New Orleans has quite a few famous restaurants, probably more per capita than anywhere else in the world A lot of them are famous because they've been serving food for ridiculously long amounts of time (100 years or more is not uncommon) and their sheer longevity has made them iconic. Others are famous because they've got a celebrity chef at the helm, who has loaned his or her own name to the place's popularity. And a few -- not many, but there are a few -- are famous based solely on having really, really spectacular food.
But getting famous is only half the battle. Once you've become a restaurant with an international reputation, how you got there stops mattering and maintaining the great reputation becomes the new challenge.
And let's not kid ourselves: it doesn't always happen. There are more than a few restaurants in the fine city of New Orleans, none of which I'll name (today, anyway) who are coasting based solely on an outdated reputation (often coupled with a convenient location) and who really aren't living up to their own legendary status.
But there are several who are. Some big, some small. Some with enormous menus, some with a menu that's just a few items long. They're in diverse neighborhoods: the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the Treme. They've all earned serious international fame, one way or another (there are plenty of nearly-famous restaurants that didn't make this list; these are the biggest of the big guns), and they're all still endeavoring to keep those reputations pristine. Wanna see my picks? Read on! 6 Famous New Orleans Restaurants that Totally Live up to the Hype
Cafe du Monde Image © Megan Romer, 2014
Mardi Gras is in less than a week, and for whatever reason, you are just now deciding that you might just pack up the ol' station wagon and drive on down.
Well, I'm not going to try to talk you into or out of it, but I will say that yes, it is totally possible to plan a Mardi Gras trip at the last minute. Because the majority of the cool stuff that happens in the city (the parades and the French Quarter revelry, in particular) happens outside and is entirely free and un-ticketed, there's always time to join in the fun.
The hard part, of course, is going to be finding somewhere to sleep. French Quarter hotels are incredibly expensive during Mardi Gras, if you can even find a room (many of them are fully booked months in advance). And you can't just say, "I'll stay up all night," of course, because at midnight on Mardi Gras, the city shuts down. (Seriously, when the party's done, it's done. The cops clear everyone out of the Quarter and everything.)
And it's a pretty terrible idea to try showing up without any reservations at all, because you really might not find a room at all, and you don't want to be driving around at 1:00 after the Mardi Gras party looking for a room. I'm pretty sure there are horror movies that have started that way.
So where should you go? Well, I've got some ideas for places to look for rooms in my convenient mini-guide: Planning a Mardi Gras Trip at the Last Minute. Any other questions? Leave a comment and ask away!
French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day Image © Brad Coy / Creative Commons via Flickr
Are you stocking up your car's CD changer for a Mardi Gras road trip? Maybe you're packing your iThing full of tunes to listen to on the airplane to get yourself all psyched up for the big party. Or maybe, just maybe, you're stuck in one of those tragic places where Mardi Gras is just called Shrove Tuesday and is celebrated with a lonesome stack of pancakes. In any case (especially that last one), you're going to need some solid Mardi Gras tunes to get you through.
So here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna start with some solid New Orleans oldies; really iconic Mardi Gras rhythm and blues and funk sides, as recommended by About.com's Oldies Music Expert (who happens to be a New Orleanian), Robert Fontenot. Robert's recommendations include essentials like Professor Longhair's "Go To the Mardi Gras" and the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo," among a whole slate of others, some of which you might be hearing for the first time. Get 'em all: The Top 10 Mardi Gras Oldies
And once you get your vintage New Orleans stuff taken care of, you're gonna dig into some rough and ready Cajun and Zydeco tunes. These will, of course, include the spooky, ancient-sounding "Danse de Mardi Gras," but also some more upbeat, dance-ready tunes that'll have you two-stepping in your airplane seat: Cajun and Zydeco Songs for Mardi Gras
And from there, you'll want to make sure you've got some of the best of the contemporary brass band and trad jazz scenes represented, so get you some Treme Brass Band and some Kermit Ruffins and some Rebirth and some Soul Rebels, and that might get you through your roadtrip/plane trip/sad stack of pancakes.
Kermit Ruffins Image © Derek Bridges / Creative Commons via Flickr
Among the gazillion or so Mardi Gras traditions that make the holiday so deeply entertaining is the annual Greasing of the Poles. This year's celebration, the 44th of its kind, will be taking place on Friday, February 28 at 10:00 am sharp.
But, Megan, when you say "greasing of the poles," you mean...?
Well, not what you think. But close. First off, a little bit of background: Bourbon Street balconies are a very hot commodity during Mardi Gras. Despite the fact that Mardi Gras parades no longer roll through the French Quarter, it's the epicenter for ribald revelry on Mardi Gras and the preceding days. And the best view of it all is, of course, from the balconies, which offer the perfect vantage point from which to survey the mayhem below.
For many years, enterprising youngsters would try to make their way onto the balconies by climbing the support poles and shimmying up. For the sake of security (and their bottom lines), French Quarter hoteliers and restaurateurs began greasing the poles to keep the non-paying customers on the ground.
In the years to follow, the annual Greasing of the Poles started to become something of a spectacle, and pretty quickly became an attraction in and of itself.
It's easy enough to see why. This year's pole-greasers are members of the Fleur de Tease burlesque ensemble, who will use their wit, their dance skills, and a tub of Vaseline to compete for the title of "Best Greasing Performance of 2014" in front of three celebrity judges: Chef John Folse, comedian Jodi Borrello, and New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins.
The Master of Ceremonies will be Mad Men actor and New Orleanian Bryan Batt.
On hand for additional entertainment will be jazz trumpeter Leroy Jones and his Original Hurricane Brass Band, as well as the all-female marching group the Pussyfooters of New Orleans, and some of the New Orleans Saintsations, who'll lead the rowdy onlookers in cheers.
The King and Queen of Zulu will also be on hand for a champagne toast which will officially kick off the proceedings and the weekend to come. Join the fun if you're in town; it's really quite a riot, and totally free to watch. Head on down to 300 Bourbon Street. You can't miss it.
Image Provided by the Royal Sonesta
I have yet to meet a Mardi Gras or Carnival that I haven't loved. Trinidad's wild Carnival, Rio's enormous Carnaval, Italy's glamorous Carnevale, and, of course, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They're all different, but since they're all about having as much fun as possible before the solemnity of Lent begins, they're all a total blast.
But New Orleans' famous Mardi Gras is not, in fact, the only Mardi Gras tradition that Louisiana has to offer. Sure, lots of smaller cities (Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma, etc.) have their own Mardi Gras celebrations, but they're mostly smaller facsimiles of the New Orleans-style parades and balls.
If you get out into the country, though, you'll discover something entirely different. Prairie Cajun communities, mostly in the areas around Eunice and Mamou, have their own style of Mardi Gras, and you've never seen anything like it.
This masked begging ritual is straight out of the Middle Ages, and is related folklorically to the English and Irish Mummers, as well as traditions of Wassailing and even trick-or-treating. Celebrants get decked out in wild-colored costumes and travel on foot or on horseback around their rural communities, trailed by traditional Cajun bands who play, among other songs, a specific spooky, ancient tune called "La Danse de Mardi Gras" that describes the events of the day.
As the riders and runners go from house to house, they collect ingredients for a communal gumbo to be made later in the day: rice, smoked sausage, maybe some onions or peppers, or the pièce de résistance, a live chicken, which flees for its life as several dozen drunk costumed riders chase after it, through mud, brambles, or any other obstacles. (It's either hilarious or horrifying to watch, depending on your stance on birds' rights.)
And there's beer. So much beer.
But really, the experience is just vastly different than the one you'd have in New Orleans, and it's worth seeing at least once. It is possible to see a bit of both, of course -- one could easily attend parades and parties in New Orleans on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and then zip over to Cajun Country for Fat Tuesday itself.
If you're really ambitious and have a good designated driver, you could even be back in New Orleans by dinnertime (most of the Cajun runs start shortly after sunup and are back to cook gumbo by lunchtime), though really, you're probably better off giving each one a few days of its own. Great fun, all around.
Want to check it out? Learn more:
- Cajun Mardi Gras: 5 Things You Need to Know
- Photos of Musicians at Cajun Mardi Gras
- Cajun and Zydeco Songs for Mardi Gras
Cajun Mardi Gras Image © Megan Romer
Have you always wanted to experience Mardi Gras as an insider, riding on a float and attending one of the glamorous black-tie balls thrown by New Orleans' legendary Mardi Gras krewes?
W Hotel French Quarter is offering guests an opportunity to do just that. The terms are firm and the price is high, but if you've got the money and the free time, it's an unbeatable experience.
The Ultimate Mardi Gras Escape package, which starts at $1,139 per night and must be booked from February 28-March 5, gets the guests a swanky French Quarter hotel room for the duration, two passes to ride on a float in Harry Connick, Jr's star-studded Orpheus Parade (plus costumes and throws, which you'll certainly need), two passes to the Oprheuscapade ball (featuring Cheap Trick), plus collectible Mardi Gras masks, specialty cocktails to-go from the excellent SoBou bar and restaurant, and additional tasty treats and other fun swag upon your arrival and throughout your stay.
If that's a bit rich for your blood, or if you prefer to watch parades from the sidelines, both the W French Quarter and W New Orleans (just a few steps from the Quarter in the Central Business District) are offering a Mardi Gras Krewes Control package, which gets you a room plus a heap of Mardi Gras swag. Rates start at $385 per night at the W French Quarter and $245 per night at the W New Orleans. These are excellent prices for downtown hotels during Mardi Gras; the extra treats are just gravy.
W French Quarter Courtyard Image Provided by W Hotels
In 1897, the city government of New Orleans found itself with a rampant vice problem. Prostitution and gambling were running rampant in the busy port city, and taking a cue from cities like Amsterdam, the city's aldermen set up a legalized red light district of their own.
The alderman who drew up the laws in 1897 was named Sidney Story, and the district was thus nicknamed "Storyville."
Storyville quickly and unsurprisingly became popular among locals, travelers, sailors, and servicemen. The brothels, which ranged from low-rent "cribs" where services started 50 cents to high-end brothels where the company of an elegant young woman could cost upwards of $10. (That's around $10 on the low end to $250 on the upper end in today's money.)
Among the most popular features of Storyville were the ubiquitous house musicians. Pianists, guitar players, and small bands would entertain customers in the lounges, parlors, and pubs of the district. These musicians included every one of the greats of early jazz: Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson, King Oliver, Pops Foster, and even a young Louis Armstrong.
Though jazz was not invented in Storyville, as it is sometimes claimed, the district certainly provided an awful lot of steady work and opportunities for intermingling for the musicians who were playing the emerging genre. This made it ground zero for much of the synthesis and syncretization that turned country blues and Dixieland and the Afro-Latin rhythms coming in from Cuba into what we now know as jazz.
Despite the fact that Storyville was shut down in 1917 and razed entirely a decade later, it has remained a cultural touchpoint in New Orleans; a source of inspiration for musicians, writers, and artists of all kinds, not to mention businesspeople and other champions of New Orleans commerce (the shop whose name is pictured above is a boutique t-shirt store).
Many visitors to the city, particularly fans of early jazz, want to know if any part of Storyville remains, and if it's possible to visit it. The answer is (mostly) no. Learn more: Can You Visit Any Remnants of Storyville in New Orleans?
Image © Megan Romer, 2014
"Just stop me if I'm bugging you; it's just that I get really excited about food," gushed Chef David Gotter, as he discussed the brand-new menu at GG's Dine-O-Rama, formerly Gott's Gourmet Cafe. I think this was meant to be an apology, but really, it was music to my food-loving ears.
Gott's Gourmet Cafe started a few years back as an upscale catering company, and then Chef David opened a cafe on a hopping stretch of Magazine Street. In no time at all, it became a popular neighborhood spot for brunch and lunch, and even took home a handful of Where Y'at's Best of New Orleans awards for Best Breakfast.
2013 saw an expansion of the restaurant's menu to include more appetizers, more entrees, and a dinner menu, and Chef David and his partner Christy Parker decided that it was time for a rebranding. With a menu that focused on upscale versions of classic comfort food, a retro diner feel seemed like a natural fit, and GG's Dine-O-Rama was born. A redecoration brought vintage Magazine Street photos to the walls and other cute decorations, like retro salt and pepper shakers on the tables.
The food is everything that patrons grew to expect from Gott's Gourmet Cafe, but the options (and hours) are expanded. For a lighter lunch, you'll find smart, elegant, seasonally-focused salads and fat, flavorful sandwiches stuffed with high-end ingredients. For dinner (or a big appetite earlier in the day), choose from classy, upscale versions of mom's classics: meatloaf, pork chops, crab cakes, and shrimp 'n' grits.
And don't miss the decadent, creamy mac 'n' cheese, served either straight-up, Southern Style (with panko fried chicken, bacon, and jalapenos), or Southwest Style (with bbq chicken verde, pico de gallo, black beans, roasted corn, and jalapenos). And hey, there's more! Read my recent review of the new menu at GG's Dine-O-Rama.
GG's Mac'n'Cheese Image © Megan Romer, 2014 / Licensed to About.com
One of my very favorite things to do in New Orleans is to wander the beautiful old cemeteries; the famous cities of the dead. These acres of tombs have a way of quietly revealing the history of this city in a personal, profound way that no guidebook ever could.
Some tombs tell a story with their decorations -- an insignia of a club or professional membership, perhaps. Some tell a more literal story with their inscriptions, either how a person lived or how they died.
Some of the stories are happy, albeit morbidly so: five, six, seven generations of a family, all buried together, and the grave tidily tended to even still. Some are slightly mysterious: a freshly-cut bouquet decorating a grave with a death date nearly 80 years prior.
And some, of course, are devastatingly sad.
I spent a couple of hours last week wandering Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. It's not a huge cemetery, but it's a very safe one (remember that not all cemeteries in New Orleans are safe, especially if you're alone), and it's located right in the middle of the beautiful Garden District, just across the street from the wonderful Commander's Palace and kitty-corner from The Rink shopping center, home to one of my favorite stores in the city, the Garden District Book Shop. Put all of these elements together, and you've got yourself a gorgeous New Orleans afternoon.
I've been reading a lot of New Orleans history books lately, and I've got yellow fever on my mind. This vicious hemorrhagic illness ravaged the Louisiana colony with alarming regularity for the first couple of centuries of its existence, until the vector was discovered (mosquitoes) and measures were taken that ultimately eradicated the disease in the United States.
So I had my eyes out for yellow fever graves, and it didn't take me long to find one. Read More...
South Louisianans woke up to a rare sight this morning: snow! Though it wasn't entirely a surprise (local meteorologists had given us a pretty solid warning), it's still always a bit of a shock. In my 10+ years of living in Louisiana, I've only seen it snow once, and in my experience, temperatures seldom dip below freezing more than once or twice in any given winter.
So when it snows, and especially when it ices, excitement ensues. Though my Yankee blood is thick(-ish) and I always giggle a bit when my Louisiana-born neighbors start complaining about the cold, the fact is that icy days here can cause very real difficulties.
There are no salt or sand trucks, so when the roads ice, they stay icy, especially the bridges. People don't have ice scrapers for their cars (a friend reported thinking she was a genius this morning when she used a spatula to scrape her windshield, only to have the spatula snap in half after about five minutes of scraping), and no one has a bag of salt next to their front door for de-icing their sidewalk. For that matter, a lot of folks don't have warm-weather snowgear -- a puffy winter coat is a luxury item in a place that seldom gets below 40 degrees.
So if you're finding yourself on vacation here this week, especially if you're from way up North, you might be a little bit surprised at how much the city has shut down. In fact, you might be stuck here. All of the major roads out of the city are closed (there's no way out of the city that doesn't involve crossing a bridge, and the bridges are all iced over).
So if you're stranded here with us, your best strategy is to hunker down, snuggle in, and try to have fun with it. That is to say, don't drive anywhere. Even if you're good at driving on ice, no one else around here is, and it's a skating rink out there. And be a bit forgiving of local businesses, some of whom will be running short-staffed as their employees will have a hard time getting to work (or finding childcare; many schools were closed today).
It's supposed to warm up again within the next day or two, so shuffle on over to the closest neighborhood restaurant and warm yourself with a hot bowl of gumbo or a steaming cup of café au lait in the meantime. Though it might twist up your plans a little bit, try to enjoy the novelty of the day. After all, not many people can say they saw New Orleans in a snow or ice storm!
Pictured: the snow-covered live oaks in the author's backyard as of this morning. Don't worry, she wore snowboots and was very, very careful. © Megan Romer, 2014 / Licensed to About.com