New Orleans has grown slowly over a long time, as cities used to in the days before Wal-Mart, and dates back to an era when the New World still looked to Europe for its civic models and courtly manners. Historic plaques pop up on every other building from the Treme to the Garden District, like portals to a world of ghosts.
Modern-day NOLA has the Deep South’s languorous pace, complex system of race relations, and passion for a plot of land; the self-assurance and romantic notions of 18th-century France; and the beats, rhythms and magic of West Africa. It holds as fast as humanly possible to its own particular customs and traditions, some of which involve brass bands, a reverence for family lineage, and the right to walk proudly in the street with an open container.
It’s America and not America, all at once.
This past January, my four-day trip to New Orleans was a first visit for me and my then-boyfriend Eric…who is now just a guy I used to know. (I guess you could say NOLA is our version of Paris.) He and I picked our particular four days because they were free of holidays, festivals, home games and major conferences, promising and delivering fewer crowds. We had a mix of rain, sun and 45- to 75-degree temperatures, missing out on flower-filled gardens, Mardi Gras revelry, and stifling humidity.
We flew Delta out of Los Angeles (LAX)’s refurbished Terminal 5, where we had a yummy breakfast in a fancy new outpost of L.A. chain Lemonade. Delta had the best schedules I could find, and I used not too many of my Chase Sapphire Preferred miles for two roundtrip coach seats that would have cost about $325 apiece. The flight there was a comfortable, uneventful four hours, and after a nap and an endearing movie, we were surprised to find ourselves already there.
Fairly draped with public art, NOLA’s airport (MSY) is both clean and efficient. Having carried on our luggage, we rolled out to the taxi stand in no time — only to find what appeared to be an achingly long line. Happily, this moved quickly (and offered a few laughs on the side) and within 8 minutes we were in a cab and headed to our hotel for a little over $30. That particular driver was the only one on our trip who wasn’t kind, funny and/or polite, so it was good to get him out of the way early.
We stayed all four nights at the Hotel Modern, a 135-room boutique hotel set on Lee Circle in downtown’s still-new Warehouse/Arts District. The lobby is chic and, well, modern, with a mix of leather furniture, chandeliers and cool maps of New Orleans and Louisiana with glass-painted overlays. At the friendly, helpful check-in, we were offered a citrusy cocktail and a chance to say hello (literally) to Miss Scarlett, the hotel’s sweet, snuggly Solomon Eclectus parrot. We said yes to both.
Each guest room here has a selection of vintage books and streamlined yet plush furniture. We were first offered a big, beautiful room overlooking Robert E. Lee and his eponymous circle, one tricked out with a big ol’ flatscreen and a Keurig coffeemaker, but I don’t dig being right across from elevators and asked to be moved. The fourth-floor corner room where we landed didn’t have much of a view, but it was quiet and cozy (even with the hotel at almost full capacity), and it still had a flatscreen and enough room for us not to trip over each other.
The minor weak links in our particular room were the bathroom and housekeeping. Shower water always ended up puddled on the floor, the sink faucet was difficult to turn off and often dripped, and the pump containers of bath products were stiff and hard to use. The lavender products smelled really good, but I gave up after 10 pumps on the shampoo bottle for a dollop the size of a pea. The container of liquid body soap remained empty for our entire stay, despite asking that housekeeping fill it for us; one day, housekeeping didn’t come at all. Turns out they’d missed us by mistake, and our room was fixed up by the time we returned that evening.
These things aside, I’d stay here again, and would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like big chain hotels or B&Bs, but instead wants something in-between.
The Hotel Modern’s bar and restaurant have been getting a lot of buzz, and for good reason. The dark and sexy bar, Bellocq, specializes in 19th-century cocktail recipes, and they keep a a daily punch bowl offering on hand. Set apart from the main hotel by a courtyard and popular with young, hip locals, the weekend scene here gets going around 10pm. We had breakfast our last morning in the lobby’s bright, cheery and “Modern Southern” Tivoli & Lee, enjoying their signature dirty spaetzle and house-made biscuits amongst pictures of famous Lees, like Bruce and Spike. The restaurant has its own extensive, copper-lined bar so that you shouldn’t be without a cocktail — ever.
The Warehouse/Arts District location ended up being perfect for first-timers to the city who just wanted to wander. The heart of the Arts District was just a few blocks South, a funky ribbon of bars and restaurants set just off a bend in the Mississippi. There’s a fantastic wine, liquor and cheese shop just a block away called Keife & Co. where we picked up a bottle of wine for a BYOB meal, and later in the trip, a bottle of French cider for a rainy afternoon in our room. I wanted to scoop up the whole thing and set it gently back down in my L.A. neighborhood.
There’s a farmer’s market ’round these parts on Saturday mornings, and the area is home to two of the best places we went the whole time: a music club called The Howlin’ Wolf and the Southern-cooking glory of Cochon. The former is a full-on-rollicking neighborhood institution that hosts some of the city’s best brass bands (more on that later), and the latter made Bon Appetit’s 2013 list of the 20 Most Important Restaurants in America.
I had one of the best meals of my life at Cochon, despite the fact that I rarely eat pork, their specialty. Its whitewashed brick space is warm and welcoming, and its enormously creative kitchen and bar is smoothly run, with great attention to detail. Don’t miss the rich wood-fired oysters with garlic and chili butter, the shrimp and tasso (a spicy, peppery Louisiana ham) with greens, and the spicy jalapeño, tarragon and tequila Hey, Jack cocktail. If you’re feeling ambitious, consider splitting a small-batch bourbon or rye tasting.
Lee Circle itself is set beside a stop for the St. Charles Streetcar that travels between the Garden District and the French Quarter; we rode it to the Garden District, but as the Hotel Modern is only five blocks east of the French Quarter, we always chose to walk there. We’d hoped to walk everywhere and so didn’t rent a car, but we were surprised to find that the city was much larger than we’d thought; we cabbed it to far-flung neighborhoods like the Marigny, the Treme and Uptown. These rides averaged $10 a pop, but our experience of the city was definitely enriched by meeting drivers from just up the road or as far away as the Congo and Uzbekistan.
All of our wanderings on foot revealed amazing architecture, like the 1851 Jesuit Church of New Orleans, which has splendid brick details and some of the tallest doors I’ve ever seen. Our eyes were never bored.
There was more history, beauty and food, and some damn fine music, too…
Stay tuned, won’t you?
To be continued in
New Orleans: A Whole Different Country – Part Two
I turned to the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau
for some help planning my NOLA itinerary,
and they arranged a discounted stay at the Hotel Modern,
some comped cab rides, dinner at Cochon — and more to come.
All opinions and observations here, though, are my solely own.