New Orleans guide for CouchSurfers
I am perpetually swamped with Couchsurfing requests in New Orleans. I like to tell people that I received four hosting requests all summer in Portland, four every two weeks in Chicago, and two per day here. So, In honor of everyone I’m unable to host, I’d like to present my eating, drinking, and doing guide.
But first: stop right now and obtain a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. Read it while on your way and while you’re here, and maybe finish after you’ve returned home. It’s a good 25% of the reason I live here in the first place, the funniest work of any kind of art I’ve ever encountered, and the most perfect encapsulation of this little sub-sea level alternate universe anyone’s ever likely to produce.
Now, on to our itinerary.
Full disclosure: I am one of the few curmudgeons about food in New Orleans. The bottom line is this: we are staggeringly overrepresented on the high end of the culinary spectrum, and tragically underrepresented on the cheap eats end. It is amazingly hard to eat in this city for under $10, but you’ll spend $50 on what would cost $150 most other places, and it might taste even better. I’m partial to places like Portland and Austin, where amazing cheap food, coffee, and beer is everywhere, or New York or Chicago, where the sheer diversity of what’s offered makes something reasonable and good always within reach. We, on the other hand, are relatively small as great metropolises go, and have a giant tangle of antiquated, nepotistic laws that prevent a real food truck culture from springing up–there seem to be under ten regularly operating in the entire city. Restaurants and the city in general (besides bars, of course) are mostly dead on Sunday and Monday. On top of this, despite our late-night reputation, most places close by 10. Not good for young travelers.
But don’t worry. I’m here to help. Company Burger‘s burgers and fries both are amazing, run under $10, and are a cut above all of their local competition–I’ve already done the legwork. Taceaux Loceaux, whose whereabouts, usually in my neighborhood, you have to find via Twitter, serve genuinely amazing, creative tacos, two for $6–and they’re one of the few places serving up food after 10pm. Satsuma in the Bywater is my favorite coffeeshop, and has great breakfast and lunch–and they’re adding a new location Uptown near campus. I don’t know a single person who has anything against Lebanon’s for Mediterranean, and it runs circles around its humdrum rival, Mona’s. I’m a regular for banh mi at Lily’s in the Lower Garden District–their bread is amazing–and bring it to Mojo coffee house, a short walk down the street. Despite the city’s reputation as a flyover zone for BBQ, The Joint is fairly priced, serviceable BBQ. Juan’s Flying Burrito is also a staple–just about everything there is pretty good, and, uniquely here, they have things for vegans and vegetarians. Felipe’s Taqueria is cheaper and good in a pinch (it’s in the Quarter and by campus), but earns no style points. For breakfast, my best bet is Slim Goodies. It’s a diner, so it’s not going to impress any foodies, but it’s half the price and basically as good of most of the other brunch places–I’m looking at you, Ruby Slipper and Surrey’s–and they have not one, but two cool seating areas inside and an awesome, feral back yard, complete with aggressive, (mercifully) caged chickens. And if you’re in a pinch, the sandwiches at Whole Foods aren’t bad at all. Finally, I’ve saved what very well could be the best for last: Casamento’s is where you must go for oysters and gumbo. Both are transcendent, the place oozes character, and their fries are top-notch. It’s not expensive, per se, but it’ not quite cheap, either–figure $15-20 to walk out with one of the most glorious food highs of your life.
Of course, you must eat at least one poboy. Do so at Parkway or Domilise’s. Parkway is retro-fun, and where the Obamas went when they came here. Plus, it’s in Bayou St. John, a cool little residential hood along a canal/stream (a bayou is simply a stream, btw). Domilise’s is my neighborhood go-to, divey, unassuming, and improbably more expensive than Parkway–Travel Channel favorites, they can afford to do so–but each sandwich is made individually, and with great love. While I’m at it, Tracey’s (formerly Parasol’s) roast beef poboys are no slouches, either. Watch football there. While we’re talking sandwiches, muffulettas (that’s “moo-fa-lotta,” folks) too are amazing and essential, and the only place to get a good one in my experience is the original Central Grocery in the French Quarter. Make absolutely sure you go around lunch so they’re still fresh. You will have to wait in line for fifteen minutes; no matter. Remember, they’re closed Monday–can’t tell you how many times I’ve made that tragic mistake.
There are also “touristy” places you nevertheless must go, for they are popular for good reason. The original Cafe du Monde on Jackson Square–don’t bother with the other fast food style variations–is squarely positioned in the bleeding heart of tourist New Orleans, but, especially during off-peak hours, is eternally delightful, even if you’re a local. About $5–up front!–covers an individual’s beignets, cafe au lait, and tip, and will entail some of the best people-watching in our blessed nation. If it’s hot, get snoballs at Hansen’s Sno Bliz, three blocks from my house–accept no imitations. Cameila Grill is one of the only places here I know of open late, and though their food is so-so–even for a greasy spoon–it’s eminently worth going for the outlandish employees. If you’re in the French Quarter, the Clover Grill is just as good, and packs as much character-—it’s one of the most vibey, atmospheric greasy spoons I’ve ever been to, and on top of that, they usually play awesome music, though it will surprise you by costing twice what you’d pay at home.
Stepping up a little: Cochon Butcher, if a little overpriced, makes truly amazing sandwiches, though it would be more at home in Brooklyn, Austin, or Portland than the dirty South. There was no good pizza whatsoever in town until Ancora came along. It is fancy for pizza, but take it from me: it is incredible. Finally, my two top “nice” restaurants are both new, as far as NOLA goes: Boucherie and Sylvain. My guests have always been blown away at each, and for what they are, both are quite reasonable. For simplicity’s sake, that’s where I’ll point you.
Now, to briefly talk some shit. Jacque Imo’s is where Tulane students bring their parents when they come to town. The location and atmosphere, granted, are amazing, but their artless food tastes good because it’s soaked in butter before being served to you at inflated prices. Their boozy proprietor is cackling all the way to the bank. Coop’s Place is very popular because it’s open late and serves all the traditional food people want to get in NOLA: gumbo, poboys, jambalaya, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes. Thing is, none of it is very good. This is a bar, but Lafitte’s Tavern, the oldest operating bar in the United States, is an amazing place, but they play god-awful music. There is nothing more offensive to my delicate sensibilities than sitting in a historical treasure while listening to “Shoulder Lean” five years after the song’s heyday. Finally, by special mention: Evelyn’s Place. It looks like an awesome secret of a place, but on top of their food not being very good, a malicious waitress put a hex on me there because of a bad review I wrote describing my terrible experience there on Yelp. While we’re at it, follow the same commonsensical rule of thumb in town that you should follow to stay out of shady areas: if a French Quarter eatery looks dubious, it surely is.
New Orleans’ drinking culture is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My tolerance for alcohol has skyrocketed since moving here out of sheer necessity. This city is home to more functioning alcoholics than probably anywhere in our great nation. Drinking is what you will spend much, if not most, of your time doing here. My steadfast guidance, below, will help. New Orleans is a cocktail town. Lamentably, we have almost no notable craft beer culture, and the prevailing trend that results is quantity over quality. But that’s what you’re here for, right?! Per the forthcoming, I am naturally biased towards dives and my uptown environs, but there’s fun in here for everyone, all over town.
You will spend some money on said cocktails, but it will be worth it. Start in the French Quarter. First, the Hotel Monteleone Carousel Bar,where you shall drink at a slowly spinning carousel with hyperactive bartenders in the middle. There is often good, free jazz happening as well. This is where Truman Capote and his coterie hung out. Then, go to Napoleon House–this ancient structure was built for Napoleon, who never came. (Their muffalettas, which they serve hot, are supposed to be good, but I can’t personally vouch for them). Then get yourself a Sazerac–which, as the official cocktail of New Orleans, is as mandatory as po boys and crawfish–in the gorgeous art deco lounge at the glorious Roosevelt Hotel, across Canal street. Their variation, which costs [gulp] $12, is intense; I like mine a little sweet. Thirsty for more? Bar Tonique on Rampart. More?! Cure, back uptown. It is the fanciest new place around, and has engendered both love and hate from the populace for being so. I’m a fan: they play awesome music, the space is amazing, and the cocktails are expensive and excellent.
Now, Frenchmen Street is where local people go out-out. The prevailing cliché is that it’s “the local’s Bourbon Street,” which is actually pretty accurate. There will be various bands playing 365 days a year. The general idea is that if you buy a drink, you can hang out and listen for free while you drink it (except at DBA, who hosts a slightly more refined roster and started charging after the HBO’s Tremé came out). This is where you should go on the weekends. If you’re more intrepid, then go see music in St. Claude Ave‘s more racially integrated and left-leaning dens. From there, especially it’s Saturday, proceed then to Mimi’s. There is a awesome bar downstairs, and upstairs people will either be eating tapas or getting down to various DJ’s. It is one of my favorite overall places in town. Deeper into the Bywater, Bacchanal sells great wine at liquor store prices, which you then take to drink in their large, romantic backyard seating area, rife with heat lamps and Christmas lights. There is often food, and sometimes live music. DATE NIGHT!
Now, let’s head back uptown, to my neighborhood, and get divey. The Saint is a magically dilapidated hipster dive in the paradisiacally bohemian but gentrifying Lower Garden District. They often hosts indie bands, a bit of a rarity in these parts. Legend holds Snake n Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge to be the favorite bar of Johnny Depp, the bearded dudes in ZZ Topp, Brangelina, etc. It is a filthy, perfect little dive in a Vietnam War-esque semicircular tin shack nestled on the most inconceivably improbable residential street corner in uptown. It really gets going between 2-4am; otherwise it’s a nice little dive with a steady flow of people coming and going. The take-no-shit bartenders usually play awesome or hilariously inappropriate music from their iPods, and it’s kind of a sausage fest. My mom did everything in her power to not be dragged along with me, then ended up having the time of her life.
Le Bon Temps Roule is a block from my humble abode and beloved by all (including my mom, who fell hard for a stoic, gigantic bouncer named Anthony). They host the Soul Rebels brass band (and others) every Thursday. This is a $5-10 must-see. There is lots of other awesomely funky local shit quasi-nightly. It’s a dive, but also a little more than a dive. If you’re there, it’s worth stumbling five blocks down to Grit’s, an under-appreciated dive that’s painted as though you’re in a cypress swamp. You can play pool there for free! Just stay away Th/Fri/Sat, when it gets spillover from F+M’s, the infamous next-door dive and the epicenter of debauchery (and perhaps even douchery) Uptown. It is where undergraduates of all constitutions go to get laid. F+M’s entails drunken sorority girls dancing on pool tables, latter day saints still wearing their bike helmets, neighborhood drunks, regulars, the whole potpurri of Uptown NOLA. Finally, to complete this holy trinity of my own neighborhood’s dives: Brother’s Three. You will often find me here, drinking a Dixie and talking shit with Charlie, my favorite bartender in town, while the smoke from the cigarettes of neighborhood drunkards mingles with honkey tonk in the air. Still thirsty? Try The Mayfair, The Milan (“my-lan”) Lounge, and The Kingpin. There are numerous others I’m forgetting. We have more and better dives than anywhere I’ve ever been.
Now, if you want to hang uptown but don’t want your clothes to smell of cigarette smoke, there are still places for you. The Columns Hotel sits on the diametrically opposite end of the uptown economic spectrum: you sit on their grand porch or interior and sip southern-style cocktails or wine while watching the streetcars clank by. Delachaise is another fantastic, Christmas light filled, romantic, wine-serving date spot that is filled with uptown beauties and expensive food, right on St. Charles. If you feel more casual, St. Joe’s comforts me with their Catholic imagery and Chicago tavern-esque lighting. It’s wonderfully peaceful during the week, and full of preppy eligible strivers otherwise. Their bartenders are fantastic, their cocktails are inexpensive and not at all bad, and their incongruous back porch is gorgeous.
Last, but not least, Midcity, the real heart of town, is worth your visit precisely because, outside of jazzfest, tourists make it there less than anywhere. Hang out after walking Esplanade Avenue, going to the art museum, or having poboys at Parkway. Eat fried chicken at Liuzza’s by the Tracks, get drunk at Pal’s, have coffee at Fair Grinds, cannolis at Angelo Brocato’s, and red beans and turtle soup at Mandina’s. An enchanted day.
The way to have fun here is to just exist, not have much of an itinerary, and take it in. Ain’t nowhere in America like this (except maybe Savannah, which is smaller, cleaner, and on the ocean). Just come, eat, drink, and walk around. The essential walks are through the French Quarter in general, up and down the entire length of Esplanade Ave (the prettiest street in the entire country, in my humble opinion), through the Garden District. Riding the St. Charles Streetcar is amazing and essential (the red Canal Street ones, slightly less so). The St. Louis Cemetery above the French Quarter is amazing, as is the quainter one near 6th and Prytania in the Garden District (beware, cemeteries here keep infuriatingly strange hours), and finally, the gigantic one at the top (ie lake-side) of Canal Street. If you can and want to see beyond the city, Jean Lafitte Park has amazing elevated walkways through the swamp, and the plantations on the River Road are as amazing as you might imagine. If, like me and many others here, you have a cultivated taste for the macabre, the defunct Six Flags New Orleans is just 15 minutes from the city, and is a trippy, creepy playground where any reasonably skilled photographer can have a f*cking field day.
This generally comprises the matrix floating in my head when I need to entertain people, which here tends to happen on a weekly basis. I’ve neglected Preservation Hall, Saturn Bar, seasonal, otherworldly phenomena like the Mardi Gras Indians, the slew of old-school, classic New Orleans eateries I’ve never had the money to indulge, and a few hidden secrets, all of which warrant mention–I might get back around to them one day. If you’re a New Orleanian and want to add a suggestion or argue with me, feel free to bring it in the comments section. Lassiez les bon temps rouler.