New Orleans. Bourbon Street. The two pretty much go hand in hand even outside of Mardi Gras season. However, despite a single walk-through for the “experience” during my recent first trip to NOLA, I found the dodgy vibe wasn’t for me.
Thankfully, a few local friends gave me every traveler’s sought-after inside scoop. They took me to a few touristy spots like Cafe du Monde, which my taste buds found to be worth its salt (well, sugar) — but they knew to visit in the wee hours (early morning or late night) in order to avoid the lines. My idea of drinking in the street was fulfilled by ordering their cafe au lait in a keepsake mug and taking the rest to go. If you too prefer the slightly offbeat, consider the following haunts I was introduced to, by the people who live there.
Bywater: As Local as It Gets
If you lived here, you’d be home by now. At least that’s the wisdom of the hand-painted wooden sign that greets you along the waterway into this charming Crescent City neighborhood, one of very few in the Ninth Ward affected little by Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Bob, a local folk artist known for his signs including “Be Nice or Leave” (a favorite displayed in many local bars and establishments), has set up his art gallery and studio headquarters along Chartres in Bywater, and the location is hard to miss. Serving as the neighborhood’s unofficial mascot, the colorful yet gritty aesthetic of Dr. Bob’s art is indicative of the entire area.
As I wandered from brunch spot to brunch spot (brunch is a way of life in New Orleans), I became acquainted with the rainbow of houses and eclectic storefronts featuring vintage, antique and found objects. For every one I would pass or step into, there were two more I didn’t have time to discover. I suggest taking a day, or at least a whole afternoon, to wander this area and see what you discover for yourself.
For foodies, I recommend eating at Elizabeth’s. Its motto is “Real food, done real good,” and after eating there, I would overwhelmingly agree. This local establishment boasts no frills with plastic, cherry-dappled tablecloths and painted signs promoting their praline bacon (yes, you read that correctly … and that’s just an appetizer!). I went with the daily special — a stonerito — composed of eggs, sausage and bacon (yes, more bacon) in a French toast-battered wrap doused with powdered sugar, plus a side of fried green tomatoes with remoulade.
Known by residents as the “locals’ Bourbon Street,” Frenchmen offers shopping, bars, restaurants, music and culture — without the beads and rows of daiquiri machines. If you get to talking with any local shop owners, at some point they’ll ask you if you “know about Frenchmen.” A relative secret to most tourists, some of the best jazz venues run along this rue, from the Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor to Maison and Apple Barrel; they’re even happening on a Monday night. Sip your hurricane from a cup, not a plastic monstrosity, and immerse yourself in the music. For late-night, post-drink snacking, I suggest getting the tachos (nachos made with tater tots) at 13, a restaurant/bar.
Antiquing and Supermarkets
A bit daunted by the high-end Shops at Canal Place, unimpressed with River Walk and fizzled out after the same booths row after row in the French Market, I found that my favorite places to shop in New Orleans were the ever-present antique emporiums, artists’ collectives and the local supermarket. Rare Finds, near the market in the French Quarter, had a distinctive selection of antiques and memorabilia from absinthe spoons to vintage coins that served as old call girl coupons. I found a beautifully aged fleur de lis hook from the 1960’s for around $20.
On Royal Street there’s plenty of art at a variety of price points, mostly by local artists. For a glass of wine, a chat and a look around, try the Great Artists’ Collective. Finally, for those souvenirs to bring home to the family, from sauces, spices and snacks to beads and masks, try a suburban supermarket such as Rouse’s. Though food specialties and decorations change seasonally, it’s a definite bet for reasonably priced condiments and local seasonings if you have a foodie at home. Pick up some groceries for yourself too, like a case of seasonal Abita beer or a bag of Voodoo chips to enjoy back at the hotel.
– written by Brittany Chrusciel