New Orleans newbies touch down at Louis Armstrong International with a mind-boggling to-do list from those that have already visited the city. You must grab a beignet from Café du Monde. And don’t miss the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Ooh, and a cocktail tour. Definitely do that. What do you mean, you won’t have time for the Voodoo Museum? It’s a must.
It’s fair enough, really. Few cities cram as much history, culture, noise, and excitement into their centers. But that density of attractions inevitably brings with it a ton of visitors, and it doesn’t take long for you to yearn for a few hours away from the neon hand grenades and the sad clip-clop of another horse-drawn tourist wagon. (Visiting during the city during its annual Mardi Gras celebrations adds extra intensity to this sentiment.)
I started my first night in the Crescent City like many others before me: spinning slowly round the Hotel Monteleone’s rotating carousel bar and wondering just how long a first-time visitor should spend ticking off the obvious boxes. Incessant rain and no raincoat answered that question pretty fast and I never made it much further than Bourbon Street.
The French Quarter’s legendary booze boulevard is unavoidable, and equally irresistible, even on a sweltering, wet Wednesday in July.
The freedom to roam from bar to bar with a go-cup full of something strong and sticky is intoxicating, and by the time I’d experienced Led Zep covers at the Famous Door, Dixieland under the watchful eye of an Allen Toussaint statue at Café Beignet, and noodly jazz at the Bourbon Street Drinkery, I was fully signed up to NOLA nightlife.
That dissipated a little after midnight, however, when sirens and bodily stenches filled the streets, and I resolved to explore a bit further the following day.
Finding moments of solitude amid the crush
Even along its tourist-clogged arteries, the heart of New Orleans offers an abundance of quiet spots to step back from the chaos. For every (deservedly popular) Stanley, serving platefuls of eggs benedict guarded by soft-shell crabs to long lines of diners, there’s a much less busy Croissant D’Or slinging French pastries to locals who bag the window seats with a good book.
A little further northwest from the center, meanwhile, Marjie’s Grill is another local’s favorite tucked among nail salons on an unassuming street, full of lone diners returning for the famous fusion of Mississippi and Mekong delta cuisine. Rock from the ’80s blasted from the stereo as I shamelessly worked through too many dishes: catfish encrusted in cornmeal with watermelon hot sauce; coal-roasted sweet potatoes with cane syrup; peas with pork and chilies; papaya salad. All reliably phenomenal.
While Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter is consistently alive with bands and portrait artists and hundreds of wandering tourists, the Louis Armstrong Park just northwest of the district was literally populated with more statues than people during my visit. And at the Moon Walk river promenade two blocks from Jackson, the thunder of drums on buckets faded out, replaced by the lap of the Mississippi under a paddleboat and the metronomic dings of a long freight train trundling by.
Heading downriver past the end of the streetcar line
Frenchmen Street is often touted as the alternative Bourbon, but to me it felt pretty similar. Sure, the floors are more tiled than sticky, the atmosphere is slightly more refined, and of course I caught several excellent jazz bands, but many venues had the same Miller Lite signs and Pat Benatar tracks blasting from the stereo.
More interesting, perhaps are the streets further downriver, in the Bywater district and straddling St. Claude Avenue northeast of Marigny.
The city can’t seem to decide whether or not to extend the streetcar line any further out this way, but there’s an abundance of delights tucked away for anyone who wanders or Ubers here. An area that’s been slowly gentrifying, for better or worse but particularly since Katrina, it’s an evolving mix of foodie pop-ups and art markets, timeworn and shuttered businesses and homes, and long-serving bars and clubs.
As I wandered St. Claude, dance classes were taking place behind twinkling fairy lights in an old shop next to a bouldering studio. The St. Roch Market was a brightly lit hall of delights (think L.A.’s Grand Central or London’s Brixton Village Market) where a rich crawfish poutine with crispy new potatoes was the best thing I ate all week.
The residential backstreets, meanwhile, were dark and quiet. The patter of heavy raindrops and the incessant buzz of unseen cicadas were the only sounds, punctuated occasionally by the convivial chatter of a family feasting on a porch under a flickering lantern or a cat meowing into a stretch.
That changed when I got within subwoofer distance of Vaughan’s Lounge, where the promised appearance of Corey Henry and the Treme Funktet was my main reason for schlepping out this way. Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” was tearing the place up when I stumbled in, and it just got livelier from there.
The band was everything I’d hoped and everything you’d expect from a city where beats run in the veins—all jackhammer drums, insistent trumpets, and irresistible guitar lines—the kind of thumping, relentless funk that gets the most wooden wallflowers pumping their fists. The DJ joined in on cowbell and the place duly descended into bedlam.
Someone was turning 21 so cake got passed around. I asked one local why so few tourists. “We’re the wrong side of the tracks and downriver,” she said. “That’s a double X.” If that’s what it takes to keep this place a little more “hidden secret,” that’s fine by me.
A “provocation” rather than a comprehensive guide, the book is a collection of 22 maps and essays that aim to delineate the city’s history and culture along unexpected lines, drawing parallels between levees and prisons, live oak trees and parade routes, mapping the region through oil exploration, the banana trade, and the real and imagined Arab New Orleans.
As its authors note, no book could hope to contain or categorize this ever-shifting city. “Trying to define New Orleans is like trying to hold water in your hands . . . like trying to draw a coastline that keeps shifting,” they write in the introduction. “Here all that is solid dissolves into water, and much of it seems to exist in an amorphous state of muddiness and murkiness. You can’t hold it, but it sticks to you.”
We’ll never get to the bottom of this fascinating place, however much we swim its streets, but we owe it to NOLA to dive a little deeper than Bourbon.