We are in New Orleans, the Big Easy, our second trip to this famous eating and drinking city and the home of Jazz. We visited back in 1999 and now with Katrina well in the past we thought it time to visit again. Unfortunately as we make this second visit, looming large over this entire region is the BP massive oil leak of April 20th. No one knows how badly this man-made disaster will affect the region in the months and years to come.
We arrived on a Thursday evening in New Orleans just in time for dinner after what seemed like a forever flight from San Francisco via Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Our lodging destination in New Orleans is a condomium complex, La Saulet, located in the Lower Garden District. First stop on the way to La Saulet is dinner at a little Italian restaurant by the name of Eleven79. This is truly a neighborhood spot that is lively and very much authentic New Orleans, not a hint of touristy. You won’t find this gem in any of the guidebooks but if you are in the area, it is worth a try. The food and the prices are good but the atmosphere is what it’s all about here. We really enjoyed this cozy restaurant located at 1179 Annunciation.
Friday Activities in New Orleans
From our condo location we walked a Lower Garden District walk suggested in our guidebook, DK Eyewitness Travel for New Orleans. The Lower Garden area is an area in transition. We see blocks where homes range from beautifully restored to ones in total decay. On each block were signs of renovation. It must be a tedious project to try to restore these homes to their former glory. Over on Magazine Street there are many antique, artsy, and boutique shops and the street is worth a relaxed stroll.
One of the most popular tourist activities is to ride the St. Charles Trolley line. We walked over from Magazine Street and boarded the Trolley on First Street. You need exact change, $1.25 for a one-way ride or you can purchase a $5 day pass as we did. With the day pass you can get on and off along St. Charles at any spots that spark an interest. For us it was Tulane University and Loyola University that are located side by side and Audubon Park that is directly across the street from these two universities. We walked the Tulane Campus, paid a visit to the Holy Name church at Loyola and then took a short walk through Audubon Park. The park houses a big Zoo, but we didn’t have time to see it.
For lunch, we’d heard raves about the Camellia Grill restaurant so we hopped back on the Trolley and got off where the trolley turns right onto South Carrollton Avenue. We could see people waiting outside the Camellia Grill for lunch. Funny thing though, once we went inside to get on the waiting list, we were quite taken aback to see the place was a small and dingy diner. Scanning the tables, the food seemed to be quite ordinary. We quickly departed and found a nicer spot for lunch right next door. O’Henry’s is a nice and comfortable spot for a relaxed lunch, nothing spectacular but very adequate with a nice crowd of locals and tourists. Best of all, there was seating available on the deck without a wait.
For Friday night dinner we decided to make this meal the splurge of our trip and had dinner at the Commander’s Palace, which was once a plantation before becoming a restaurant in 1881. It’s in the Upper Garden District and has a great reputation for its food and atmosphere. The dress code is “Country Club Casual,”which translates into no shorts and looking well-groomed. The food is quite good, not extraordinary in our opinion, and very pricey. The wine list is quite extensive, with a wide choice of wines from all the major wine regions of the world. This was quite a treat for us.
The primary activity of the day was a leisurely hour drive out to the Oak Alley Plantation. For folks who love history and want to know about New Orleans life in the 19th century, a visit to the plantation and a tour of the mansion is very enjoyable. If that is not your interest, then skip the trip and take a paddle ride on the Mississippi or spend the day touring the river area and French Quarter.
For nightlife, the choices are endless. In the French Quarter there are lots of bars and restaurants to choose from. At the moderate end, you can make an evening of bar hopping and ordering appetizers off the menu. Fried green tomatoes, crawfish and crab cakes, fired shrimp, fried calamari, and gumbo are to be found on most menus. Or, you can dine upscale at places like Antoine’s, Emeril’s, or Arnaud’s. If you are in search of New Orleans cocktails, the French Quarter will work and Bourbon Street finds the young crowd hanging out and often overserved. If you are into music then drift away from the French Quarter to what is known as the Marigny district, sometimes found on the map to be called the lower French Quarter. That is just what we did after feasting at Napoleon’s House. We wandered down Frenchmen Street and found numerous places with great sounds of jazz, blues, and Dixieland. We lucked out at Maison and had a great time rocking to an all-female brass band, the Pinettes, that played some up-tempo, kick-ass jazz. It is a whole different scene here than in the French Quarter. At Marigny, the focus is the music and not so much the booze.
No one should leave New Orleans without having a fabulous Sunday Jazz Brunch. There are several to choose from but we decided on going into the quiet and more serene Garden District to the Columns Hotel. This historic hotel offers a beautiful brunch either outside on the front terrace or inside in one of several beautifully-decorated 19th century rooms. Outside where we dined, a single jazz guitarist played the perfect dining music. The four-course meal included soup, salad, entrÃ©e, and dessert and of course sparkling wine. It is very relaxing.
Our final night in New Orleans we head out to the Lake Pontchartrain and meet up with friends for dinner at Landry’s Seafood House on the lake. It is Mothers Day and the place is jammed. All the fish at Landry’s is local and as fresh as can be. Everyone’s meal was excellent including our blackened catfish and grilled salmon. One can sit out on the deck and enjoy views of the lake or dine comfortably inside. The only drawback we could find here was the wine list. There were limited choices and had we known that we would have definitely brought in a bottle of our own.
One has to wonder what will emerge with the BP oil spill. From a visitor standpoint, we could not see much impact. Crab, shrimp, crayfish, and all sorts of fish were all abundant on the menus. But from the conversations we heard, the people of New Orleans are expecting some bleak times, just as they continue to recover from Katrina. Let’s hope not, because this city has much to offer for those seeking food, wine, music and other delights.