Most New Orleanians loathe the word “recovering,” particularly when it is used as a media news peg for the city’s status whenever this disaster or that is commemorated annually. Proud and stubborn, residents don’t need or want pity from outsiders.
So while the rest of the world continues to ponder whether New Orleans will ever “recover” after Hurricane Katrina or the 2010 BP Oil Spill, most residents are doing what they always do: getting on with it. Mourning for the lives and homes lost endures, but in many ways the spirit of the city is at unprecedented heights. New Orleans has never been a more captivating place to visit or live than right now.
More than six hundred new restaurants have opened in the past decade, ushering in inventive new cuisines—not to mention a staggering number of James Beard Award nods. The influx of rebel chefs has done a great thing: it has inspired the French Creole temples of taste (Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace) to ramp up their standards. It is so on.
Ask any food critic who has recently visited the Big Easy and they may tell you that New Orleans—always a contender for top three greatest US food cities—rivals New York for inventive fare. Fighting for the city’s culinary crown are John Besh (Restaurant August, Domenica, Besh Steak), Donald Link (Cochon, Pêche, Cochon Butcher), and other newcomers, both local and expat.
There’s a Vietnamese-Louisiana cuisine craze, crossing over from the city’s immigrant enclave on the West Bank, which has many scratching their heads. But then they dig in. Upscale and regionally minded variations of Mexican, Italian, and even Israeli are proliferating. So are many exceptional wood-oven pizza parlors, food trucks, and purist barbecue palaces. Mind you, this is a city built upon Creole, Cajun, and Southern vernacular tastes rich with a heavy salt pour, butter, roués, and our for the deep-fry.
Today, many once-blighted, high-crime areas along streets like Freret and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, as well as far-flung districts like St. Roch, Bayou St. John, and Broadmoor, have become destination spots for visitors. Travel magazines now point to these places as the “insider musts,” eschewing the obvious French Quarter.
There was a time when the city enjoyed limiting the Red Tide (the denigrating term for slumming tourists) to one stretch of Party Central, largely keeping the “show us your tits” set out of its more rich and exotic parameters. But now the door is wide open to visitors, and some even opt to set up shop, becoming transplants for good. That increasingly includes New Yorkers, San Franciscans, and Angelenos embracing a lifestyle outside that of their pricey metropolises.
Tourists used to have only two choices: stay in a mega-chain hotel or a dusty B&B that looked quaint from the outside, dismal within. Now there’s over a dozen boutique hotels raised or in the works, including the Ace Hotel and a spectacular renovation of the grand dame of St. Charles Avenue, the Pontchartrain (both set to open early 2016). The local film industry in Hollywood South, the name given to the city for its status in the top three of movie and TV locations, has also added something to Fat City, helping to make it Fit City. A week hasn’t gone by that a juice-press bar or yoga studio hasn’t opened shop. Is there anything wrong with that in a city known for its high obesity rates?
As a whole, it’s a more youthful and upscale-minded city—charged up and inspired, rolling with freshly laid bicycle paths. Renting a bike is one of the most invigorating means of exploring the intricate details of the entire crescent, with its tropical fauna, flora, and gargoyles, too.
No, it isn’t all rah-rah: crime is back up, including the murder rate, and the police force has diminished. It’s another reason to keep your head and travel in groups on those dimly lit French Quarter backstreets, which can be dangerous despite the charms that Truman Capote captured so vividly in his early works.
The Ninth Ward, where the levee broke, remains a Jurassic Park-style wasteland. The streets are still dotted with war-zone, axle-breaking craters. Time is different in the city—perhaps the levels of avarice, too.
A final word. As bawdy and exhibitionistic as New Orleans can seem when watching Mardi Gras unfold on TV, it is in fact a nuanced place, steeped in tradition, rituals, and a European–like atmosphere. Shabby, yes, but chic. Call it “civilized debauchery,” and take note of the locals holding a go-cup, dressed to the nines outside of Sunday Mass.
It is an exceptionally kind place, too, particularly if you’re polite, put together, a listener, and a good storyteller. You’d be surprised how many residents, uptown or downtown, will invite complete strangers into their homes to marvel at the French and Spanish detailing, the Italianate and Greek Revival bones, the secret courtyards and gardens. The gracious visitor will quickly have a Bloody Mary (with mean beans and okra) or Sazerac in hand.
Play by their rules—there aren’t many. Freshen up with some flair, rather than go down and dirty. Treat it like the singularly exotic treasure that it is, and oh, the things you will see, hear, taste, and experience. That includes Carnival season, beginning January 6, and culminating on Fat Tuesday: Mardi Gras Day, February 9.
That’s the real Mardi Gras, the real New Orleans: family-oriented, enticingly menacing (with all those pounding drums and elephantine horn blasts, twirling high school band flambeaus, and masked krewe members on horsebacks, slinging beads to small children perched on ladders).
Don’t over think New Orleans. Just go there. Go all in. And afterward, back home, recover as you vividly recall the mind-blowing experience of it all.