Noble laureate Bob Dylan once wrote of Louisiana’s largest city, “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.” He penned those words in his 2004 autobiography, “Chronicles, Volume One,” in a chapter about his time spent in the Big Easy. I hadn’t visited New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was time to return, not only to see how well the city had recovered after the deluge but to experience what was new.
The driver of my ride service from the airport, a native of the area, told me that I probably wouldn’t notice any difference now. He said the only places the hurricane’s after-effects are still noticeable are in neighborhoods where visitors don’t go, places that people left under dire circumstances and, for whatever reason, never returned.
I checked into one of the city’s newest hotels, the Moxy, in the central business district, or CBD, as locals call it. This Marriott property caters to millennials (I’m not one, but the rates were reasonable and the location convenient). Walking into the lobby felt more like walking into a trendy pub. The front desk of the hotel is literally the bar of a pub. I stood in the doorway at a loss until the bartender called me over to check in. After checking me in, she asked if I’d like a drink. It was hard to turn her down when she said that the house cocktail — a rum-infused version of cherry limeade called “Got Moxy,” was included with every check in.
That’s New Orleans for you. This is a place where bars have no last call because they never close. That 24-7 way of life extends to coffee establishments as well. For café au lait and beignets, Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter and Morning Call in City Park are longtime standards. An air of tradition permeates each business; both coffee stands have been in business longer than anyone reading this has been alive.
The only areas of the city I had spent time in on previous trips were the French Quarter and the Canal Street corridor. These are major tourist zones. The French Quarter includes Bourbon Street. There would be no Bourbon Street for me this time around. I wasn’t in search of sugary alcoholic drinks served in giant souvenir to-go cups.
I wanted to explore other streets in the Quarter and beyond. Doing it by bicycle seemed like a good way to go. New Orleans is a lot more bike-friendly now than it once was, with dedicated bike lanes along certain major streets, and shared lanes in many neighborhoods.
Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours provides guided tours throughout the city, or you can rent a bike for self-guided adventures. I opted for the three-hour guided tour. Ten minutes in we hit Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny. Our guide made a point of stopping the tour here to congratulate us for doing something that most visitors to New Orleans never do: leave the French Quarter.
Lined with bars and live music venues, Frenchmen Street serves as a less-touristy antidote to Bourbon Street. The bike tour also took us through the Bywater, Bayou St. John and Treme neighborhoods, as well as explorations inside the enormous City Park with its 800-year-old trees and the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, one of many famous above-ground cemeteries in the city, the most famous being Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.
Free Wheelin’ offers customized and cuisine-themed bike tours, as well, but I chose to do my culinary tour sans bicycle.
This is the home of creole food, po’ boys and muffaletta sandwiches. No trip to Nola is complete without indulging in these classics. The Napoleon House in the French Quarter, housed in a circa-1812 building, remains one of the best spots for sampling these dishes. I also wanted to discover newer, not-so-traditional restaurants. Some standouts I found were Shaya, Compere Lapin and Meril.
Shaya, helmed by James Beard award-winning chef Alon Shaya, serves modern Israeli cuisine complemented by pita bread made in-house in a wood-fired brick oven. Compere Lapin, off the lobby of the Old No. 77 Hotel, features a fresh fusion take on French, Caribbean and New Orleans styles courtesy of Saint Lucia native Chef Nina Compton. In the Warehouse District, Meril is Emeril Lagasse’s latest New Orleans eatery dishing out affordable gourmet Southern comfort food on plates meant for sharing.
A tour of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in its new location inside the former Dryades Street Market building made a nice coda to my culinary excursions. The museum is dedicated to preserving and celebrating all things Southern concerning food and drink. It features a state-by-state gallery spotlighting each state’s major contributions to the culinary world. It also houses the Museum of the American Cocktail showcasing New Orleans’ special place in the history of mixed drinks.
New Orleans has a special place in history, period. Steeped in the influence of many cultures since its founding in 1718, its long, eclectic past can still be seen and felt today. It’s a city of magic and loss. Time has only served to enhance that magical spirit, and hurricanes and floods haven’t been able to kill it.
“The devil comes here and sighs,” Bob Dylan also wrote of New Orleans in “Chronicles.” An apropos comment for a city where the torrents of nature and the flags of many nations have made their lasting marks. Swampland doesn’t normally make a good location to found a city, yet this one at a crescent bend along the Mississippi River has thrived for centuries.
If You Go
Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours. Guided tours start at $40. 325 Burgundy St., New Orleans. 504-522-4368; www.neworleansbiketour.com.
Southern Food and Beverage Museum and The Museum of the American Cocktail. Admission: $10.50. 1504 Oretha C. Haley Blvd., New Orleans. 504-569-0405; natfab.org/southern-food-and-beverage.
Shaya. Sharing plates start at $15, entrees at $12. Recommended dish: Lamb ragu with crispy chickpeas ($14). 4213 Magazine Street, New Orleans. 504-891-4213; shayarestaurant.com.
Compère Lapin. Main courses start at $15. Recommended entree: Curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi ($27). 535 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans. 504-599-2119; comperelapin.com.
Meril. Main dishes start at $10. Recommended snack: Crispy turkey necks ($8). 424 Girod St., New Orleans. 504-526-3745; emerilsrestaurants.com/meril.
Moxy New Orleans. Rates start at $139. Located in the Central Business District (CBD) but within easy walking distance of the French Quarter. 210 O’Keefe Ave., New Orleans. 504-525-6800; moxy-hotels.marriott.com.
The Roosevelt. Classic and iconic New Orleans hotel just off Canal Street. Now a Waldorf Astoria property. Rates start at $228. 130 Roosevelt Way, New Orleans. 504-648-1200; www.therooseveltneworleans.com.
New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2020 Saint Charles Ave., New Orleans. 800-672-6124; www.neworleanscvb.com.