She may be called The Big Easy, but New Orleans has had a fairly rough ride; since she was founded by the French in 1718, the city has systematically taken beatings in the form of flame, fever and, of course, flood.
So, after the last kicking in August 2005 (when Katrina hit, the levee flood- prevention system failed and the ensuing deluge killed more than 1,800 and left more than 1m homeless amid a political maelstrom), you’d have forgiven the city for coming across a bit maudlin. But not NOLA. Once again, with the energy of the music for which she is famed, New Orleans dusted herself off, poured herself a Sazerac (the city’s official cocktail) and got on with rebuilding her skyline and her spirit.
As well as that strong backbone, it’s the breadth of its multicultural influence on architecture, food and tradition that makes this city so unique, beguiling and unlike other American cities. (In a nutshell, after the French claimed Louisiana as a colony, New Orleans was given to the Spanish in 1763 – until 1803’s Louisiana Purchase, when the Americans took control.)
If you think of New Orleans as America’s answer to Prague (stag nights, hen nights, frat parties), then you’re spot-on. On the other hand, it has been this way since the 1870s – a place for tourists and locals to gamble, visit a brothel, listen to music and, during the days of Prohibition, get a drink. Today, NOLA continues to eat, imbibe and be merry with varying degrees of sophistication. The Creole core of the city still exists on Bourbon Street – just in version 2.0: a sometimes unsavoury zone of bars selling beer and bosoms and blasting dance music 24/7. Sensibly, the jazz has moved on; the bars of Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny, including the famous Spotted Cat, pulsate with blues, jazz and funky beats. If you want more traditional New Orleans jazz, there is Preservation Hall or Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse.
Thankfully, stag-night tourists stick to their patch, which is precisely eight blocks of Bourbon Street. There’s no reason to go there unless you’re heading to the leopard‑spotted and tiger-striped interior of Arnaud’s bar for a French 75 (a heady mix of Courvoisier, lemon juice, sugar syrup and champagne). Or to Galatoire’s restaurant, which was founded in 1905 and continues to draw in the fancy locals and in-the-know out‑of-towners, who go for long Friday lunches that turn into socking-great parties. (No Big Apple‑style work ethic in these parts.) The mirrored walls make for excellent people watching (you have to wear a jacket but they have a stash for men who turn up without one) and the best place to be seated is the ground floor where the action is. They don’t take reservations on this floor, so unless you like a queue (snaking all the way down the street), go early or go late.
Unlike reeking Bourbon Street, the rest of The Quarter, as it’s known, smells divine – a combination of jasmine and orange blossom climbing the walls and trellises of Creole houses in the oldest and most elevated part of the city. It remains largely residential, with properties advertised – without irony – as “haunted” or “not haunted”. It’s best to discover The Quarter on foot, stopping for beignets (sugary fried doughnuts) and café au lait at Café du Monde; browsing the antiques shops on Royal Street, where you can pick up autographed memorabilia or Chanel costume jewellery; or visiting Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley, where William Faulkner lived and worked in 1925.
Round the corner from Pirate’s Alley, and next door to the cathedral on Jackson Square (with its pretty garden filled with mime and street artists), it’s utterly worth slipping into the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibition at The Presbytère. It’s packed with first-hand accounts, videos, recordings and newspaper clippings that explain the events and their ramifications (including why everyone now keeps an axe in their attic – to hack their way out should the floods come again). Understanding the devastation also helps shed light on the genuine friendliness of the city’s people. In “N’Awlins” they look out for each other because they’ve had to: if they hadn’t given someone a lift to escape during those ill-fated days, that person might have died.
These days, the town’s food scene is without doubt its most thriving one; local food writer Tom Fitzmorris claims the past 10 years have seen a 70 per cent increase in the number of restaurants. For a healthy breakfast in a shady garden, the go-to place is Satsuma in the Bywater District. After homemade granola and a Popeye juice (spinach, kale, lemon and apple), take a stroll round the corner to where architect David Adjaye’s Piety Street Arch sits starkly against the skyline. Inaugurated only this year, the rusty steel bridge over railroad tracks delivers spectacular views of the Mississippi and back to the city.
There’s impressive change, too, in the Warehouse District, where developers scrabble to convert spaces into smart condos, while Hollywood studios build sound stages for the burgeoning film industry as canny producers take advantage of tax breaks. New galleries are sprouting up on Julia Street, exhibiting local and global artists. A stroll away you’ll find succulent pork dishes at Cajun-inspired Cochon, while next door at Cochon Butcher’s “swine bar and deli”, you can enjoy an equally greedy Muffaletta sandwich, sitting on stools at tall tables with a view of the butcher working on cuts destined for charcuterie. Bookings are crucial at buzzy Pêche, which serves superb Creole-style seafood gumbo, local fish and hushpuppies (fried cornmeal croquettes, the recipe for which is thought to have been devised by French Ursuline nuns who settled in New Orleans in the 18th century).
A streetcar ride up St Charles Avenue, with its pretty Greek Revival houses and Victorian mansions, takes you to the city’s best shopping, on Magazine Street. Ann Koerner is a must-stop for antiques, and Lili Vintage for the occasional lucky Halston find. A coconut and basil ice cream at Sucré relieves the mid‑shopping sugar-low or, more indulgent still, the wicked bread-pudding soufflé with whiskey sauce at Commander’s Palace, a colonial-style NOLA institution with its unmissable blue and white awnings.
A restaurant you’d never stumble across is Gautreau’s, bang in the middle of a residential street in the Garden District, with nary a hint of what lies beyond the door. Chef Sue Zemanick cooks up a contemporary mix of American, French and New Orleans flavours (the crispy sweetbreads with crawfish tails and spicy beurre blanc are remarkable), for which she won the 2014 James Beard Best Chef South award. She is also executive chef at Gautreau’s little sister, Ivy, on Magazine Street – the place for a glass of wine and small plates, including snow-crab claws and excellent tuna crudo. (Remember to take a sweater – the hotter a US city, the colder the air-con.)
Despite the endless imbibing and dining options, New Orleans is thin on great hotels – surprising, considering the city had over 9m visitors in 2013. Although bursting with history, The Roosevelt (a Waldorf-Astoria hotel that once housed the circa 1910 creation The Cave, a stalagmite- and nymph‑ festooned subterranean supper club, believed to be the US’s first nightclub) and Windsor Court Hotel (inspired by Windsor Castle) are fine-ish, but they have a vague name-badge/convention feel. The somewhat more atmospheric Hotel Monteleone stands out for its 1949 revolving Carousel Bar, name-checked by Tennessee Williams in The Rose Tattoo and Orpheus Descending.
However, there does exist a tiny, perfect gem in the French Quarter. Called Soniat House and owned by antiques dealer Rodney Smith and his wife Frances, it is made up of three townhouses that straddle Chartres Street, with bedrooms surrounding palm- and banana-tree-filled courtyards. The aesthetic is faded grandeur with pretty antiques, four‑poster beds and haphazard piles of hardback books, while the ambience is less hotel and more like staying with friends, with a set breakfast of buttermilk biscuits (much like savoury scones) and strawberry jam delivered on a silver tray. The best rooms are the four suites on the first floor, with balconies from which to watch this unique world go by.
Although she’s been consistently tested, New Orleans is clearly made of stern stuff. The city continues to flourish from its main industries (oil, the port and tourism) and its future looks promising, thanks to a nascent entrepreneurial bent that spans film, technology and medicine (the $1bn University Medical Center is set to open in 2015). The lack of standout, sophisticated hotels in this culturally diverse, bewitchingly playful place is merely a blip on the horizon. Surely it’s only a matter of time before Soho House turns up to convert a lofty warehouse – because right now, The Big Easy feels ripe for the picking.