the prettiest girl in New Orleans, watched a lunar eclipse from the Moon Walk (named for a former mayor, not the earth’s satellite), thrown beads, eaten crawfish, drank from to-go cups, and walked through the Quarter watching the City wake up on an early Sunday morning. With my son, I worked on houses and served food to victims in the wake of Katrina. And I've written about this city that I've grown to love.
To really appreciate New Orleans, you have to know something of its history. So, here's just a quick history of the city and a bit of wisdom about the City I've picked up over the years. But New Orleans is a town you explore and discover for yourself. Bring your most comfortable shoes and plan to walk around.
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT NEW ORLEANS — A BIT OF HISTORY
Nouvelle Orléans was founded by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1718 on the first high ground north of the mouth of the Mississippi. Yes, it is high ground. As the city expanded, it had to grow into areas below sea level -- hence the canals and giant pumps that keep the city (mostly) dry.
Pierre’s brother was Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who founded Mobile, the first capital of the Louisiana Colony. This explains the names of two of the most prominent streets in the French Quarter —Iberville and Bienville.
The French Quarter and the American Section (now known as the Business District) are separated by Canal Street. There never was a canal there, but all street names change as they cross Canal Street.
New Orleans is a Creole city, not Cajun. Cajuns are the largely rural folks from the bayous, descendants of the Great Migration when they were expelled by the British from Acadia (now Nova Scotia). Cajun comes from Acadians, morphed to A'cajuns, and finally to Cajuns. If you don't know the story, read Longfellow's great poem Evangeline.
Creoles, on the other hand, are descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana. It is an honor in New Orleans society to trace your heritage to a fille à la cassette, a casket girl. They were recruited from French orphanages, streets and prisons to come to Louisiana as wives for the men settling the French colony. Before leaving for the new world they were given a small black case that resembled a casket in which to carry their belongings. Hence, the casket girls.
As the continent’s major port, New Orleans was a swirling gumbo of different cultures – French, Spanish, Caribbean, African – unlike any other location in what became the United States.
Race has always been a part of New Orleans, but in different ways than any other place in the South. Slave auctions were held in the port of New Orleans. On Sundays, plantation owners would often bring their slaves to New Orleans and allow them to go to Congo Square, which was located where Louis Armstrong Park now stands across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. That is where slaves could play music, dance and have a touch of freedom from their masters. Congo Square still has a special meaning to those in New Orleans which is borne out by repeated references to Congo Square in the music and cultural heritage of the City.
New Orleans was also the only place in the South where one would find Free Men of Color, some of them slave owners. New Orleans also had a social stratum based upon degrees of color. Quadroons (one-fourth black) and Octoroons (one-eighth black) were recognized in society. Quadroon and Octoroon Balls were staged by mothers hoping to match their daughters with white lovers.
Oh, and there's Storyville, the area just outside the French Quarter that existed as a legal red-light district for a few months less than 20 years (January 1, 1898 to the fall of 1917). It was the idea of conservative Alderman Sidney Story, who thought the morals of the City would be best served by confining the rampant prostitution and vice in New Orleans to one small area bounded by Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and North Robertson Streets. In 1917, as New Orleans was flooded with sailors preparing for World War I, Storyville was closed by order of the U.S. Navy.
Although the life of Storyville was short and nearly all its buildings are gone, it's legend lives, in large part because its bawdy houses gave birth to the true American art form -- Jazz. Names like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong got their start playing in Storyville.
As for Sidney Story, the moral crusader? His only lasting reward is being eternally linked to legend of vice and sin known as Storyville.
GETTING AROUND IN NEW ORLEANS
Streets in New Orleans are generally built to follow the contours of the Mississippi River, so they do not travel in straight lines. Consequently, directions in terms of north, south, east and west are useless. Ask a local for directions, and you are likely to have them given with referring to Downtown (toward the Quarter); Uptown (toward the Garden District, Tulane University and the Audubon Zoo); Riverside (toward the river) or Lakeside (toward Lake Pontchartrain.
While I’ve traveled to New Orleans for more than three decades, I still generally rely on taxis, Uber or Lyft – or the Streetcar – or best of all, walking – to get around.
Keep in mind that all street names change at Canal Street. Here's a list, with the street name in the Quarter listed first:
North Rampart / South Rampart
Burgundy / University Place
Dauphine / Baronne
Bourbon / Carondelet
Royal / St. Charles
Chartres / Camp
Decatur / Magazine
North Peters / Tchoupitoulas
THINGS NOT TO DO IN NEW ORLEANS
Don't get so drunk (or allow someone else to get so drunk) you don't know where you are or have your wits about you.
Don't go into deserted areas along the backside of the Quarter at night.
Don't flash money. Keep your wallet in a front pocket and don't carry a dangling purse. Pick pockets abound.
Don't walk into the cemeteries (Cities of the Dead) by yourself or in a small unescorted group. They can be dangerous places.
And whatever you do, when some seven-year-old boy comes up to you and says, "Bet you $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes?" DON'T MAKE THE BET.
Sure as hell you do, he's gonna tell you, and then some big guy will step up and say, "Pay him."
(The answer: "You got your shoes . . . on your feet.")
MUST DO WHEN IN NEW ORLEANS
Wander Jackson Square, particularly in the morning as the city comes to life. The street artists set up all around the iron fence of Jackson Square. The square is anchored by St. Louis Cathedral at one end, and the centerpiece is the namesake Statute of Andrew Jackson in the center of the park. Next to the Cathedral is the building called The Cabildo. That is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. It’s worth a visit if you’re interested in history.
Start your day (or end your night in the Quarter) with beignets and cafe au' lait at the Cafe du Monde. Open 24/7/365. Nom nom nom. Order more.
After lunch, wander along Royal Street. Nose around in the art galleries and old shops and listen to the street bands that set up there for the afternoon.
Take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar. It's a great way to see and be a part of the city.
Get off the St. Charles Streetcar and stroll through the Garden District. There are maps available. Magnificent homes.
World War II Museum. Few know that the Higgins boats -- those WW II boats that delivered troops from ships to invade beaches, not only in Normandy, but also in Italy and throughout the Pacific, were all built in New Orleans. This gave rise to the World War II Museum, which is far more than you might expect. A really wonderful museum. You should make time for this.
WHAT TO DRINKS IN NEW ORLEANS
Drink a Hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. Actually, do two. One in the piano bar and one in the patio. Patio is wonderful day or night. But be careful. Hurricanes taste like fruit punch & kick like a mule. They also have a variety of other tasty rum concoctions. All are worth trying, but they are potent! Note: At the piano bar, you have to pay extra to have them play "Saints," but just a standard tip will get them to them play the New Orleans classic "They All Axed for You"
Get a drink at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a bar on Bourbon Street a few blocks away from the heavy trafficked areas. I'm not sure anything has been done to Lafitte's in 200 years except add electricity for the dim lighting and move in the piano. If you want to seem like you know what you're doing, ask the piano player to play something by Professor Longhair.
Get a drink at the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street. Do this early in the evening. It's a revolving bar, which may prove difficult to dismount later in the evening. By the way, the Monteleone is a wonderful place to stay.
Try a Sazerac - a wonderful New Orleans combination of rye whiskey, Absinthe and bitters.
Beers -- Anyone who visits the Quarter will see the JAX Brewery, which now houses a variety of shops. Unfortunately, Jax hasn't been brewed since the mid-1970s.
The City's only remaining brewery was Dixie. Post-Katrina, Dixie was brewed on a contract basis outside of New Orleans. In 2019, Dixie moved back to New Orleans into a new brewery. But even beer is not immune from social changes in the world, and in March, 2021, Dixie became Fauburg Brewing (pronounced “FO-burg” – a French term used in New Orleans to mean “neighborhood,” such as Fauburg Marigny). So now if you want a truly local beer, you can step up to the bar and order a Fauburg.
Abita is a popular craft brewer from nearby Covington, La. It brews a wide variety of beers including TurboDog, AndyGator, Purple Haze and my personal favorite, Strawberry Harvest.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Wander through the French Quarter -- not just Bourbon Street. Stroll the Moon Walk along the Mississippi (not named for the lunar body, but for Moon Landreau, long time mayor of New Orleans). On the Moon Walk, you will find the Aquarium and the Natchez Steamboat where you can take a ride down river around Algiers Point.
Take a Ghost Tour. They are campy, but lots of fun, particularly if you have the right guide.
Visit the Fauberg Marigny District. This trendy little area is just outside the French Quarter. It's full of little bistros, bars and shops, but without the tee shirt shops and staggering drunks in the Quarter
Cities of the Dead ‐ Cemeteries are part of the New Orleans mystique. St. Louis Cemeteries #1 is home to Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau. But don't go alone. They can be dangerous places. Take the tours which have security.
New Orleans is music. It surrounds you everywhere you go. Pick up a copy of Friday edition of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper that includes the Lagniappe Section. It contains a list of all the music places and who is playing.
WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT
There are hundreds of great places to eat in New Orleans -- maybe thousands. And as one wag put it, restaurants have to be good because "they're competing with your momma." This is just a sample, but you can check the many lists of great New Orleans places to eat online, and make up your own lists. Here are some of my recommendations.
BREAKFAST and LUNCH
Cafe DuMond — Beignets & cafe au lait – and often long lines. When you sit at one of the metal tables, service can be very quick -- or you sometimes hit a "dead zone" where none of the many servers stop by. If so, hail a passing one like you would a cab. There's also a "To Go" window, if you prefer. Just get your order then walk a few steps up to the Moon Walk, grab a bench, and watch the barges go by on the Mississippi.
Court of the Two Sisters — Ideal for Jazz Brunch. Located on Royal Street, you walk through a carriageway to get to the reception desk. The buffet is a good way to try a variety of New Orleans dishes. Best part is the atmosphere. Order a mimosa, sit under the grape vines and enjoy the music and life.
Muffulettas — A muffuletta is a HUGE sandwich of Italian cold cuts & cheeses, topped with mounds of olive salad, served on fresh round Italian bread brushed with olive oil. Central Grocery on Decatur between Cafe DuMond and the French Market is famous for making them. Frank's Restaurant two doors down from Central Grocery is my favorite. Others swear by the ones served warm at the Napoleon House.
Po Boys — Po Boys are a New Orleans staple available everywhere – and I’ve yet to taste a bad one. They are sandwiches of all types served on crusty baguettes. Order it "dressed" (lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise). My favorite: Acme Oyster House Shrimp and Oyster Po Boy, dressed.
Acme Oyster Bar, Felix’s Oyster Bar and Casamento's Oyster Bar — Great place for oysters on the half shell and shrimp & oyster po boys. Wash down with an Abita or Fauburg beer. Acme is right in the Quarter and draws a lot of tourists, but locals too. Felix’s is directly across the street, but also has an entry off Bourbon Street. Casamento's is on Magazine in the Warehouse District, but unfortunately, Casamento’s closes down during the summer.
Lucky Dogs — For more than 50 years, these little carts shaped like hot dogs have made their way onto New Orleans streets in early evening and stay until nearly dawn, feeding the late night / early morning cravings of New Orleans partiers.
Unfortunately, my favorite restaurant, Upperline Restaurant, is now closed. But there are plenty of other great places. Here are a few.
Patois — Located in a converted house in a hidden away uptown residential area, this is a MUST. One of the five best meals I have ever eaten, and the duck confit salad is my favorite salad/appetizer EVER.
Commander's Palace — An ageless classic, winner of six James Beard Awards whose former executive chefs include Paul Prudhomme and Emerill Legasse. Need reservations and jackets for dinner (but not brunch).
Bayona — Located in a renovated 200-year-old creole cottage on Dauphine Street in a less-heavily traveled part of the French Quarter, this is award-winning owner-chef Suzanne Spicer's gift to the world. Extraordinary elegant food and friendly attentive service in a beautiful setting. But no worry. Business casual - no jackets or ties required. Oh, and no cell phones in the dining room. That's a good thing.
Muriel's — I enjoy this place so much I set a scene in my first novel in the upstairs dining area. It's my traditional stop on my last night in New Orleans. On Chartres Street in Jackson Square, just a few steps from St. Louis Cathedral. The double cut pork chops are sensational, and the Crème Brûlée may be the best I've ever eaten. Make sure to go upstairs and see the ghost table and the decor that look like an 19th Century bordello.
Pascale's Manale — Known for one thing: barbeque shrimp. Huge head-on shrimp cooked in spicy butter sauce, served with a bib and a baguette for dipping in the butter. Located in Garden District just off St. Charles.
Britzen's and Gatreau's — These two restaurants are favorites spots for locals and a few knowledgeable tourists. Upscale, located in converted houses in/near Garden District.
Classic New Orleans Restaurants — Don't forget about the classic of New Orleans, upscale restaurants dating back a century or more in the Quarter: Antoine's (oldest restaurant in city); Arnaud's, Galatoire's, Brennan's, Mr. B's.
Here are a few links to lists of some of to New Orleans top restaurants:
SPEAKING NEW ORLEANS
New Orleans language has it's on special sound and rhythm. There's a bit of French, a touch of the south, and a lot that is just New Orleans. And if you run into someone from the Irish Channel area, you may hear something that sounds more like the Bronx than the deep south.
A few terms to help you understand:
“Where yat”: How are you. People speaking like this may be referred to as "Yats." Not to be confused with "Who Dat," the cheer for the beloved New Orleans Saints
“Laissez les bons temps rouler:” Let the good times roll (popular expression)
Snowball: Shaved ice ball with syrup
Cher: Common term of affection. "Where yat, cher?"
Gallery: The balcony walkway
Gris Gris: A voodoo good luck charm.
Lagniappe (lan' yap): A little extra. (Think getting 13 donuts when you order a dozen)
Shotgun shack: Common New Orleans style long narrow house with a central hallway. You can shoot a shotgun through the front door, and it will go out the back door without hitting anything in between.
Neutral ground: the area between the travelled lanes of traffic, often where you'll find streetcar tracks
Most importantly for your trip, be open to all that New Orleans has to offer. You will have a wonderful time. And if you're lucky, it may change your life. -- Stephen Terrell