From Push Carts to Posh Shops
NEW ORLEANS. My visit to New Orleans actually started in Queens, NY, with a tour of the Louis Armstrong house. Walking through the great jazz trumpeter’s private rooms, standing in his den listening to Armstrong’s 1949 recording of Blueberry Hill—it all me nostalgic for New Orleans.
I had not seen the Crescent City since Hurricane Katrina and was concerned that much had changed. But a relatively cheap and direct flight on Southwest from Islip, Long Island, soon landed me in the city that gave birth to jazz, not to mention Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Ellen DeGeneres and the New Orleans Saints. Overall, the city appeared revitalized and its people optimistic.
Caught between Mardi Gras and music festivals that are annual rites-of-spring, I set out to renew old ties. First stop, Mother’s, where ham, biscuits and po’ boys are served with such gusto that you just have to surrender to them. Everyone does—longshoremen, politicians and socialites.
Other than a noonish concert at Riverwalk by the Lars Edegran New Orleans Jazz Band, it was too early for live music. Having just hoisted enough carbs to last a decade, I decided to hike down to Royal Street where I knew the shops would be open and the shopkeepers would be congenial.
I have always been captivated by Royal Street. It looks like a page from an architectural storybook. But there was a time when it was a street of pushcarts loaded with the latest and finest fashions from Paris. Before that, it was home to makers of Rococo and Renaissance period furniture.
These include name makers like Prudence Mallard, who worked in rosewood, mahogany and occasionally oak, William McCracken, whose bank and office furniture was highly prized and Francois Signouret, whose Rococo and Louis XV style furniture still looks like icing on a cake.
Today, third and fourth generation antiquarians offer opulence in the traditional style. After several hours of perusing the shops, I stopped by Jackson Square to take a load off my feet and make plans for dinner. My first choice was booked, so I decided to wait and combine dinner with music.
You cannot go to New Orleans and ignore the traditional jazz that is still played and played with passion. If you have never heard authentic honky-tonk piano, you really should make it part of your musical education. Two of the best places are Preservation Hall and the Palm Court.
Nina Buck’s Palm Court on Decatur Street probably does more to keep the genre alive than any other club. The food is traditional and served in a rockin’ atmosphere. Late at night, when the trumpets are screaming and the stand up bass aches from being plucked and slapped, you’re likely to catch Buck herself in a purple feather boa, tight dress and combat boots doing a vibrant two-step. The night I was there, the band took my request for Blueberry Hill, with an arrangement similar to the one I heard in Louis Armstrong’s study.
Day two found me at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which houses the nation’s largest archive specializing in the history of African Americans and other minorities. I was just a few days too early for “Beyond the Blues: Reflections of African Americans in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center” and found instead the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. It was the perfect fit for my meandering mood.
That day I decided on the Red Fish Grill for lunch. Its casual atmosphere is perfect for people watching. Afterwards, I headed over to the Arts District for a leisurely stroll through the 25 or so contemporary art galleries. Because I am addicted to process, I found New Orleans Glassworks to be among the more interesting. Luckily, I was able to catch a free demonstration by master craftsmen blowing glass in the traditional European way. It is a lot harder than it looks and I am determined to go back one day and take a lesson.
On the St. Charles Avenue streetcar to Audubon Park, I watched the homes grow grand and grander. Once in Audubon Park, where wonderful oaks canopy a carpet of grass, I could not help but envy the folks in the large homes that rim the park.
That night, I met up with friends for a casual dinner at Franky and Johnny's, uptown on Arabella Street. It’s about as close to home cooking as you’ll get and very come-as-you-are. That was the warm-up to a late night that included hearing John Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen at the Maple Leaf. This is one of the best places for local bands that churn out the uniquely New Orleans sound that grew out of jazz and is spiced with Afro/Caribbean rhythms and the blues.
By the time my short stay was over, I was already making plans to return. Early April brings French Quarter Festival, a 27 year old institution that features the best traditional jazz bands around. Later in the month the city gears up for Jazz Fest, officially named the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Oh, the good times I spent making the rounds of the gospel tent, the fais do-do stage and the headline rock bands. Time to do it again, I think.
Whatever your focus, gaming, golf or Cajun country, New Orleans (no matter how you pronounce it) will do its best to make sure you have a great time.
Most major airlines fly to New Orleans. If you arrive at the right time you will be greeted by a brass band and second-lined all the way to the baggage claim.
PLACES TO STAY:
Posh Choices: Windsor Court, Le Pavillon, Intercontinental, Royal Sonesta
French Quarter Gems: Soniat House,
B&Bs: Rose Manor at the Lake Front, Melrose Mansion, Audubon Park Bed and Breakfast
Great Deal: Hampton Inn on St. Charles
PLACES TO EAT
French Quarter: Brennan’s, NOLA, Red Fish Grill, Galatoire’s, Palm Court, Antoine’s. For light fare, Café Beignet.
Arts District: Emeril’s, Michaul’s, La Boca, Mulates
Uptown: Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s Delmonico, La Crepe Nanou
Funky: Franky and Johnny's, Camellia Grill, Mother’s