The Cajun Comeback

New Orleans, known for its grit and grandeur, isn’t merely open for business. A red carpet awaits your arrival.

Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans’ landscape and psyche. But it also proved the city’s mettle. Today, there’s little indication of the destruction the hurricane brought to America’s most Parisian city. The Super Dome, which served as sanctuary to the displaced, is more associated with bowl games and big concerts than emergency housing.

But in Jackson Square, where artists line the periphery, there are reminders. Several artists advertise that their frames are made from wood salvaged from Katrina-destroyed buildings. Some also advertise that their art is sized to fit in your carry-on, catering entirely to tourists.

The French Quarter is still as decadent, exuberant, and (wrought) ironclad as ever. Café du Monde still serves strong chicory coffee and sweet beignets to the masses. Pat O’Brien’s still serves Hurricanes. (Get one to go. It’s legal to walk N’awlins streets with your alcoholic beverage.) The legendary Preservation Hall still serves up jazz.

Ace Accommodations

There’s a new Ace (www.acehotel.com/neworleans)—the ultimate boho chic hotel—near the Warehouse district. Suites feature a turntable and an acoustic Martin guitar. Even regular rooms have full-size retro fridges and stocked bars—right down to olives and bitters.

Great food is within easy reach. The Ace’s Josephine Estelle was one of the best new restaurants to open in 2016. The cocktail program is noteworthy; pop in just for a drink and the ambience. Consider sticking around for the John T. Burger—an homage to Southern food writer John T. Edge—with pickled lettuce, mustard, onions, and heavy on the cheese. Alto, the hotel’s lush rooftop garden and bar, is worth a visit.

A few doors down is the buzz-worthy Seaworthy, an unassuming oyster bar housed in an 1832 Creole cottage. Lobster rolls, softshell crab, and frog lets—when was the last time you saw this on a menu?—join the raw oyster lineup.

Should you tire of all the eating and drinking, shopping is a fine NOLA pastime. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” are shopping streets of international renown, butt give me Magazine Street any day. What it lacks in fame, it makes up in local charm. You’ll find high-end boutiques and antiques stores—and the odd pawnshop and vintage clothing store thrown in to keep it real. This is Saint City, after all. High-end and pedestrian cavort like crawfish and etoufee.

Eat—and drink—like royalty

The old stalwarts (Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s) still attract crowds. So does Muriel’s, a Jackson Square staple. Its grand old building dates back to the mid-1700s. You’ll feel like you’re being welcomed into a rich friend’s exquisite home. 

After a dinner (prix fixe or a la carte) of wild mushroom gnocchi sprinkled with Parmesan and crispy prosciutto, the next stop is Muriel’s semi-secret speakeasy. The Séance Lounge used to be a bordello, and there are those who say it’s haunted. (Then again, most of New Orleans is allegedly prime real estate for ghosts.)

Drink in authentic New Orleans with a Sazerac—typically made with Cognac, absinthe, bitters, and sugar. The Louisiana legislature declared it the city’s official cocktail in 2008. You have to love a city with an official mixed drink.

N7, a quirky little place in the Ninth Ward that doesn’t take reservations and isn’t easy to find (even with GPS), was just named to Bon Appetit’s “Top 10 New Restaurants of 2016” list. N7 used to be a tire shop before it became an unpretentious wine bar and French bistro. Those persistent enough to find the refined hole in the wall will be rewarded with twinkling lights, easygoing service, and food that dreams are made of. N7 sort of typifies the city: It’s a mixture of high- and low-brow, gracious and gritty.

The Crescent City has birthed its share of celebrity chefs, such as Emeril Lagasse, whose empire includes four restaurants in New Orleans alone. Meril, his newest creation, is a casual affair featuring some of his favorite recipes.

John Besh is leading a new generation of celebrity chefs in New Orleans. August is his contemporary French concept and Domenica is his Italian restaurant inside The Roosevelt Hotel. He’s a partner in the casual Willa Jean’s—bakery by day, casual resto by night. The shortribs were Southern perfection with shaved Brussels sprouts and edible flowers sprinkled on top. And don’t miss the artichoke dip appetizer, which contains something addictive called “cheese business.”

Local Color

Music is everywhere in New Orleans. An acoustic guitarist was front and center near the food court at the airport. Near the airport’s main entrance, a Dixieland band played for tips. And there’s something to see or hear—rapping, break dancing, or a lone trumpeter—on nearly every street corner in the Quarter.

But even in the birthplace of jazz, visual art is high on the list of attractions. Orange Gallery in the Quarter has a well-edited, happy mix of genres and a delightful, outgoing half-British/half-Dutch owner. Also in the Quarter (with a second location on Magazine Street) is Antieau Gallery, home to folk artist Chris Roberts-Antieau’s whimsical, primitive work. Oprah’s a fan.

I hadn’t gotten my fill of art during the weekend, so I returned to the French Quarter—in a heavy rain—with an hour to spare before I had to be at the Louis Armstrong Airport. I ducked into one Royal Street gallery, where the owner marveled at the force of the downpour. “Oh, well,” she mused. “It’s the best way to get the streets cleaned.”

That’s New Orleans for you: a (shot) glass half-full sort of place.