I believe as you get over 65 you begin to cherish peaceful places to sit back and enjoy your surroundings. It sounds like an oxymoron to use New Orleans and serenity in the same context. However, there is a certain tranquility Becky and I have come to enjoy during our trips to New Orleans.
We don’t sway down Bourbon Street, but rather choose to stroll down Royal. Instead of bars and boisterous behavior we are on a block where street musicians like Grandpa Elliot or Doreen Ketchens play soulful, spirited jazz. It’s a block that leads into Jackson Square where you can always find a bench in front of St. Louis Cathedral or in the park and watch people and life hustle or saunter by.
Right past the Square on the other side of Decatur is the famous Café Du Monde which has served coffee and beignets since 1862. Then up a ramp and down some stairs, over the trolley rails and up to the levee where you can sit along one of the greatest rivers in the world. You can easily see why the river is called “mighty,” and yet still feel engulfed in a silent awe as you watch the boats and birds and beauty of the Mississippi River.
You can fly Southwest to New Orleans in a tad more than an hour for less than $250 per person round trip. You can stay in hotels in the French Quarter for under $100 per night or stay in luxurious accommodations. There are plenty of places like Acme or Felix’s Oyster bars where wonderful Louisiana food is relatively inexpensive, or you can elegantly dine at Michelin star restaurants. There is great entertainment in theaters or on street corners. No matter which way you go, New Orleans is quite an unique and wonderful experience.
The Jazz Scene
When folks visited New Orleans’ French Quarter 30 years ago, Bourbon Street had a great jazz bar on every corner. Back in the day you could hear Louie Armstrong at one bar and walk down Bourbon to Pete Fountain’s club. Now, they are very few jazz lounges of note left in the Quarter: Three of them are the Preservation Hall, The Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel and Fritzel’s.
If you like old-time jazz music, attending a session at Preservation Hall is a must. It is iconic. It is much the same as it was in the 1950s when local musicians would gather to jam well into the night.
Generally there are 5 musicians playing traditional New Orleans jazz; a sound and beat and energy you will recognize in an instant. The venue is small and intimate, so the music bounces off the walls and envelopes the audience. You can’t help swaying and jiving and singing along.
Performances last a little less than an hour and only a limited amount of reserved spaces are available. Lines stretch down the block for those seeking only general admission so it’s highly recommended reserved seats be purchased. Remember, the hall is small so latecomers will be turned away.
One of the nicer hotels in the French Quarter, The Royal Sonesta, features the Jazz Playhouse on the ground level. There is a one drink minimum for general admission, however, it is recommended you purchase a reserved seat ($20 per person) in advance to gain a spot in the first two rows in front of the stage.
The night we attended the performer was Sierra Green with a four-person jazz band. She was the essence of soul, soft and sultry at times, spirited at others. The Jazz Playhouse is much more laid back than other venues in the Quarter, but if you are looking for a place to have a relaxing after-dinner evening, you will enjoy the Playhouse.
Back in the late 1960s, when there were a lot of jazz spots on Bourbon and side streets, Fritzel’s was already a hot spot. It still is, even though almost all the other music locales are blaring rock and country music. It is not only a place to hear good old fashion, banging on a banjo Cajun-type jazz, but it is just a downright fun place to go.
Some other really fine jazz bars are in two adjacent areas to the French Quarter known as Frenchmen’s Street and Treme. Both of them are like Bourbon Street used to be. You walk down their streets and you hear jazz wafting from multiple locations. It’s like walking down a nearby ward street and hearing locals jamming on porches up and down the block. Frenchmen’s and Treme are two wonderful locals with very good eateries sandwiched in along the jazz boardwalks.
My first trip to New Orleans was 1972 to attend the Sugar Bowl when Oklahoma played Penn State. I fell in love with the city and have returned many times to both revel and rejoice in this one-of-a-kind city.
Part of the joy of NOLA is the restaurants. From fine dining to dives, it doesn’t have too many other U.S. cities to rival the wide selection of cuisine one finds throughout the city, but especially in the French Quarter.
My wife, Becky’s, birthday falls on the 1st of February and most years we travel to the Crescent City to enjoy the onset of Mardi Gras and especially try out new restaurants. Two of the restaurants we recently dined at were Café Amelie and Sunday brunch at Arnaud’s. They were special.
Last year we stayed at the Cornstalk Hotel, a converted 1816 mansion in the French Quarter. It has had guests ranging from Elvis Presley while he filmed King Creole, to Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. It is only two blocks from Jackson Square which places you at St. Louis Cathedral at one end and Café du Mond and the Mississippi River on the other.
Our room had a balcony overlooking Royal Street and beginning around 11 am through 10 pm there were street musicians playing anything from jazz to zydeco. As we watched the entertainers, we noticed many people going through a nearby gate into a courtyard shade by giant Japanese Tulip Trees. It was the entrance to Café Amelie.
Since we already had bookings for other restaurants on that trip, we made a mental note to try Amelie’s the next time we came to NOLA. I did some checking and in 2019 it was chosen as the most romantic restaurant in Louisiana. This last trip we ate under those trees on an expansive patio and it was even better than what had been said. And, our Saturday brunch was relatively inexpensive.
When you go to New Orleans to enjoy the cuisine you must try new things, and we did at Café Amelie. We enjoyed shrimp and grits, but not like we ever had before. The grits were mixed with corn and andouille maque choux, which gave it a creamy, smokey taste. It was a one of a kind treat.
We also enjoyed oysters baked in a creamy spinach and artichokes sauce served with ciabatta crostini. Never again will I have any spinach dip appetizer that even comes close to “chef Jerry’s” creation.
Before we left on Sunday afternoon, we had brunch at Arnaud’s. Although there are several good Sunday brunches (i.e. Court of Two Sisters, Brennan’s, Antoine’s, etc.) it is difficult to surpass Arnaud’s for the ambiance, history, service, jazz musicians and especially the food.
The restaurant is more than 100 years old and the beautiful chandeliers, mahogany woodwork, century old tile floors add elegance to the regal dining experience. The head servers are tuxedoed, and we had a least 6 different people waiting on us throughout the meal. It is first class, but surprisingly reasonable in cost.
For the brunch you pick an entrée ranging in price of eggs benedict ($33.50) to a steak filet ($49). However, included in those prices are a choice of 10 appetizers, a large salad and 8 desserts. An ala-carte menu is also available.
During your meal a jazz trio will play a song of your choice. When we were asked our favorite tune we said, “Just Play Anything.” There was a pause and then the clarinet, banjo and bass fiddle musicians struck up “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter. The players were never so far away at other tables that we didn’t hear great jazz music throughout our brunch. As an added treat, Becky purchased the Arnaud’s cookbook and we will be enjoying wonderful Louisiana meals for a long time to come.
We make a point of staying in a different hotel on every overnight visit to New Orleans. This time we stayed at the Monteleone; a 600-room hotel built in 1886. It has been made memorable in several movies and through the writing of authors who have stayed there including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner. Our room had large, double window overlooking the Mississippi River where we sat and watched a cruise ship, freighters, barges and a paddle wheel boat travel up and down the river.
The Monteleone features the Carousel Bar, a location where visitors sit at a slowly revolving platform under a carousel canopy while bartenders stay in a fixed position filling orders. Large floor-to-ceiling windows front Royal Street which is a great place for people watching.
It’s a different experience to have doormen use a whistle to hail a cab, or staff meet you in the lobby to offer their services. It’s wonderful to walk into a lobby with a 15 foot century old grandfather clock and have personnel treat you like your are the most important guests of the hotel.
It is nice. Next time we may stay at a boutique hotel or an off-street B&B. That’s the beauty of New Orleans.
The Experience Revisited
We revisit New Orleans at least once a year. Often, we take a 6:15 am Southwest non-stop flight down to the city and by 8 a.m. we’re are sipping Café du Mond coffee in the park along the Mississippi River and listening to the street musicians who are generally on the levee as the sun rises. From there we cross the street to Jackson Square which rocks with magicians and mimes, jugglers and rag-tag, ragtime, jazz or zydeco bands.
The park is lined with artists hawking their work and even a falconer with a hawk on his arm. It is always a joyous time.
We try new restaurants and visit boutiques and end up at the 100+ year old Acme’s eatery for gumbo and raw oysters. Then we hail a taxi and head back to the airport.
It’s a long day of pure joy. Try it and experience what the Cajun French say; Laissez les bons temps rouler…..Let the Good Times Roll.
– Bob Lynn has owned an advertising agency for more than 40-years and writes anything from commercials to brochures, so getting an opportunity to create something that isn’t selling a product or service is a true joy for him. He contributes stories for Downhome ranging from travel and restaurant reviews to book critiques and our What’s Special About Today feature.