Re-Imagined New Orleans Blends Old & New Trends
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Following its Tricentennial and wildly popular 50th anniversary Jazz Fest celebration, New Orleans continues evolving with another renaissance featuring some of today’s top trends and re-imagined old ones.
NOLA, as its current moniker goes, isn’t the ‘Big Easy’ of the 1930s, nor is it the ‘Crescent City’ of the 1830s. It’s certainly not the ‘Paris of the South’ that it was reputed to be before the U.S. proper even existed. But perhaps that all depends on your state of mind.
One thing assured is that New Orleans manages to unapologetically survive, entice all kinds, and unabashedly celebrate its exceptional self.
New Orleans Public Service, Inc.
New Orleans is one in a small selection of places in the U.S. that insist on making strides to retain its culture as it reckons with the post-post-modern age by repurposing beautiful and meaningful architecture instead of knocking everything down or soullessly emulating it.
One perfect example is the historic one-time headquarters of New Orleans Public Service, Inc. circa 1927 which was recently reinvented into the NOPSI Hotel in the now flourishing Central Business District on the other side of historic Canal Street.
The grand hotel retains the original structural design, including the pillars and stunning marble floors.
Upon entering its grand lobby, the atmosphere demands respect for the enduring quality of how things were once built, all nuanced with apropos décor.
On the left of reception is a classic 1930’s gin bar with a Gatsby Era Art Deco feel, and beyond sits a terrace that brims with live music during a very generous happy hour replete with a decadent traditional crawfish cookout. My friend, Steve, gasped wide-eyed upon delivery before diving into it.
“It’s a feast, isn’t it? Take your time.” Samantha, our server delivered with a wry smile. That’s an apropos motto for this place. A feast for the eyes, too.’
Pool Time Power Hour
Afterward, we lounged by the rooftop pool, lazy from the thick 102-degree haze, partaking in another cocktail beneath the shade of the tiki-bar and peeking at the views from different angles.
It boggles the mind with nostalgia that this grand structure was just an old administrative building; such a contrast to today’s nondescript glass buildings.
We meandered in the photo gallery of those old neighborhood days within the lobby corridors before heading to our modern and spacious corner room which was masculine with a generously comfy, oversized design, but with a refined New Orleans flair.
Variety, the Spice of Life
Living on Sazeracs, side-dishes, and beignets for a while? Sure, why not? Until recent years, the options were limited in N’awlins for vegetarians, let alone for the increasingly diverse dietary demands and, yes, even the health-conscious.
I’ve even exchanged my vegetarian diet for a pescatarian on occasion to taste and experience those legendary restaurants in the French Quarter. One recent night’s extravaganza of “modern, imaginative reinterpretations of classic Cajun and Creole cuisine” was at Louisiana native Chef John Folse’s Restaurant R’Evolution where both the flavors and the atmosphere – not to mention the impeccable service – are the experience holistically.
Many places are indeed kicking it up a notch in a diverse and entertaining way for today’s varied foodie scene.
Smorgasbord of Diversity
Steve and I met a local colleague of mine at a new rave in the Warehouse District on thriving Magazine Street. Auction House Market is in the ranks of the new trend of food halls. The hall is comprised of chef-driven concepts, 10 vendors with a wide selection of fare, plus a bar and a roaster.
“Food halls are a great idea for up-and-coming and more established local chefs as well as the community. It adds more life to the community. The colleges love them. And it creates opportunities,” our Lyft driver, Lashawna, shared in response to our lunch plans.
My colleague, Sarah, met us in the airy, vibrant, and bright repurposed warehouse space just as the lunch crowds filtered in, dispersing in different directions to the various counters and the sunny centralized bar blooming with plant life.
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Literati in New Orleans
While trying to be decisive between the lures of Empanola’s empanadas with a NOLA twist and the Indian street food of Tava and the other copious temptations around us, we reckoned that after all, we have the option to simply make other visits for whichever vendor didn’t win out this time around.
Happy Jaxx, an “indulgent…veg-centric eatery” with a focus on cravings and community with a menu offering health and happiness won our palate over.
The new Pythian Market on Loyola, as well as St. Roch Market, designed within an old 1875 market on St. Claud Avenue, continue the food hall craze each with their unique ambiance and endless options.
Good Morning, Burlesque Girl
It was a hot one and not quite noon yet. Inside SoBou in the French Quarter, things were heating up too. After being seated, the show began with a jazz trio who was sauntering slowly throughout the elegant filament-lit backroom towards the more bistro-style space where I sat.
I was charmed when she made her flirty, dramatic entrance down the steps onto the checkered dining floor. My requisite brunch mimosa had already had a dent in it, and the other diners were feeling a playful vibe themselves as our burlesque dancer descended from the steps.
Floating like a shiny pixie at times and shimmying up behind patrons coyly grinning, she tossed her flowing skirt over one gentleman’s head, caressing it while revealing her sexy fishnets and garters for the rest of us before moving on to tease other patrons. She flashed me a seductive wink and a smile as she passed my table.
It’s a tasteful burlesque show for sure. It’s also a delightful homage to the days when perhaps even more risqué establishments once thrived before being edited out of the New Orleans’ entertainment landscape in the 60s.
Also tasteful and quite deliciously satisfying is the brunch menu here. The offerings range from traditional to creative; sweet to savory and everywhere in between if you know what I mean. There’s something for everyone.
Beyond Frenchman St. in the Marigny District which reinvented itself into as big an entertainment draw as Vieux Carré several years back, there’s another kind of party.
If live music, wine, and Mediterranean fare under fairy lights in the open air are your jam, then this is for you, too.
Our car dropped us at Bacchanal Wine which looked innocently like an old corner shop but – as we discovered inside – is more accurately described by its founders as “a wine laboratory where food, music, and culture collude with Holy Vino to create the most unique evenings you will ever experience in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.”
We shuffled through the wine (and cheese) storefront, into the bustling backyard where a rustic stage lit-up beyond the group-type seating and some more intimate corners as the bands changed sets.
The lively atmosphere hosted a 20- or 30-something crowd who were well into the groove, imbibing. Many stood in line, self-ordering food at the kitchen window.
Always one to like the big-picture view, I hopped up the stairs with Steve to the balcony which led to dim speakeasy rooms with high-tops and comfy seating. A high-end old-school craft bar is also on the second floor. Cocktails are an art form here. It was like a house party.
Lucky to claim a corner spot on the outside, we ordered some light bites and swayed to the music. I was pleasantly surprised to see that what could have easily been a menu of ordinary bar food was a step above with variety and diversity for all, including vegetarians.
We could have easily spent all evening there, but likely out of respect to largely residential area, the last set is usually done by 10. So we headed to the Jazz Playhouse back in the quarter.
Freewheelin’ the Gardens and Storyville
With a noble attempt to get in some exercise to balance out the decadence, we strolled over to highly recommended, Free Wheelin’ on N. Rampart to meet Laura Zimmerman who geared us up for a Garden District bike tour and little spin about what’s left of Storyville, New Orleans’ old red-light district from the late 19th century.
We could feel the steam of the day rising quickly and we braced ourselves for what was going to be a roaster that day. An early start is a good suggestion to heed.
We saddled up on our aerodynamic, American-made bikes onward through the Warehouse District, gliding more freely on the wide roads along Saint Charles, and soon shifted onto the tree-lined streets of the Garden District that drips with Spanish moss.
The breeze generated by our leisurely cadence was refreshing in the moist heavy air of the neighborhood. Immersed, I surrendered to it.
Gables and pillars of classical architecture framed by lush landscaping sat demurely while others stood like grand dames poised for admiration. My mind’s eye flashed snippets of stories and characters as Laura related some of their oozing histories.
“New Orleans is a melting pot – a place where from intellectuals to artists to the laziest people you’d never want to meet,” Laura chuckled, “but there’s an ease here… to me, I can come here and be myself,” Laura related.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Senior Travel Writer Christopher Ludgate is a travel & culture journalist based out of his native New York City. Chris combines his multi-faceted professions and is ever drawn to adventure and creative outlets. His travel writing pursuits have lead to working with publications such as Passport Magazine, LAX in-flight, AIR Chicago, FLY Washington, and, of course, GoNOMAD.com. Chris is an award-winning filmmaker with films in distribution and screenings around the globe.