G&G contributor and High and Low columnist Julia Reed left New York City in 1991 on assignment to cover the Louisiana governor’s race in New Orleans. Twenty-four years, five books, and one home renovation later, she’s still calls the Crescent City home. The consummate hostess and self-avowed avid eater and drinker, Reed agreed to help us navigate the city during the height of Mardi Gras season—like a local. Her first piece of advice: “Pick a geographic location. And then abandon all hope of getting around except for on foot.” If you decide to stake your claim in the French Quarter this Mardi Gras, follow Reed’s lead.
Morning Glory: “It may be cliché but there’s a reason people go to Café du Monde for beignets. Because they are really that good. If the line’s too long, head to Croissant d’Or. Café du Monde delivers classic New Orleans chicory coffee and beignets; Croissant d’Or is all about espresso, cappuccino and yummy café au lait—as well as divine homemade croissants of all flavors. I ADORE the almond.”
Prep Work: “After you’ve soaked up your hangover with a beignet or croissant indulge in a full-on breakfast. Beloved Quarter landmark Brennan’s restaurant has just been renovated and reopened and still offers its world famous ‘Breakfast at Brennan’s’ from 8 until 2. The space (by Richard Keith Langham) is seriously gorgeous and Slade Rushing’s menu is off the charts. Start with the Caribbean milk punch and dive into Eggs Sardou or veal cheek grillades. Slade’s BBQ lobster (a fave of mine since his days at NYC’s Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar) is also a must—any time of day. Note: Bananas Foster was invented here and it’s always important to keep your potassium levels up!”
Walk it Off: Head one block over to Chartres Street and check out A Gallery for Fine Photography. More world-class museum than gallery, this 19th century two-story building houses all the greats from Ansel Adams and Edward Curtis to Helmut Newton and New Orleans-based star Josephine Sacabo. Be sure and check out the prints actress Jessica Lange has on view—they’re as stunning as her work on the other side of the camera.
Refresh: Make your way down Chartres to the venerable Napoleon House (so named because the original owner offered it to the exiled emperor as sanctuary). Order the signature Pimm’s Cup, soak up the atmosphere and classical soundtrack, and grab a second Pimm’s to go. (On the way, you might first stop at the Chart Room, one the Quarter’s great un-froufrou bars.)
Retail Therapy: “Stop in at Faulkner House Books, on Pirates Alley just off Jackson Square. They have a great collection of Southern literature—contemporary, classics, signed first editions, you name it. It’s a perfect place for browsing (and getting totally lost) and they’ll ship, so you don’t have to tote your new books all around town. Next I’d head to Nadine Blake, a few blocks down on Royal for super chic house stuff, offbeat accessories, and cool handmade stationery. The New Orleans-centric cards are perfect for sending word of your adventures home. (Note: Nadine’s not open Monday or Tuesday.)
Recharge: “Have a late lunch at Sylvain. You can have something as ‘light’ as a split of champagne and French fries (an actual combo on the menu) or try those fries with one of the world’s greatest burgers. Also not to miss: the shaved Brussels sprouts salad and Gulf shrimp ‘pirloo’ with crispy pork belly. Even if you’re not ready to munch yet, you must visit for one of their Bloody Marys with fresh squeezed tomato juice, house pickled okra, and a beer back.
Note about the parades:
“If you’re here over the weekend, almost all the daytime Uptown parades end up on Canal Street by early to mid-afternoon, so check the schedule and wander over.”
Bottoms Up: Veer slightly off the beaten bath to Rampart Street and Bar Tonique. A sophisticated dive, this narrow space has exposed brick walls and white Ultrasuede banquets. More important are the drinks. The bartenders here were way ahead of the cocktail curve and still offer the best takes on such classics as a Corpse Reviver No. 2 (which you may well need by now). I’m partial to their terrific gin fizz and they make their own tonic water for an unforgettable G&T.
Cheers!: “You can’t drink in the Quarter without heading to at least one of two classics: The Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone (be careful—the bar itself is a model of City Park’s carousel and it rotates) or Arnaud’s French 75. The Vieux Carre cocktail was invented at the Carousel Bar, so try that first. At the French 75 bar, its namesake is the thing—and so are the excellent bar snacks, including Arnaud’s legendary souffle potatoes and the weirdly addictive boudin wontons.
Dinner and a Show: “If you can snag a reservation at the incomparable Herbsaint (and manage to wriggle your way across Canal before the parades arrive) sit down for a memorable dinner (first-timers have to have the duck confit with dirty rice and citrus gastrique) in between trips outside to the restaurant’s private bleachers to watch the floats and catch some throws. If you haven’t been organized enough to plan ahead, go to Link’s Pêche, at nearby Magazine and Julia Streets, and try your luck eating at the bar (fried bread, fish sticks, and shrimp toast, plus the best oysters on the half shell in town). Then make your way back to the parade route and catch a to-go cup to fill.”
Turn it Up: “Head back across Canal Street but keep on going in order to avoid the post-parade Quarter crush. Frenchmen Street, just on the other side of Esplanade, has a whole row of swell bars and music clubs.
Escape: “Markey’s Bar in the Bywater is the world’s most perfect neighborhood dive any time of day, but it’s an especially perfect spot to close out a late night (and early morning). The magic ingredients: a long bar, multiple pool tables, dart boards, unparalleled juke box, really cold beer, and po-boys and pub food until 2 a.m. I’ve pretty much moved in here during past Mardi Gras celebrations.”
If you’re in town on actual Mardi Gras (2/17), aka Fat Tuesday, you’ll need to make a few adjustments to your day, so you don’t miss the big parades. A few tips from Julia:
Get a Head Start
“You need to stake your claim early on Mardi Gras day. Zulu rolls first, starting at 8 a.m. and will be near the Quarter by 10 a.m. For Zulu, jockey for a spot on Canal or Basin Streets.”
Keep your Eyes on the Prize
“The thing you most want from Zulu is one of their prized glittered coconut throws. It’s also useful to catch some to-go cups for your drinks. Bars and restaurants are happy to supply them, but the parade versions are bigger and better.”
“After Zulu, you should have time to grab a bite before making your way back to Canal to vie for a spot to watch Rex roll by. Brennan’s is closed on Mardi Gras day, but the Rib Room has a similarly Creole-tinged breakfast and brunch (and tasty steak and eggs) and a stiff brandy milk punch (don’t forget to get one to go). For Rex, you want to park yourself somewhere between St. Charles and South Peters.”
Laissez bon Temps Rouler
“After Rex, the Quarter gets a little bananas. Head away from the upper Quarter crush and hit Esplanade. Try Port of Call for a Monsoon and one of their famous fat burgers, or, if the crowd’s too dense, cross the avenue to Buffa’s for chili cheese fries, boudin balls, red beans, or another great burger. Since it’s Mardi Gras, they have live music, so stick around until five when it’s due to crank up.”