When Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans in her own canal waters, it seemed possible that one of America's most unique destinations, a city largely built on tourism, might never entertain visitors again. Yet almost 10 years later, New Orleans is growing at an unabated clip. The new New Orleans is dotted with fresh restaurants, bars, and shops, and is a magnet for entrepreneurship and the film industry.
How locals feel about this situation is complex. New Orleans has rebuilt, but it has also irrevocably changed. Many of its citizens permanently relocated after the storm (and some 1400 perished during it), and those who remain have mixed feelings about the people and businesses that supplanted their neighbors, and the accompanying rising cost of living. Others point out the city is safer and more economically vibrant, and that the change that has occurred was happening in the city before the storm.
With that said, New Orleans is a city that loves to show visitors its utterly unique soul. And the way fantastic new establishments now exist side by side with old-school New Orleans iconic sights makes this a prime time to visit the Crescent City.
The original locavores
Farm-to-table and eating local are ubiquitous dining concepts these days, but here, they're just how people eat. New Orleans' food culture has always sourced locally as a matter of pride and necessity. At the same time, this melting pot city isn't afraid to add new ingredients to its highly developed palette.
Restaurants like Cochon reference the oldest traditions of Cajun cookery, but overlay an international sensibility. The end result is not watered-down nativism or clunky fusion; nope, that oyster and bacon sandwich is glorious any way you consume it.
Cochon is a restaurant of the Cajun prairie, while New Orleans is a town connected to the sea. Hence the presence of excellent seafood places like Peche, which won Best New Restaurant in America from the James Beard Foundation in 2014. On top of that, Peche chef Ryan Prewitt tied for Best Chef: South with another New Orleanian Sue Zemanick, who serves upscale Southern cuisine at Gautreau's and Ivy.
New Orleans is built on immigration as well as tradition. Ba Chi Canteen, in the student-centric Carrollton neighborhood, is one of the newest haute Vietnamese restaurants in a city with an enormous Vietnamese-American population. Ba Chi's kitchen is playing with all kinds of delicious fusion, serving up Korean short ribs on ‘bacos' (rice flour tacos). In artsy Bywater, Pizza Delicious serves up New York-style thin crust pie topped with the produce and meat of local Southern farms.
Craft cocktails are to bars what farm-to-table is to gastronomy, and again, New Orleans can claim, 'We did it first.' And frankly, best. Bartenders have been serving cocktails here since the 19th century, and many modern recipes owe their origins to New Orleans mixologists.
New bars like Twelve Mile Limit are figuring out new ways to spin classic cocktails, using locally produced products like Old New Orleans Rum and Huhu's Ginger Brew. Tonique, in the French Quarter, is a bartender's bar that serves a classic Sazerac – rye whiskey, bitters and an absinthe rinse, oh my – that is the Platonic Ideal of the drink.
New Orleans has long boasted superlative neighborhood bars, which are often passed up by visitors who get sucked into the neon lights (and neon-colored drinks) of Bourbon St. If you're in the French Quarter, opt for beer and banter with the locals rubbing elbows in bars like Cosimo's or Molly's At The Market.
NOLA’s artful edge
New Orleanians have an abiding love of live performance, theater, costuming and public celebration. Mardi Gras is the obvious example, but in truth, there's a big street party almost every week of the year.
Want to get under the city's skin? 'Second lines' are community parades put on by community organizations based out of African American neighborhoods. Every weekend (barring June through August when it's too hot), second lines and their associated brass bands march through the city. They can be tough to find, but radio station WWOZ keeps good tabs on their whereabouts.
Other forms of performance abound. St Claude Avenue currently represents the creeping edge of gentrification, and has the edgy acts to prove it. The AllWays Lounge regularly features a range of acts too eclectic to pigeonhole: wry cabaret may give way to Japanese experimental musicians, followed by a '50s R&B dance party. Across the street, gypsy jazz, punk rock and bounce, New Orleans' own hyper frenetic dance music, takes the stage at Siberia.
For all that, there is no live performance in New Orleans that matches the pageantry of Mardi Gras day. In smart uptown New Orleans – the Garden District, Audubon and surrounds – grand parades packed with the city's elite toss beads to crowds from enormous floats. Meanwhile, in the 'down river' neighborhoods – the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, and the Bywater – a bohemian crowd dresses in outrageous, sometimes stupendously elaborate costumes, seizing the streets for a day of drinking and debauchery. Taken together, these two elements of New Orleans speak of a city that always is, and always will be, in love with the spirit of celebration.