Professional Drinker and Traveler Wade Sheeler tips us off to the merriest city of the south, New Orleans, where you can enjoy non-stop yuletide cheer on a budget.
“‘Tis the season to be travelin’,” is what I say about December. Most folks like to gather family around and pretend to have a good time. Me and the missus? We like to head out on the road for points due anywhere that isn’t here. It’s not something you can get away with annually, but every OTHER holiday season, for the sake of your (and your sig other’s) sanity, fly like the wind.
While some like to embrace the winter weather with both arms and cling tight to a ski lift, we like to hit some destinations that don’t necessarily come to mind when you think “Christmas.” Key West is one of them. New Orleans is the other.
The Crescent City is like nowhere else from late November through New Year’s. There’s obviously none of the intense atmosphere of Mardi Gras, Halloween or the many “fests” (Jazz, French Quarter, Voodoo or otherwise) that has given the city its unfair mantle as a boozopolis for the frats. While Bourbon street will always have the energy and cramped passageways of a Vegas Casino, everywhere else across the city, things have mellowed (as much as New Orleans CAN mellow) so that all of the wonder is unbelievably accessible.
The day time temps are in the mid-70s (which doesn’t really matter because you should be doing most of your sleeping while the sun is up) but the evening brings just the right amount of nip in the air to remind you it’s the holidays. The architecture of the French Quarter is always a thing of stunning beauty during the daylight hours, but at night, the usual lights that kick the city into high character gear are helped further by all the holiday decorations that adorn the historic buildings, so you really feel transported back in time, even more than you usually do in the Vieux Carre.
While my list of things to do during the holidays can be found on many “what to do in New Orleans” lists, I do try and exploit the dining, drinking and music listening opportunities that best “show-off” New Orleans at Christmastime.
You don’t need a car in the Big Easy; all of the French Quarter is in comfortable walking distance, but when you do venture out a little further; the Warehouse District, the Garden District, or very importantly, the Ninth Ward, just cab it.
My two favorite places to stay while in town are The Roosevelt, and International House Hotel. Both are in the Quarter and both can be pricey, but again, during the holidays they are offering major deals to get people in those rooms, when most locals are heading out of town, and most families are not heading here.
During Christmas, the Roosevelt is a great destination, even if you’re not staying there. The hallways are like some gaudy, decadent snow angel threw up from top to bottom. The long lobby and archways create an indoor tunnel of sugar plum madness, and with Louis Armstrong singing “Christmas Time in Harlem” throughout the hotel, you can’t help but get swept up in the good cheer. Take a turn into the Sazarac Bar, and have a bit of history with your official drink for the high and mighty high.
The drink, the Sazarac is arguably (and I’d be the guy to argue it) the first cocktail, created before the Civil War in New Orleans; served first at the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, which began importing Sazarac de Forge et fils – a popular if not hard to acquire brandy cognac. So popular was the liquer that once the coffeehouse changed ownership in 1850, the name of the establishment changed to the Sazarac House, where it was known throughout New Orleans as the place to enjoy the beverage. The traditional sazarac is a combination of cognac or rye, that green fairy laden potion absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters (similar to Angostura bitters, but a lighter mixture). It’s only the bitters, however, that are slight in taste for a drink that will blow your eyes out of their sockets after one sip.
Now the Sazarac Bar, finally acquiring its name in 1949, is still in the same location, and with the recent legality of absinthe cleared up, available as strong and demonic as its forbearers. Many old school places in New Orleans demand a jacket and tie for the men and dresses for the ladies, and during the day this is true of the Sazarac Bar – but again, during the holidays and as the evenings wear on, I’ve seen hotel guests show up in bathrobes and be treated as well as the well-dressed heel (or is it well-heeled dresser?). I always think that someone who shows up to drink in a bathrobe is a heel.
International House is one of the new kids on the block for hoteliers, and so they tend to shy away from deals during the rest of the year, but they’re as anxious as the next guy to book rooms during the holidays, so with a little Expedia help, you can get yourself something for less than $140 a night with breakfast included. This feels like an even more super deal, when you take in the the very chic design of the lobby and rooms, and access to the small but hip bar, Loa, which offers a more intimate vibe with friendly bartenders who already know your drink upon your second visit.
And since we’re on the subject of drinking, it’s time to take the Sheeler “Deep Dive” and venture out of the Quarter for one of the best kept secrets in town. Cab it over to a completely residential neighborhood that has only one indication you’ve arrived, (Christmas lights are always on) making Christmas the only time of the year it’s a bit of a challenge to locate. This is Snake and Jake’s Christmas Lounge, and it’s continually rated the Best Dive Bar in NOLA, and one of the best dive bars in the country. The place screams local style, built inside an old coal shop. Once you find your way in, it’s like hanging out at your Uncle’s garage bar. Creaky wood plank floors, dubious couches with stains of unknown origin and friendly bartenders who drink with you and pour very liberally, the Christmas Lounge is like nowhere else in NOLA. The best time to arrive is at 2 AM when everywhere else is closing, as you won’t stumble out til 6 AM when they generally close. Find a spot at the bar with your buddy and soak in the atmosphere as well as the wet liquid on your barstool. Dress accordingly.
When it comes to eats, everyone will tell you Arnauds or Brennans or Antoines, or the ubiquitous Emeril Lagasse’s many lairs are the “must” visits, but for my money, some of the best NOLA cuisine is the low-brow inexpensive type, although when you’re ready to spend a buck, I got ya covered as well.
Everybody heads to Cafe du Monde for breakfast or middle of the night beignet sobering, and thats fine. I have another breakfast option, though. The Camelia Grill is the most fun you’ll have at breakfast, as well as some of the best waffles anywhere. There’s two tiny locations, in the heart of the quarter and at the streetcar turn in the Garden District. Both offer the same design and the same friendly, fascinating staff. There’s only counter service, but it’ll be worth your wait.
As soon as you belly up to the bar, a slick and entertaining counterman will take your order, shout it to his cohorts who will cook it up right in front of your eyes, with a heap of “messing around” to boot. As I say, the pecan waffles are to die for, but coming around at lunch allows you to dig into their burgers. The mandatory dessert order is a slice of Pecan Pie, slapped upside down on the grill and then, turned back around on your plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Laissez les bon temps, bitches!
When it comes to lunch, the best burger in town, nee the whole damn country, can be found at Port of Call. This dark, pirate style bar has four things going for it, the aforementioned burger that just drips with delicious jus, baked potatoes bigger than your head, a Monsoon that offers all kinds of blackout drunk goodness in a 32 ounce “to go” cup, and a jukebox that rivals the best. Seating is limited, get there before noon and once inside, plant yourself firmly in your seat and don’t expect to leave for a while. If you do, driving is never a good idea getting there or leaving, so carry your to-go cup and weave your wobbly way back through the quarter over to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo or one of the amazing local shops that will help you sober up.
Dinner is where you want to clean up a little and actually spend some cash. You’re at the hub of the country finest regional cuisine, so you may as well “step out” at least once while you’re there. There’s 101 places you could try, so let me just mention two: Brigtsen’s and Gautreau’s. Like most of the preferred NOLA businesses, Brigtsen’s is housed in an unassuming Victorian in a residential neighborhood near the Riverbed, just a couple blocks from the St. Charles streetcar line. It’s small and very intimate, and very romantic. James Beard Award Winning Chef Greg Brigtsen, a protogee of the onetime New Orleans institution Paul Prodhomme, has fused Creole and Acadian dishes in the most satisfying way. His specialty is seafood, and if there’s more than two of you, the best sense is made by ordering the Seafood Platter, which chef jokingly refers to as the “Shell Beach Diet.” We’re talking a non-stop tonnage of Grilled Drum Fish, Shrimp cornbread, Baked Oyster LeRuth and Rockefeller, and Sea Scallop with Asiago Cheese Grits. For dessert, you have no the option but to go for his Banana Bread Pudding. Every establishment in town offers Bread Pudding and (besides Palace Cafe) this is the best. You will be found banging at the back door at 3 in the morning for another plate. I know, cause that was me.
James Beard winner and Food & Wine Top 10 Chef Sue Zemanick is the fresh new face of NOLA cooking, and she has stepped into Gautreau’s Exec Chef position with aplomb and skill, reinventing the traditional menu items like no one yet. If you’re a foie gras lover, Zemanick’s with Poached Peach is the marquee appetizer. The sautéed Cobia with Champagne Beurre Blanc is a perfect example of the nexus of French and Cajun cooking. But if Seared Duck Breast with Fig Demi Glace is where it’s at for you, there’s none better in the whole fine city.
So I’ve tipped you off on where to stay, eat and drink – but my number one reason for coming to the Big Easy is the music. And here, almost as ubiquitous as the food, is a city where you just cannot go wrong, whatever bar or club you fall into. It is all good. The citizenry would allow nothing less. You can, of course, go to Preservation Hall, which some might say is a standard tourist trap, but I beg to differ. It’s where you are guaranteed to listen to authentic real hot jazz, later named Dixieland, in its most native tongue.
But if you want to combine your love of the drink with an affinity for piano jazz, take a step through the small door at the Carousel Bar and Lounge, part of the Hotel Monteleone right in the heart of the Quarter on Royal Street. The highlight is the actual bar that is a slowly rotating carousel, with top notch piano players nearby. It’s been recently refurbished, and you would not be surprised to find legends like Henry Butler stomping and striding to a packed house on a Wednesday night. And that’s part of the charm of coming to NOLA during the holidays. These great jazz artists who call the Big Easy home, are in town, and playing at all the local spots.
For a non-stop cavalcade of local musicians, all within a stone’s throw, trek over to Frenchman street, which has gone through a cyclical renaissance and become the hippest of the hipster hangs with jazz clubs squeezed one next to the other, the music blaring so loudly out of each storefront that you can stand in the street and get a taste of whatever you’re interested in; traditional, modern, rock, funk, it’s all right there. The Spotted Cat is the most fun of all, it’s a sweaty small box with folks literally jammed floor to ceiling listening to the funkiest sounds – but the acoustics are so good, you just grab a PBR or Jax from any of the nearby spots and plant yourself outside to hear the sweetest sounds this side of heaven, all for free!
In a town like New Orleans, nothing is off the table, so if you have a hankering to bowl a few frames while dancing to Zydeco, the Big Easy has got your back. Take a cab ride over to Carrollton Avenue and Rock ‘n’Bowl Mid-City Lanes, the wildest and loudest time you’ll ever have while getting your Big Lebowski on. Recently remodeled (because the former Rock ‘n’ Bowl bounced so hard when the bands were rocking that the place was literally falling apart), the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl offers up amazing local talent (we remember the days of Beau Jocque – the greatest Zydeco band in history, facing off toe-to-toe for the title of King of Zydeco against Boozoo Chavis) as folks dance, butt to elbow, with people tossing balls down lanes. It’s too much dance-floor fun to describe, you just have to experience it. The ride outside town may seem a little out of the way, but the friendliness of the staff and the righteous good time will more than make up for it.
Finally, you have to check out the Louisiana Music Factory, the hands-down best record store in NOLA. Everyone from the street performers to the brass bands and rock acts have some representation of their music there, and you can track the origins of zydeco, blues and jazz all the way to present day within the two-stories of record bins. If you’ve ever been lost in a record store then you know how lost you’ll be in here. I’ve spent hours combing the new and used vinyl and CDs and come away with so much undiscovered talent and history, that I never wanted to leave. It was the Monsoon a-calling that got me away.
All of this can be yours with a little research and some fast booking, if you choose to leave the family worries behind and sequester yourself away for a Big Easy holiday. You will never regret it.