New Orleans - July 2012

Sitting in Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans with a Bud-Lite, waiting for our flight home. The visit to New Orleans was about a week. The middle part as a conference attendee and at liberty pre and post. Here's some experiences and possible recommendations.

Pre, spent two nights at the Empress in Treme. Extremely cheap, not recommended. Great patio (with wifi) to sit and chat with fellow visitors but terrible rooms. A true dive. Middle period stayed at the Sheraton on Canal, as part of conference provided accommodation. Great place, wonderful view south over the Mississippi from floor to ceiling windows. Jane arrived on Wed and we moved to the Hotel Royal in the French Quarter (1005 Royal, at the intersection of St. Peter) for the final two nights (post conference).

The Hotel Royal was a gem. Definately recommended. Not fancy, a step away from the corporate feel of the Sheraton, and not for the weak-kneed, as there's lots of stairs, no elevators. We had a beautiful room facing the inner courtyard, which was all brick, with a fountain. This hotel seems to have been created from houses, condos, or apartments originally built in the old European style having an inner courtyard. I think there's probably a lot of hotels in the French Quarter that are like this: comfortable, but ambience comes first. I've listed a few below, as we made note of them when walking around.

 Olivier House Hotel - 828 Toulouse Street. This place looked great. More rooms than the Royal, beautiful inner courtyard.
 Hotel Marie - 827 Toulouse Street. Much bigger, more formal, but right in the French Quarter and not a chain.
 St. Pierre - 911 Burgundy St.

 Had some great meals. As is sometimes the case, the best comes when you least expect it, and the worst when you expect the most. I had probably the best and worst meals in a long time within days of each other. While walking to Frenchmans street every night to see music, I passed by what looked like a very attractive restaurant. Actually it's more of a hole in the wall, 3 or 4 tables out on the street and linen table clothes. I checked it out and was disappointed to find out it was an Italian restaurant. I'm always looking for Creole, Cajun, or seafood, something I can't get elsewhere. After all, we've got great Italian restaurants on Commercial Drive. When Jane arrived, we went there one night anyways. We stayed away from the veal and both had different seafood pasta dishes that were absolutely amazing. Combined with the carpaccio appetizer it made for the culinary highlight of the trip. The outside table was perfect (the 2 or 3 tables inside were full anyways), and we managed to survive the Housewives of New Jersey at the next table. Check it out. Be aware that the price is $$$$ (out for 5). Italian Barrel on Barracks street near the French Market and Frenchmans street. 

Other foodie stuff:

- French Market stall (didn't get the name): Blackened Catfish po'boy. Great.  
- Coffee Pot Gumbo: Restaurant on St. Annes just north of Royal. Not fancy. Great breakfast. Our waiter broke into a rendition of Amazing Grace.
- Market Cafe: St. Peters and Decatur. Good outdoor cafe for breakfast with jazz band playing every day.
- Stanley's. East side of Jackson Square. Jane had a great bowl of Gumbo. I had the Oyster po'boy. Really good. Call for a Stella.
- Elliots on Decatur: Stay away from this place. Worst meal in a long time. Really dissapointed. They talk the talk, but don't deliver. Wonderful stories about the history of the Elliot family and their Creole recipes going back generations, but the food was abysmal and expensive.
- Desire on Bourbon St: Good Jambalaya. Don't know about the rest.

Of course music is the heart of New Orleans. I think I finally understand music after going to there.

It's hard to stay away from Bourbon street for it's history, but the bacchanalia, for the most part dictates the music: over-the-top, loud, blaring, demanding attention. However, there's some great stuff: Ka-Nection at FatCatz, great funk band with heavy sound. The Stevie Wonder and EWF covers were great, but outside of that they pretty much stuck to the Tourist Funk Music Canon.  Maison Bourbon is the lone holdout of straight-ahead jazz. It's worth it to sit in here for a set, a respite from  Bourbon street and see the resident trumpet player with his ever changing sidemen. The Funky Pirate gets good blues. Their mainstay is Big Al. Another European style old-time jazz beside the Funky Pirate, and the Bayou gets real cajun/zydeco. Also stepping inside the Royal Sinesta hotel to the Irwin Mayfield jazz room is an option.  

However, most of the club music is on Frenchman's Street. A typical night would be to tour the 7-8 clubs at the end of Decatur and around to Frenchmans. By tour, I mean hang around outside to see if you like it, pick one or two and give those establishments your business, which means, no cover, at least one drink per set and the expection to contribute to the tip jar. It's not really a tip jar, it's how the musicians get paid.

Maison usually has the brass bands (tuba, horns, and drums), there's a reggae club, d.b.a. and Nile sometimes have higher profile acts, sometimes with a cover. The Spotted Cat is a great place for trad jazz, always exceptional music. Snug Harbor has shows with a cover at 8 and 10pm every night. Ellis Marsalis plays every Friday night. Get tickets early, it's always sold out. Saw Donald Harrison there on a Saturday night.  Weekends are nuts, very crowded, go to Frenchmans Street on weekdays if possible. If you're into poetry, you can commission a poem from the street poets setup with their manual typewriters. This sampling got me a lot of very good music, and some that's brilliant. Your mileage may vary.

There's a lot music out on the street as well. Brass bands on Bourbon, quartet in front of Cafe du Monde, solo acts, singers everywhere, and Kermit at his speakeasy (see here).

There's other big clubs that I didn't get to, as there was nothing playing at the time. Tipitina's and House of Blues on Decatur. Definately worth looking at if there's something playing. House of Blues has a Sunday morning Gospel brunch from 10am - noon. Supposed to be great. We missed it as it was sold out by Sat at 8pm when we went looking for tickets.

Most played song: Play that Funky Music White Boy (they must of known I was coming)
Strangest song played more than once: GhostBusters
Welcome nuggets from the past: Grover Washington's Mister Magic

Got tired of walking around the French Quarter, so rented some bikes from .... and rode around St Louis #1 cemetary, Treme neighbourhood, where we stopped in at the African American Museum and rode through Congo Square in Louis Armstrong park, then over to the Garden District, to see some of the grand Antebellum houses.

Took the Laura Plantation tour. In some ways glad we did, but really left us wanting for more. There's so much that isn't said. We tried to balance this out ourselves with the African American Museum. Skipped the rest of the tours.

Spent some time hanging out in Jackson Square. Found a bench and watched it all happen. Walked on the path along the Mississippi just south of the French Quarter. Took the free passenger ferry across the river to Algiers on the west bank (actually south). 

Tourism is the number one economy in New Orleans. They're glad to have us there, both because they're friendly and because we're spending money. There's an old Creole saying that family is business and business is family. That's what it's like.

New Orleans is a great, and really different, city. You don't really get it until you go. Some say it is more European than American. I don't know about that. There's a t-shirt you can buy that says: 'There's only three great American cities: New York, San Franscico and New Orleans. Every place else is Cleveland'.  

PS: A good way to find out about New Orleans is the HBO series Treme (it can be bought from Amazon). Some people there love it, some hate it.