“The house where I grew up, in rural Arkansas, was built out of 100-year-old materials from a dilapidated building in New Orleans. My mother fell in love with the patina of the brick and the slate roof, so we floated the materials up the Mississippi. I feel a deep connection to the place, and over the years I’ve put on many events – from Versailles- to Wizard of Oz-themed parties -– in the city whose motto is “Laissez les bons temps rouler”: Let the good times roll.
New Orleanians have made the very conscious decision to work to live, and not the other way around. When I’m there for the weekend I might stay with friends or at The Soniat House Hotel in the quiet part of the French Quarter. It has an insanely good breakfast, but it’s only for people who are staying. The biscuits are famous. People have literally rented a room there just to get to them.
I’m a history nerd, so after breakfast I might go to the National WWII Museum. It has these amazing Cajun swamp boats that were built in New Orleans. They were the model for the landing craft used by the Allied armies at Normandy. Then for lunch, it’s po’boys – New Orleanian sandwiches – at Domilise’s in West Riverside. I’ll have the fried oysters and hot sauce. This place, where they serve Coca-Cola in glass bottles, has been run by the same family for four generations. It’s so old-school, it’s fabulous.
After lunch I might stroll down to Magazine Street in the Garden District. It has incredible antiques shops. I bought a 19th-century Italian desk there, and there’s a place called Mac Maison, which has the best selection of French and Italian chandeliers.
Then I’ll go to Scriptura, which sells gorgeous stationery and papers from all over the world. They also have a collection of antique letterpresses, so they will make stationery for you while you wait. A great party invitation is the opening move in a high-stakes game of chess – and the best ones in New Orleans are made here.
After shopping, I’ll wander up Magazine Street to Aidan Gill, a barber shop run by an Irishman, for a straight-edge-razor shave. They do great haircuts, too, and I go there every time I’m in the city. New Orleanians take dress seriously, so for a Saturday night I always wear a jacket and carry a tie. You might get talking to the people at the table next to you and end up being roped into an adventure at the bar at the Windsor Court Hotel, where you’ll be glad you have the tie, or find yourself in a speakeasy in the basement of an old house in Faubourg Marigny.
The evening starts, though, with dinner at Gautreau’s. It is so glamorous and you never know who’s going to be there. You might have the mayor at one table, the New Orleans Voodoo Queen at another and the singer Harry Connick Jr at another if he’s performing at Preservation Hall that night. I’ll have the roasted duck with chocolate mole, followed by the caramelised banana split, and then we’ll go for cocktails at Bar Tonique. It’s a dive – there’s sawdust on the floor – but they make the best cocktails you’ve ever had. I go for the Sazerac: cognac mixed with bitters, a sugar cube and a little Herbsaint. It’s a slow-sipper. Then it’s on to St Augustine church in the Tremé area. They have these incredible Christmas concerts – jazz, gospel, soul music and a holiday feel all happening together.
There’s no crashing a party in New Orleans; it’s just joining the party. Some of my best adventures in the city have started with a “second line”, which is the band that leads a procession to the next stage of an evening. You can be wandering around the French Quarter in December and a second line will come around the corner. Everyone will have their napkin from the previous party, so they can just show up at the next one and dive right in. If you see this happening, do not hesitate to join in.
I’m all about the cocktails, but I’m also all about the day after cocktails, and milk punch is a fabulous hair-of-the-dog drink. On a Sunday morning I like to go to Brennan’s restaurant for a glass of theirs. It takes the edge off before a brunch of turtle soup, eggs Sardou and Bloody Marys at Commander’s Palace.
On Sunday afternoon, I’ll go to a New Orleans Saints American football game with my friend Gayle Benson, who owns the team. They play When The Saints Go Marching In when the team arrives and you’ve never seen anything like what happens in the stadium. The weekend ends with a post-game supper of filé gumbo and rabbit Kottwitz at Brennan’s.
I think people in New Orleans give more thought to the business of living than anywhere else – and it’s such an inclusive place. It always feels like a warm hug.”
Born to Party, Forced to Work: 21st-Century Hospitality by Bronson van Wyck is published by Phaidon (£60).