An unexpected layover in New Orleans. Just because I live here doesn’t mean I can’t be a tourist…
6:30 a.m.—Louis Armstrong International Airport
“It’s because you’re flying tomorrow,” said the ticket agent, who was making it clear what I already knew: that this whole situation was my fault. I’d spent a month making my travel plans, and now the first leg of it was falling apart because I couldn’t read a calendar accurately. Somehow I’d made all the necessary preparations for Thursday travel except for one: I’d booked my flight for Friday.
“I see,” I said, which is what I usually say when someone holds up a mirror to my own stupidity. “Is there anything we can do?”
There is a strategy a friend of mine introduced me to for situations like this. It’s called the Polite Brontosaurus, and it’s a great way to deal with bureaucratic red tape. Keep repeating what you would like to see happen and be as polite and cheerful as you can be, but don’t move. Essentially, you are impossible to ignore, but never threatening: a gigantic, friendly plant-eater who doesn’t really feel like being anywhere else. It forces people to deal with you, but generally doesn’t make them dislike you or give them an excuse to have you thrown out by large men in uniform. It’s surprisingly effective.
But frankly, when I know I’ve made a gigantic mistake, I have a hard time asking someone else to correct it. The truth was I hadn’t paid attention to my booking, or to my reminders that the airline sent, and now I found myself here. So when the ticket agent informed me that the only thing I could do would be to pay the difference in fare (537 dollars), along with a change fee (200 dollars), I figured the best thing to do was to bail out and come back in the morning.
A skill I’ve had to learn, and that I think would serve a lot of Americans, is to know when I’m beaten. Especially if I’ve beaten myself.
So now I had 24 extra hours to kill at home, and and in the spirit of my eternally optimistic 95 year-old grandmother, I decided to make the most of it. Twenty-four hours meant that I had a layover. So what if it was in my own town? Couldn’t I play tourist here for a day? Wouldn’t that make for an interesting blog post?
It certainly seemed more interesting than screaming down a phone line at someone because I screwed up.
What would Langston Hughes do in this situation?
8:00 a.m.—Canal Street
Louis Armstrong Airport is in Kenner, well outside the New Orleans city limits. Taxis back to the city run in the neighborhood of 33 dollars, but the bus only costs two bucks and drops you just a block from Canal Street, the city’s central thoroughfare and dividing line between uptown and downtown. That’s a pretty massive price disparity. The kind that would cover a good breakfast and a morning cocktail. And if I didn’t feel like going home yet (and therefore admitting defeat), I should probably find a good place to have breakfast, read, and pretend this was how my day was supposed to go.
Which is fortunate, because one of the most visible signs on Canal Street belongs to one of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans: The Palace Cafe.
The Palace Cafe is part of the Brennan family of restaurants, but it’s a more recent addition, having first opened its doors in 1991. Because of its high visibility on a heavily trafficked street, a lot of tourists stop here, and I think a lot of locals miss it for this reason. The French Quarter is the only part of town where a restaurant doesn’t have to be excellent to survive. There’s enough foot traffic and confused tourists that mediocre (and even downright bad) establishments do just fine. So the assumption by some locals that anything too visible to the tourist trade must be lacking something. That’s a shame, because the Palace is one of the best restaurants in town, with an interior that looks like it would be at home as Jay Gatsby’s living room and a terrific menu of New Orleans classics made by people who care about getting the details right. It doesn’t hurt that their Bananas Foster (prepared table side by a waiter in a white jacket) is the best I’ve sampled in New Orleans.
I was able to check my bags and my suit coat (I always fly in a suit so I don’t have to pack one) at the front of the restaurant, then took a seat in a small booth with a window facing Canal Street. I told my waiter about my troubles that morning, and it was a kind gesture of him not to laugh at me.
“What would you like to eat?” he asked.
“You call it,” I said.
“Sure, I trust you. Surprise me.”
Which he did. In fact, he read my mind.
For those who don’t know what Bananas Foster is, it’s basically what would happen if all your good deeds came back to you in the form of a dessert. Butter and brown sugar, caramelized by flame around a thick helping of sliced bananas, then topped with cinnamon and served over vanilla ice cream. Except for breakfast, when it’s served over a waffle.
“How is it?” asked the waiter.
“You know the answer to that,” I said.
“Yeah. I know.”
10:30 a.m.—The Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel
“You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning,” goes the saying in this town. It’s not just an expression, it’s also good, solid science. And it points to a truth about the civilized nature and relaxed attitude toward drinking found in this town. This is a place where no one looks at you twice if you have a drink—not just a Bloody Mary or a Mimosa—at 10:30 in the morning. Is it any wonder the cocktail was invented here?
The original cocktail was created for medicinal purposes. It’s called a Sazerac, and it’s named after the “coffee shop” where it became popular, which was named after the cognac used to make it (before cognac was swapped out for rye whiskey). If anyone ever asks me where to go to get the best one in town, I send them to the Sazerac Bar.
Located on the first floor of the Roosevelt Hotel and named for that splendid invention, the Sazerac Bar is a dimly lit room perfumed with the vibe of days gone by. There’s an immaculate, highly detailed, gigantic trophy sitting behind the bar commemorating a race in the 1890’s when some rich guy’s horse beat another rich guy’s horse. Elegant and classy, but never stuffy or snobby, the Sazerac Bar manages to retain a classic feel without any snooty attitude. There are murals wall to wall, plush seating, and a terrific bartender named Matthew who specializes in two of the city’s most famous cocktails: the classic Sazerac, and another New Orleans original, the Ramos Gin Fizz.
Matthew is not here to make you a Hand Grenade.
I’m not a gin drinker, usually, but this is a special cocktail. An assembly of gin, sugar, cream, orange flower water and a raw egg (among other ingredients) shaken until a meringue-like top floats like a cloud at the top of the glass. It’s a sweet, refreshing drink that could easily become dangerous after the first two or three, as it’s easy to suck them down without even recognizing the alcohol content. The Ramos Gin Fizz became so popular at the Roosevelt Hotel that an assembly line of kids was hired for the sole purpose of shaking the drinks to their appropriate fizziness. Each kid had a certain number of shakes to do before they passed it to the next one in line. The result was a perfect cocktail enjoyed by many New Orleans notables, including the state’s most storied politician, Huey P. Long, who even brought the hotel’s bartender to New York so he could drink them while he was there.
I took a seat in one of the plush chairs, sipped my fizz and read my book, with Matthew swinging by from time to time to check on my progress. In the summer there aren’t many better places to be than this bar. It’s the kind of room a man could get some work done in, even if that work is eventually done in by the hypnotic power of a Ramos Gin Fizz.
7:30 p.m.—Lower Ninth Ward
I’m not an all day drinker, especially when I wake up at 4:30 in the morning to catch a plane I’m not supposed to be on, so I proceeded from the Roosevelt Hotel back to my home in the Lower Ninth for a much needed nap.
Let’s call it a siesta. It is summer, after all.
If there’s one place in America that I really believe the siesta should be instituted, it’s New Orleans. The summers are long and brutal, so retiring during the hottest part of the day makes sense. Also, there’s the food, rich cuisine that lends itself well to after meal naps. And like the Spanish, who gave the world this extraordinary gift, New Orleanians live by night. We go out late. We stay out later. This is much easier to do if you’ve had a good long sleep in the middle of the day.
Sunset on the Mississippi.
If you time it right, the siesta is especially appealing because you can wake up at just in time to catch a sunset. In the Lower Ninth, the river is tantalizingly close, so sunsets become events, with several people sitting on the levee taking in the view until darkness creeps in, or until they are driven away by mosquitos. Fortunately, the mosquitos took the night off, and the air was cool and lovely. Ships wound their way up to or down past the sharp curve in the river that lends the Crescent City its name. Some bound for St. Louis, the Ohio, the Missouri. Others making their way to the Gulf of Mexico and all points beyond. You could sit up there for hours and imagine the entire world is going past you on that thick ribbon of water.
Which, of course, it is.
8:00 p.m.—Frenchman Street
Thursday’s a good night to be on Frenchman Street, which makes it much like any other night. Once the secret alternative to the madness of Bourbon Street, it’s expanded significantly in recent years, adding new clubs for live music, a pair of art markets, and bushels of curious tourists, some with Bourbon Street style plastic drink containers still clutched in their hands. It’s less a local spot than it used to be, but it’s still as good a concentration of live music as you will find anywhere in the country. Three blocks of top-notch live music venues featuring an array of jazz acts of the type most people think are long extinct. As a result, New Orleans remains one of the few cities in America where full-time musicians can make a very good living.
But the new traffic has its disadvantages. Friday and Saturday nights (read: nights, not evenings) during the high seasons become ridiculously packed, pedestrians spilling out in all directions and clubs packed to overflowing. The weekday nights are preferable. The foot traffic is lighter and the music is every bit as good. A favorite spot for almost everyone who comes down is one of the first clubs you hit as you come off Royal Street, the Spotted Cat. And if you’re there on a Thursday night between 6 and 10, you will find Miss Sophie Lee holding down the fort.
Sophie Lee at the Spotted Cat.
Sophie covers both sides of the entertainment spectrum, being both a musician and a venue owner. She’s one of the driving forces behind a lovely little spot called Three Muses, which has been one of the most popular spots on Frenchman Street since it opened. She’s given quite a few musicians in town their first break, both as regular performers in her club and as musicians in her band. To my mind, she’s one of the essential caretakers of the city’s music, the kind of person who doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but who has a major role in keeping the music alive.
Among the bands Sophie regularly features at Three Muses is one of the finest traditional jazz bands in town, the Shotgun Jazz Band. Led by the husband and wife team of John and Marla Dixon, Shotgun puts on damn fine shows featuring a wide repertoire that ranges from Louis Armstrong to Buddy Holly to Willie Nelson. They play most Thursday nights at the Maison, a massive room with two stages on the river side of Frenchman Street. The Maison is one of the few clubs on Frenchman that has the advantage of being able to pack in an all-ages crowd. For the first few years after the storm, kids could come into clubs before 10 p.m. as long as they were accompanied by an adult. Now, that only extends to clubs that serve food. As a result, Maison has become my go to place whenever I have guests toting along young folks.
It’s a crapshoot what kind of a crowd you’re going to get on Frenchman Street, and it can vary from night to night, from set to set, even from song to song. On this particular night, the crowd seemed to be milling about and unfocused, essentially reducing the band to background noise. I think it’s a damn shame when this happens, and mostly I feel bad for the people in the club who are doing anything (talking, looking at their phones, ordering drinks) except listening to music as good as anything they’re going to hear all year. Sometimes they recognize this and snap out of it and realize something real is happening right in front of them. It’s like watching a spell break when this happens, and on crowded, loud, unfocused nights I often watch the crowd and wait for it. It doesn’t always happens, but when it does you know the city has captured those peoples’ hearts, and you know they’ll come back here again.
9:30 p.m.—Yuki Izakaya
With my flight due to take off early the next morning, I decided to close out my night with some dinner at one of my favorite local hangouts, Yuki Izakaya.
In a town of unusual spots, Yuki remains one of the most unique. In the heart of the crowded clubs of Frenchman Street, it thrives by being unlike anything else on the main drag. A Japanese after-work style bar (no sushi, people) with a dark interior, an army of lucky cats perched on the shelves, and some kind of Japanese art house film projected (silently) on the upper wall at all times, it’s culture shock in miniature. There’s usually live music and always good food. It’s one of the most reliable, and most overlooked late-night dining spots in the city.
The menu features a wide array of small plate appetizers from edamame to tuna sashimi, and a few delicious noodle broths. There’s also a solid assortment of excellent sakes, served cold, the way God intended. I went with a nigori sake, which is unfiltered and has a creamy, ivory coloration and a sweet, fruity taste. For dinner, potatoes pancake style with a sweet glaze and a bowl of udon noodles with a vegetable tempura cake and an egg dropped in the center.
Typical New Orleans cuisine.
I managed to get a good night’s sleep after this. And I managed to be on time for my flight in the morning. Getting on the plane, I saw the same ticket agent who’d seemed so annoyed with me the day before. She didn’t bat an eye at me as she took my ticket. Maybe she didn’t recognize me. That wouldn’t surprise me. I’m sure I didn’t look half as stressed as I did the day before.
Palace Cafe is located at 605 Canal Street. More information here.
The Sazerac Bar is located inside the Roosevelt Hotel at 130 Roosevelt Way. More information here.
Maison is located at 508 Frenchman Street. More info here.
Yuki Izakaya is located at 525 Frenchman Street. Find out more about them here.