One of my favourite cities in the world is New Orleans. I never really lived there…but over the past 48 years - since I was 19 - I’ve probably been to the Big Easy more than 100 times. Some of the visits were just a few days… and some were for a couple of months… but it’s always felt like home.
So, when four friends of mine here in the Okanagan asked me what to do and where to go in New Orleans, I was delighted to share my insights and love for this great town. My friends are going in February… during Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.
Centuries ago the Catholic Church decided Christmas would fall on Dec. 25…always. But other religious holidays would be flexible. Easter, for example, is the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Spring equinox. That means Easter can come on any Sunday as early as March 23 and as late as April 25.
And since Mardi Gras falls 47 days before Easter…and starts on a Tuesday…it can come as early as Feb. 3 and as late as March 9. If you want to be a stickler…Mardi Gras only lasts 24 hours. But Mardi Gras commonly refers to the entire Carnival season…which starts on Jan. 6 or Twelfth Night. Okay, that’s the last of the calendar mumbo jumbo… honest.
Anyway, my friends liked my advice and said I should tell the world… or at least those who read this column. So, here’s some info that I hope will inspire you to put New Orleans on your bucket list.
First of all don’t call it “N’awlins”… for the same reason you don’t refer to San Francisco as “Frisco”… it shouts that you’re a tourist. Locals pronounce it “New Awlins”… a subtle difference perhaps but locals are Southerners and the drawl isn’t on “New”… it’s on what passes for Orleans…or “Awlins.” So, when you’re there, show them you know how to say the name of the town they love so much.
My wife, Bonnie, and I are visiting New Orleans in late January for a week…celebrating her birthday…as if we need an excuse. What is the allure? Well, certainly some people go for the atmosphere…the party mentality that surrounds Mardi Gras. It is fun…but not my favourite time. You should go at least once to experience the French Quarter during Mardi Gras…but there’s so much more to New Orleans.
There are literally dozens of festivals celebrating something special about the Crescent City… another nickname for New Awlins. There’s something going on every month…and almost every week. Over the years I’ve visited New Awlins during the French Quarter Festival, the Po-Boy Festival, the Oyster Festival, the Beignet Festival, the Blues and BBQ Festival, the Fringe Festival, the New Orleans Film Festival and the Tennessee Williams Festival…just to name a few.
You can’t come to know New Awlins in a one-week visit…no more than you can know the Okanagan in a single visit. So, use it as an excuse to come and go…and experience a culture rich in diversity, art, music and, of course, food and drink.
New Awlins is a town with a storied past when it comes to eating and drinking. A lot of cocktails now famous the world over were first poured in the Big Easy. The Sazerac - Absinthe (or Herbsaint), rich simple syrup (sugar to water ratio, two to one), Peychaud's Bitters and rye whiskey - was invented in 1830 at an apothecary on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Later it became popular at the Sazerac Coffee House. It’s a little like a new and improved Old Fashioned.
Of course, there’s the venerable Brandy Crusta invented by Joseph Antonio at the Jewel of the South bar in 1850. Cognac, Grand Marnier, Maraschino, simple syrup, lemon juice and Angostura bitters. Taste it and see if you don’t agree that it probably gave birth years later to the Sidecar.
I have two long-time favourites. First, there is The Last Word…blend in a shaker equal parts of fresh lime juice, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur and Gin (I like Hendrick’s) with ice and strain into a Martini glass. Frank Fogarty introduced this drink in about 1950 more or less simultaneously in Detroit, New York and New Orleans. Slightly tart and delicious.
My other favourite is a Ramos Gin Fizz, invented in 1907 by Henry Ramos at his bar, The Stag. You combine Gin (again, Hendrick’s), orange blossom water, egg white, half-and-half, lemon juice, lime juice, and simple syrup. Shake and strain into 8-ounce glass. If you’re planning a day and evening of partying… this is a good one to start on.
I learned years ago that no one conducts business in New Awlins after noon on Friday… it is officially the weekend. Everyone’s interest turns to food and drink. And while I’m a little long in the tooth now to do the Grand Tour that my friends and I once did in New Orleans on a typical Friday, I still enjoy a mini Grand Tour of my favourite bars.
Some are classy… some are just fun. Part of Arnaud’s restaurant…the French 75 bar (813 Bienville St.) may be one of my favourite bars on earth. It is classy times two! Small, intimate, fancy… not a place for shorts and flip-flops. They have two of the best bartenders on earth as well… nothing they can’t make from memory. Chris is one of the bartenders - and I’ve been supporting him longer than some have supported their ex-wife - so go there for a before-dinner drink… even if dining elsewhere.
Martini fan? Hit the Bombay Club (830 Conti Street)…best martinis anywhere. Napoleon House (500 Chartres St) is everything you might think of as a prototypical New Awlins bar…great drinks…great history. The Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel (214 Royal Street) is a carousel… if you can’t get on a stool… you probably shouldn’t be drinking! Finally, the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel (130 Roosevelt Way)… another classy destination.
I have - back in the day - started with lunch at Galatoire’s, then a drink (or two) at Bombay Club… on to Napoleon House and one (or two more), then Carousel… you get the picture… before ending up back a Galatoire’s for dinner.
I first dined in New Awlins at Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street in 1969… and I’ve yet to look at a menu. My waiter since that time - John - still works there. We share a glass of Champagne on “anniversaries”… our 49th is coming up. John tells me what’s freshest… and I’ve never had a meal there that wasn’t perfect.
Other favourite restaurants… Commander’s Palace, Acme Oyster House, Arnaud’s, Doris Metropolitan, Irene’s, Pascal’s Manale, Brennan’s, Bon Ton, among others. You really have to be unlucky to find bad food in New Awlins. Stay away from chain restaurants, of course.
And while in New Awlins, take time to look at the architecture, the wrought-iron, the cemeteries with above-ground crypts, the nearby plantations. As I said… you can’t do it all in one visit. Whether you’ve been there or not… embrace New Awlins… it will return your love ten-fold.
– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.
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