I wrote this post as I was flying home from New Orleans last Sunday but never got around to posting it. Here’s some notes from the trip.
I’m heading home after nine days spent in New Orleans for the Zapier winter retreat. It was my first time there, and after being high on my list of places to visit for a while, it easily exceeded my expectations.
It’s not an original observation, but it’s unlike any city in the country, and it’s kind of mind bending that it’s part of the same country that includes everything from NYC to North Dakota.
I’ve now been to a few Southern cities in recent years, and one thing that always troubles me is reconciling the aesthetic grandeur of the buildings and landscapes with the fact that they were built by and for slavery. But New Orleans felt different in this sense.
Yes, you can still go on a plantation tour and yes, the main public square is a monument to Andrew Jackson, and yes, there’s all sorts of stately manors. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and maybe I’m misreading here, but it feels like the cultural legacy the city celebrates is not that of the powerful, but that of everyone else.
Then again, I say that knowing that it’s probably a really tough judgement to make as a white northerner who just spent nine days in the city, which is a qualification that I suppose should apply to everything that follows.
My starting point in a new city is always a combination of the Eater 38 list for that city and recommendations from friends. One of my goals when eating here was to get beyond the Cajun and Southern staples that I knew would be everywhere, and I’m pretty happy with how well I was able to find food that was a little lighter and a little more unexpected. While I didn’t get to every place I was hoping to, I did get to some real gems.
- Shaya: The best meal I had was easily this Israeli spot that reminded me a lot of Tusk in Portland. The food was fresh and surprising. Would absolutely recommend.
- Bacchanal: This wine-and-cheese shop / outdoor jazz venue was the perfect way to spend a Saturday night in the Bywater neighborhood. The huge outdoor area has a great vibe; take turns buying bottles of wine, order some food, and just post up for the night.
- Josephine Estelle: We just ducked into this Ace Hotel-attached restaurant for a drink and a snack. It was completely dead as the Saints playoff game was going on, but the interior was gorgeous and the fried Brussels sprouts and Sazerac I had were fantastic.
- Herbsaint: This was the other fancy meal I had. From what I read, it’s a local Italian and French standby, and was pretty traditional but very good.
- Molly’s Rise and Shine: A charming and approachable neighborhood spot on Magazine Street. The grits, greens and eggs was one of the few Southern-style meals I had, but was tasty.
- Pythian Market: This food hall was just down the street from the retreat hotel, so I went here a few different times. I had some solid Jamaican, poke, and chicken kabobs.
- Willa Jean: The last brunch of the trip, this place was charming and seemed good, with highly ‘grammable food, but the avocado toast I got was a little disappointing.
- Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop: This Frenchmen Street bar holds the claim of being the bar in the oldest structure in America. It was a fine bar, but the space was pretty cool.
Apart from eating and working during the week, I was mostly wandering around. Definitely spent some time in the classic tourist spots — Jackson Square, French Quarter — and also got to walk all the way down Magazine Street and briefly hit Bywater.
- Ogden Museum of Southern Art: This was a great little museum that was featuring a really enjoyable photography exhibit and some cool Southern vernacular art.
- Studio Be: We snuck in a visit to this street art space on the final night in town and I’m really glad I made it in. It came about as a project after Katrina and features some pretty striking pieces from local black street artists. The work dealt with the trauma of Katrina, the history of segregation, and also the modern problem of ruin porn tourism. Walking through a space like this as a white person is always challenging: when does seeking out and appreciating the art of oppressed groups become cultural voyeurism? I think it’s better to engage — and engage humbly and quietly — than not to, but it’s complicated.
- Kermit Ruffin: From what I gather, he’s a pretty big deal in the local music scene. I only caught the tail end of his set at Blue Nile on Frenchmen, but he was great and worth seeking out if you’re looking for live music.
- Foot massages: While hardly unique to the city, I never get foot massages but after experiencing the magic after a long week of walking around, I’m thinking I’m going to need to make this a regular habit on trips.
In conclusion, New Orleans is Good and you should go.