Well known for its large scale events like Mardi Gras, the Essence Festival and New Orleans JazzFest, NOLA’s reputation as “The Big Easy” makes more sense when you visit without the long lines, huge crowds and constant traffic jams that come with its largest happenings.
NOLA Highlights (TL:DR)
Malinda and I landed at 8pm and were checked in by 8:30, after an uneventful twenty-minute drive from the airport. The Jung Hotel was a pleasant surprise. You’ll find the main entrance around the corner on Lasalle Street. It’s closer to the front desk and elevators– and if you arrive at night you won’t have a choice. Relatively new, the well-designed Jung has a minimal, modern aesthetic. Sparse, mostly grey and white walls, floor and furnishings are warmed by vibrant abstract paintings with live orchids dotting the reception area and lobby.
Opened in January 2018, the Jung Hotel is in the Central Business District on Canal Street just outside the French Quarter. It’s situated within easy walking distance to the Quarter, Aquarium / Riverwalk, Convention Center and the Superdome.
Interestingly, to the left of the main desk the was a sign directing “Sonder Guests” to the second floor to check in. I inquired and was informed that there was a separate Airbnb run on certain floors of the hotel. If you’re thinking of staying at the Jung– and we’d recommend it– check your usual sites (Expedia, TripAdvisor, etc.) as well as Sonder.com to get the best rate for your stay. It turns out they’re the largest vacation rental holder in New Orleans and has properties around the country. A quick search (after we’d checked in) yielded slightly lower nightly rates than ours. Staying with Sonder does come with caveats. You can read more about it here.
Our room was spacious and well-appointed with pillows and throws adding more warmth to the same color palette and materials used in the lobby. The comfy king bed faced an ample desk. Around opposing corners there was a kitchen (mini refrigerator, stove and dishwasher) to one and a full-size washer and dryer (with detergent). Don’t underestimate the convenience of a quick load of laundry on vacation. A second desk faced the window next to a cozy club chair and ottoman. There was no view to speak of on our 7th floor room, but we weren’t in it for the views.
After a quick refresh, my brother and sister-in-law picked us up for a bite and some sounds on Frenchmen Street– New Orleans’ music mecca in the nearby Marigny district. Snug Harbor had been recommended to us as a venue that featured both good music and food.
A five minute drive later– amidst scarce space– we were guided to the perfect parking spot by our ever-present parking fairy. Our imaginary helper deposited us just around the corner from Snug Harbor and directly across the street from Blue Dream vintage boutique. An unexpected find, the shop was closed, but its character was unmistakable– kitschy, eclectic and fun. The decor, clothing and design blended perfectly with the street art outside the building. We’d definitely be back during business hours which the door announced were “12pm-8pm every damn day except in inclement weather”
The sounds of Frenchmen greeted us before we turned the corner. This Thursday night it was alive with music and revelry. A group of young bucket drummers punctuated each pedestrian’s arrival with equal zeal. It was an instant energy boost. The street was dotted liberally with tourists, locals, street performers and vendors, but was easily passable. Judging by the jerseys and other paraphernalia, the crowd size was nearly doubled by eager Philadelphia Eagles fans– like my brother and me– in town for the game versus the New Orleans Saints. We passed two small, open-air street markets packed with artwork, curios and assorted memorabilia from local artists, collectors and entrepreneurs. The markets are definitely worth a meander, but on an unusually chilly New Orleans night– with hunger in our bellies– we didn’t linger.
Nabbing a table for four at Snug Harbor was a breeze– no reservation, no wait, no fuss. The compact venue includes a dining room, bar area and a performance lounge toward the back– with each section accommodating about thirty persons comfortably. We arrived at 9:30pm and were given the option of a $25 per person cover charge to see the band from the lounge (drinks only) or a free table for four in the dining room. Opting for dinner– we were assured that our foursome could hear the music clearly when it started at 10pm.
As we were seated, the hostess announced that they were “unfortunately out of gumbo”. It must be the standout, since our entrees of creole standards (blackened fish, shrimp, etc.) were unremarkable. We skipped dessert and the option to check out the quartet first-hand; instead ambling down Frenchmen St. ogling the myriad music-oriented venues and tipsy bar hoppers. It was a slow, stimulating, satisfied march back to the car with our bellies full and our internal batteries low. For us, travel days usually don’t end in long nights.
To get us in the Southern mood, we ate breakfast at the The Ruby Slipper— a renowned and much-recommended NOLA staple. The Canal Street location (there are four) was a five-minute walk from our hotel. Early birds that we are, we avoided the morning rush. You should too. By the time we wrapped up our meal at 9:30, there was at least a forty-five minute wait. The reasonably priced menu is standard southern and somewhat super-sized; with fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy and fried catfish all making an appearance. I was intrigued, but Malinda wisely suggested that we save our shrimp and grits experience for later in the trip.
Bacon lovers will appreciate the Pig Candy Bacon, Bacon Burger and Bacon Praline Pancakes. There are also healthy options and interesting flairs like Shrimp Boogaloo Benedict and a shrimp-laden grilled fish St. Peter that make the most of the bounty of the bayou. You’ll have to try them on your own.
Not wanting to experiment with breakfast, we both opted for grits and eggs– mine with sautéed spinach and Malinda’s with potatoes. It didn’t disappoint. A good breakfast rarely does. Although the cheese on my grits seemed a hastily added afterthought (placed on top and unmelted), they were rich and buttery enough to forgive the presentation. The accompanying biscuit was larger than my fist– served with ample butter and jam to mount a valiant attempt to finish it. Neither of us was victorious.
On the way back to the hotel we spotted a row of rental bikes. The Crescent City is pretty flat and it felt like the perfect way to burn off those breakfast biscuits. After a quick change– we were back at the Blue Bikes for a sightseeing tour. A simple app download and we were our way. Allegedly. Twenty frustrating minutes later Malinda and I had both made unsuccessful attempts to download the correct software and get going with New Orleans’ Blue Bikes. Owing to confusing messaging and unclear mobile app naming, we were willing– but unable– to rent the bikes. Having abandoned the two-wheeled wonder tour; we decided to walk through the French Quarter on our way to check out Blue Dream during business hours.
Out and About in New OrleansBourbon Street at night isn’t on our agenda this trip, so the early afternoon seemed like the perfect time to stroll down Nola’s most infamous and lecherous locale. On cue, the Hustler lingerie shop appeared nearly as soon as we turned off of Canal Street. We might have waited to explore the shop had we realized that there we two more Hustler stores within 300 yards and several local lingerie boutiques in the general vicinity. Instead, we seized the moment and popped in to see if anything tickled our collective fancy. Something did. Thirty flirty minutes later we were back on our way with a little something extra in our bag and our steps.
Malinda and I realized the Blue Bike fiasco was a blessing in disguise as we meandered around the Quarter sightseeing and window shopping. Boutiques beckoned at every corner and navigating the crowds, cobblestone streets and sidewalks with bicycles would’ve been inconvenient and irritating.
Biking is a great idea for sightseeing trips around New Orleans’ different districts, but not if you’re just exploring the French Quarter.
The walk from Bourbon to Frenchmen street and back took a few hours with plenty of diversions sprinkled along the way. Malinda found a mod pair of retro sunglasses in UAL–– a funky little resale shop with a nice selection of women’s wear, shoes and accessories. The smallish men’s area yielded no stellar finds for me. We explored art galleries, vintage jewelry and furniture shops, millineries and haberdasheries– even a yarn store. Malinda recently added knitting to her repertoire– having decided to create yoga socks for the Williams family’s newly opened Yoga Studio. By the time we made it back to Blue Dream, the two of us had been duly impressed by it all– especially a fearless and flawless juggler performing on a free-standing, ten foot tall ladder and the charming Ronald Major with his canine companion Coco.
Malinda caught Ronald’s eye and he’d insisted on impromptu performance with her as his muse. Be sure to check out the video and please support local artisans, street artists, performers and retailers when the opportunity arises. They are part of what make every city unique– especially New Orleans.
Frenchmen street was much less frenetic in the daytime. Many of the music venues don’t get going until later. The sun was just starting its descent and we were happy to finally reach Blue Dream. New Orleans evenings were colder than we’d expected and Malinda was in search if a sweater or cover up. The well-curated vintage clothing selection was small, diverse and reasonably priced. She didn’t purchase anything, but we left with a list of a several other vintage shops around the city. The helpful cashier explained that New Orleans isn’t big on vintage because the climate and frequent flooding often ruins old clothes. We thanked her and headed back to the Quarter– our pace quickened by the chill in the air.
Without a major convention or festival, and the corresponding immense crowds, it was easier to navigate and appreciate the quarter’s distinct, brightly colored architecture and historical charm. The setting sun tinted the scenery as we made our way back through the streets to meet Hassan and Kesha at the iconic Cafe du Monde. Neither of them had ever been to NOLA, and my brother had never even heard of a beignet.
The cafe is straightforward yet charming and often crowded. We arrived first and picked an indoor table. At peak times the tables and floor can look like a powdered sugar factory exploded– but no one is complaining. Do visit and have a beignet. Some may say it’s cliche, but it’s famous for a reason. That fried dough is damned good!
If you’ve never had one, it’s like a funnel cake pillow. If you’ve never had a funnel cake– our condolences to your taste buds. Naively, we thought one order would hold both of us over while we waited. HA! Without dinner reservations– and a modicum of self-restraint– we might have even had thirds.
T.I.L. Travel Tip: If you plan on going to Cafe Du Monde for beignets — don’t wear white
The walk back to the Jung hotel from Cafe du Monde took fifteen minutes. It was about 6:30pm and the streets of the Quarter were starting to crowd with revellers– many of whom clearly couldn’t hold their liquor. Street performers, construction detours and even a SECOND LINE made the walk more circuitous and halting than it might have been. The second line was a treat. This one capped off a wedding. Behind a police escort, the bride and groom led approximately twenty jubilant, well-dressed guests on a dancing trek through the French Quarter. Beignets and a Second line sighting– what a very New Orleans way to end our first full day.
The Road to SaffronSaffron is a recently opened Indian Creole fusion restaurant located on the far end of Magazine Street. Reviews recommended it as an interesting and tasty new addition to the Garden District restaurant scene. On the short drive from the hotel Chris P., our knowledgeable and effusive Uber driver, regaled us with restaurant reviews, celebrity sightings and local lore from his adopted city. He explained that the ubiquitous “shotgun homes” were often made from the barges that had borne all manner of material down the Mississippi. Absent the needed motor to send them back upriver, they were disassembled and used as cheap building materials for the city’s residents. Chris’ vivid descriptions and unconventional tidbits whet our appetite for a return visit to the Garden District. His insistence that we try Peche, one of New Orleans’ best restaurants, warranted a reservation for Saturday night.
We arrived at the restaurant slightly ahead of our 9:30pm reservation. Lit for maximum ambiance, the elegant wood-paneled dining room and bar were comfortably packed with a diverse, attractive group of Friday night diners. A brief wait by the bar afforded us a bird’s eye view of several dishes as they were served to the tables nearest us. Amid a parade of delicious looking and smelling entrees, the gumbo grabbed our attention.
There are two things every New Orleanian (man) owns– a tuxedo and a costume – Chris P., our Uber driver–
Curried Seafood Gumbo to be specific. Ask for it. Once tableside, the thick, aromatic stew starring bite-sized bits of crab and shrimp is poured into bowl over a small, but ample, dollop of basmati rice. We both loved it enough for each of us to grudgingly offer the other the last bite. I did not protest.
The Tamarind Shrimp– Malinda’s other favorite dish– consisted of several jumbo shrimp doused with a sweet, dark, spicy tamarind black pepper sauce that she is certain would’ve made great shrimp and grits. Agreed. Likewise, I was more than happy with the crispy, perfectly seasoned Bombay Shrimp and the Crabmeat Pudha (crab-infused lentil pancakes). Tasty garlic Naan and the 24-Carat salad rounded out our meal. We were stuffed by the time the salad arrived and took it ToGo. There are also familiar staples of Indian cuisine like chicken biryani, daal and various paneers. The vindaloo and masala entrees forgo the usual lamb and chicken in favor of pork and goat– respectively. Saffron is a culinary beacon on one of Magazine Street’s sleepier stretches. Make a reservation, this newcomer isn’t exactly a secret.
Exploring the French Quarter
Determined to get some exercise and see the French Quarter in the deserted early morning hours, I’d gone for a quick run along the Mississippi River. Malinda wisely opted for a leisurely breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I was famished by the time I had showered and we took a brisk walk into the Quarter in search of sustenance. It was early afternoon, and although the occasionally strong smell of bleach was unfortunate, it was undeniably better than the lingering remnants of Friday night.
We detoured for a moment at the wonderful Sutton Gallery— drawn in by the beautifully vivid landscape paintings in the window. They were created with gobs of acrylic paint that rose in small, stiff peaks and added physical dimension to the brightly hued trees, fields and sky that dominated the paintings. There were two floors of mostly artwork, and some sculptures– a couple made more impressive by the inclusion of precious crystals.
On the second floor we happened upon a square, metal chandelier made with large shards of Selenite that hung just above the entryway. The effect of it was immediate and undeniable. When I stood under it I could feel an effect similar to when your ears get clogged during a plane’s takeoff and landing.
My personal energy meter ran out shortly after we left the gallery. By happenstance we were standing in front of a restaurant called Sylvain’s. Too hungry to search for reviews– a cursory look at the menu confirmed it was as good a place to eat as any. In fact, it was better.
Unfortunately, neither of us ordered entrees from what seemed to be a pretty tasty selection. I went for the familiar and cobbled together a comfort food classic of grits, eggs and biscuits from the side-order menu. The grits were my favorite– ever. As Malinda can attest– I prefer my breakfast porridges (oatmeal, grits, etc.) pretty thick. Finding grits prepared to my exact liking in a restaurant is hit or miss. Sylvain’s rich, creamy, perfectly seasoned, stone-ground grits hit the exact right spot. I couldn’t resist asking our server for their secret. “Heavy cream and a ton of butter,” she confided. It was the first time I’d ever had grits made with heavy cream. It won’t be the last. The eggs were fluffy and the (regular-sized) biscuit was exactly what I needed.
Malinda wasn’t as hungry as I, and ordered only fries. Hot, golden and delicious– they were served in a bowl large enough for both of us to have our fill. I finally googled the restaurant after we’d eaten. Based on the reviews, it turns out that there is plenty to recommend besides the grits. Sadly, we had neither the time–nor space in our stomachs– to taste more.
Refueled and ready for more sights and sounds of the Quarter; we meandered about, slipping in and out of whichever shops caught our eye. We couldn’t resist the Crescent City Mask Company and had fun donning the ornate, handmade masks. I left with a one-eyed, steampunk version that reminded me of the menacing Borg from Star Trek (resistance is futile).
Shortly thereafter, we were drawn to the Hemmerling Gallery. We could see from the street that it featured primarily black art and purchased a couple of prints by Kalle’ Siekkinen. As we rejoined the sparse afternoon crowd, a black T-shirt caught my eye. “Black Love Matters” was emblazoned on the front and the owner had a firm grip on his wife’s hand as they walked through the Quarter. The couple was picture perfect, and obliged when asked if I could snap a flick. We had a great convo with them and ended up taking a group selfie after they recognized Malinda from one of their favorite movies. By then it was late afternoon and we went to check out some of the scenery that Chris had raved about the night before.
The Garden DistrictThe Garden District is well worth venturing beyond New Orleans’ more storied highlights. You’re rewarded with a feast for the eyes featuring a dense, lush neighborhood adorned with vibrant Azaleas, stately mansions and small– but significant– shotgun homes. Contrasting housing styles commingle in this affluent section of NOLA, as does the past and the present. Ancient, towering oak trees bear silent witness to it all, while draped in moss that hangs like memories.
For your other senses, there’s bustling Magazine Street– a long, scenic thoroughfare well-populated with bars, restaurants, antique stores, flower shops and more. We ended up on the far end of Magazine, drawn almost magnetically to the area around Saffron. This end of the street isn’t the most buzzing, but there are a few vintage shops, a couple of places to eat and even a vinyl record store nearby. Had we known better, we would have chosen a livelier stretch. Fortunately, Malinda found a great cover up in a little vintage shop. Between that and the scenery– the excursion was a success and we happily made our way to dinner.
Well known and well regarded, Peche is a seafood standout in the Central Business District. A few years ago its head chef, Ryan Prewitt, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South and Peche was named Best New Restaurant in America. That’s the restaurant industry equivalent of winning the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture in the same year.
Kesha and Hassan joined us this time. Malinda and I had raved so much about the food at Saffron– an intended double date– that they weren’t likely to miss this meal. It was nearly packed when we arrived for our 5:30pm reservation, but we were seated quickly.
As we examined the menu, I noticed a large U-shaped entree arrive at the table adjacent to ours. Our server identified it as Tuna Collar that was off-menu but still available. She said it was delicious and offered to reserve us one of the few that were left. Please do! We’d never had it, but it seemed like a tasty adventure for two. It was delectable– and I don’t use that term lightly. —Talk about Wicked Tuna! The collar was smothered in an olive oil, cilantro, basil, citrus rub (I’m guessing– it wasn’t listed on the menu). The flavor and texture of the rub accented the juicy, tender, flaky flesh so well that I can nearly taste it now. It was the highlight of a meal that was full of excellent options.
Peche: Ask if there are any additional off-menu specials for the evening. Your taste buds could be in for a treat
We started with smoked tuna dip, shrimp toast and crab with pickled chilies. All three were very tasty with the shrimp toast easily outdoing any I’ve ever eaten. Once the fog of the first few bites lifted, we all looked up, spoke up and offered to share. Hassan was completely contented with his whole grilled fish and Kesha enjoyed the gumbo and fried brussels sprouts. Our only disappointment was the overly dry hush puppies, though If you’re in the mood for carbs, Malinda has two words for you: “Fried! Bread!” Order it. Enjoy it. You’re Welcome.
Speaking of gratitude; ours goes out to the pastry chef at Peche. We were seated right next to the dessert staging area and we watched enormous servings of decadent and delicious looking pastries float past our eyes the entire evening. We picked three and shared. Key Lime Pie, Salted Caramel Cake, and Vanilla Crepe Cake.
Our foursome emerged from the restaurant to our second Second Line, in as many days. We resisted the urge to join this one with its oversized, merry clowns prancing down the street, frustrating drivers of all stripes. It was only about 8:30pm and the night was still young. Or so we thought. Rather than head to the hotel to freshen up, we succumbed to the allure of sleep and called it an early night. After all, the Eagles v Saints game was the next day and we’d be up late celebrating a win.
We had a late, lazy Sunday breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Nothing good or bad to report. The experience was somewhat dampened by the lack of coffee available due to a boil water advisory. We later found out that it happens a few times a month. Luckily, Malinda keeps a couple of instant coffee crystal packets handy when we’re traveling. If coffee is your lifeblood in the morning– you should consider doing the same.
While she went back to the room to do yoga, I headed up Canal Street to check out STNDRD, one of Nola’s premier sneaker shops. I didn’t find anything, but ended up having an impromptu photo shoot in the dressing room of LIVE, a nearby men’s clothier. When I got back it was nearly game time. Hassan and I walked to the Superdome from the hotel. Having opted out of the game– Malinda and Kesha drove back the Garden District to take a more leisurely look at the architecture and atmosphere.
By halftime the score was 38-7 and there was little hope that the Eagles would rally. In true New Orleans fashion, music was the one saving grace to such a humiliating loss. Each time the Saints scored, they blasted HalfTime by the Ying Yang Twins and it seemed like the whole stadium sang the lyrics in unison. I hadn’t heard it before, but couldn’t resist dancing along to its infectious groove. I wasn’t looking forward to the Saints scoring early and often– but that song sure made it feel better. And it made sense.
Music is an integral part of New Orleans. Diverse melodies and rhythms are created and consumed like oxygen and carbon dioxide. And the Crescent City does not discriminate with its gifts. Food, architecture, history and hospitality all conspire to make New Orleans worth visiting time and again. Though it swells and sparkles to accentuate some of the country’s most fun and fabulous, festivals– NOLA really shines when you have the time and space to see it unadorned and rested with time to explore.