Carnival season in New Orleans kicked off in early January and reaches its peak on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, which falls this year on March 2. Any time is the right time to visit New Orleans, but there is something special about this time of year, when it can feel like the whole creative force of the city is devoted to the art of celebration. No rough guide can do it justice — the city is inexhaustible — but here’s a starter kit. If you’re picturing frat boys barfing on Bourbon, don’t worry: There’s a better way.
First things first, pack in as many of these New Orleans classics as you can: The fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the muffaletta at City Grocery, oysters at Casamento’s, the jambalaya supreme at Coop’s Place. Other good spots for Cajun/Creole/soul food: Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe and Dooky Chase. And yes, I’m stating the obvious here, but it must be said — go get beignets and a cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde. A tip that might save you an hour: If there’s a line, ignore it. They don’t make this clear to tourists, but locals know — there is no hostess, you just keep your eye out for someone leaving, have a seat at any un-bussed table, and a waiter will swoop in before you know it.
FOR OYSTERS: Casamento’s is a classic.
While this is a topic of endless local debate, for my money, the best po-boys in town are at Domilise’s. For a different twist, try the immaculately stuffed barbecue shrimp po-boy at Liuzza’s by the Track. If you want the full po-boy tour, longtime midtown haunt Parkway Bakery and Tavern is also worth a visit. And to cure your late-night hankering, Gene’s dishes out hot sausage po-boys 24 hours a day from its can’t-miss-it bright-pink building at the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields, always a wild (if occasionally dodgy) scene in the wee hours.
FIND THE BEST PO-BOYS: At Domilise’s.
On the fancier end of the spectrum, the hottest table in town might be Saba, the new Mediterranean restaurant from James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Alon Shaya. Among the elaborate and unforgettable hummus options: blue crab with beech mushrooms, lemon butter and mint; lamb tongue with pickled barberries, red onion and almonds.
Cochon, from another James Beard award-winner, Donald Link, is a favorite spot for casual splurging for locals and foodie visitors alike. Cochon serves up Cajun-influenced downhome gourmet; it’s the sort of place where you can find both a world-class wine list and fried alligator. The Louisiana Cochon is its show-stopper: pork braised overnight into a succulent and crispy cake, topped with pork cracklins, cabbage and pickled turnips. If you can find the room, other highlights include the wood-fired oyster roast, the rabbit and dumplings, and the indulgent charcuterie plate. Ask about moonshine offerings. Other great restaurants from Donald Link: fine dining at Herbsaint, seafood at Peche and casual Cajun deli and butcher shop Butcher next door to Cochon.
Cochon is one of a number of contemporary restaurants in New Orleans that blend fine dining with country cooking. A couple of other masters of this form, both uptown: Coquette and Patois. If you can score the one outside table at Patois, it’s the perfect romantic spot for a date. Have yourself a pickle-tini: Hendrick’s gin plus juice from Patois’ homemade bread-and-butter pickles.
Meanwhile, for fine dining on the finer end, the big spenders should make a reservation at August or Compère Lapin. Or if you have a hankering for old-fashioned New Orleans decadence rather than the contemporary foodie scene (think turtle soup, Oysters Rockefeller, bread pudding, classic French Creole rabbit dishes, served up in roaring-’20s opulence), some of the best options: Brigtsen’s, Brennan’s, Clancy’s and the ultimate classic, Commander’s Palace, where the 25-cent martini happy hour for Friday lunch remains the supreme see-and-be-seen scene for the dandy set.
BEST DRINK AND PIZZA SPECIALS AT HAPPY HOUR: Domenica.
If you want to go fancy but you’re on a budget, check out the city’s best happy hours: Domenica — 2-5 p.m., half-off wood-fired pizza and half off drinks; Luke — 3-6 p.m., 75-cent oysters on the half shell and half-off drinks.
The best bang for your buck in town: Boucherie. Everything on the rotating and vibrantly eclectic “casual fine dining” menu is good: boudin balls, scallops, grit fries, sashimi, bacon brownies, Waygu beef brisket, Krispy Kreme bread pudding. And it has the best Pimm’s Cup in the city, if you ask me. Its sister restaurant around the corner, Bourreé, a Cajun smokehouse, butcher and patio beer garden, serves up seasonal fresh-fruit daiquiris, hot wings, boiled peanuts, boudin links and more — an absolute gem for laid-back al fresco dining.
Other cozy, relaxed neighborhood spots: Bennachin offers up West African comfort food in the French Quarter; Bacchanal is a wine bar in the Bywater that serves exquisite tapas in a picturesque outdoor courtyard with live jazz; the small and intimate 1000 Figs serves impeccable (and affordable) Mediterranean cuisine in mid-city; and Pizza Delicious is a casual, counter-service restaurant in the Bywater that has become a local favorite — true to its name, its thin-crust pizza is delicious. Be ready for lines, but check out Turkey and the Wolf, the Irish Channel sandwich shop that was recently named the best new restaurant in the nation by Bon Appétit magazine.
For breakfast, the best vibe is Pagoda and the best food is Toast, while the talk of the town is a new spot, Molly’s Rise and Shine. Satsuma Cafe and Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar are great neighborhood spots. If you’re in need of morning munchies in the Quarter: Stanley is a touristy but fine option in Jackson Square; Clover Grill on Bourbon Street is an inviting greasy diner for the hungover set.
My vote for the best cocktail in the city is the Ramos Gin Fizz at the Sazerac Bar. Yes, it has a hefty price tag at $14. But you’re on vacation: Treat yourself. The Sazerac Bar, in the Roosevelt Hotel a block off the Quarter, is an art deco masterpiece, with a mahogany bar, walnut-paneled walls and iconic murals by the artist Paul Ninas. This is the bar where legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long held court, always with a Ramos Gin Fizz in hand. The story goes that Long got a highway built between Baton Rouge and New Orleans just so that he could speed his limo from the state Capitol to the gin fizz awaiting him at the Sazerac Bar in an hour flat. Among the other too-good-to-check stories: While staying at an upscale New York hotel, Long was unsatisfied with its version of the drink and flew the top bartender at the Sazerac Bar up to “teach these New York sophisticates how and what to drink.” I don’t blame the Kingfish — the Sazerac Bar’s Ramos Gin Fizz remains heavenly stuff.
THE NOLA-DEFINING DRINK: A Sazerac.
Meanwhile, for inventive and contemporary takes on fancy cocktails, stop by Bar Tonique, or check out the Cuban-inspired frozen cocktails at Manolito.
But maybe you just want cheap beer that’s cold, and you don’t mind a little grit and grime. The following dive bars have low prices, an aroma that lingers from before the city’s smoking ban, and plenty of character (and characters): Iggy’s, The John, Big Daddy’s, BJ’s, Bud Rip’s, Cutter’s, Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, Miss Mae’s.
While gallivanting around in the French Quarter, have a Bloody Mary at Molly’s at the Market (ask for it spicy). Other cozy bars downtown that are worth a pit stop: In the French Quarter — Lafitte’s, Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, Cosimo’s. In the Marigny — Lost Love Lounge, R Bar, Mimi’s.
And when it’s time to take it all in, the best rooftop bar, with stunning views of the city: Hot Tin.
Preservation Hall remains the city’s premier place to see traditional New Orleans jazz; make sure to get tickets in advance, as the intimate space inevitably fills up. For the booming funk of the city’s many brass bands, the more adventurous souls among you might seek out the hallowed neighborhood dives that serve as meccas for live brass: check the listings at the Candlelight Lounge, Bullet’s, Vaughn’s and the Mother in Law Lounge. For the uptown set (Tulane students like to dance, too!) — the Maple Leaf is another great spot. Or just wait for the happy surprise of seeing a brass band play in the street — walk around Frenchmen Street and you’ll inevitably come across one blasting on a corner. Frenchmen is home to the Spotted Cat, a terrific spot for trad-jazz, klezmer, Cajun and blues, with patrons spilling out to dance in the street; other spots to check the listings on Frenchmen include Snug Harbor, d.b.a. and Blue Nile. If you are lucky enough to be in town when a second line parade is rolling with a brass band on a Sunday afternoon, this quintessential New Orleans experience is not to be missed — check wwoz.org for upcoming second lines or just keep your ear open for tips.
FOR ART: check out street markets like this one on Frenchmen Street.
Karaoke in New Orleans is like karaoke everywhere, except the guy belting out “Born to Run” might be wearing a space insect costume made of immaculately woven neon tinsel. Kajun’s, a divey downtown joint, is thusly one of the most spirited karaoke bars I’ve ever set foot in. Located on St. Claude Avenue, a hard-partying street in the heart of a hard-partying city, Kajun’s has all of the cheap-beer-fueled abandon with a dash of psychedelic mayhem. If New Orleans is famous for its high-culture musical traditions, the city also hums on pastiche and kitsch. Kajun’s is the sort of establishment where the besotted fool singing a Lisa Loeb song begins to feel like a messenger from God.
St. Claude Avenue is rapidly gentrifying these days, but remains home to longtime bars that serve as nightlife headquarters for the city’s outré scenesters. Just down the block from Kajun’s, the AllWays Lounge, an expansive freaky-deaky performance space and watering hole — what David Lynch might imagine for a dive bar — is one of the most joyously unique venues in the city, and a great spot to see the full creative wizardry of local revelers. Other venerable bars on the strip to check out, hosting everything from dance parties to brass to death metal: Hi-Ho Lounge, Saturn Bar, Siberia. One block up, the extremely divey St. Roch Tavern hosts raucous and sweaty nights devoted to New Orleans bounce music. The St. Claude corridor would also be the area where you might befriend a crusty rogue at the bar who can fill you in on the wacko happenings in the New Orleans downtown scene that are too spontaneous and secretive to find in listings like this one.
The best place to swim in your undies and/or eat a waffle: The Country Club, a Bywater mansion that houses the late-night after-party scene for weird New Orleans — with a bar, restaurant, swimming pool, sauna and hot tub. They no longer allow skinny dipping, but the Country Club retains a swanky anarchy in the wee hours; meanwhile, once the sun comes up, they serve one of the best brunches in the city.
Out and about in town
If you need a quiet moment to get away from it all, head to City Park. The 1,300-acre sanctuary is one of the nation’s oldest parks, offering a green respite from the concrete bustle and buzz of New Orleans since 1854. Rent a paddle boat, canoe or kayak to explore the park’s waterways, or wander around and check out the botanical garden, the sculpture garden, the antique wooden carousel at the old-time amusement park and the New Orleans Museum of Art, the city’s flagship fine arts museum. It’s also worth a stroll to follow the bayou on the east end of the park down into the picturesque Bayou St. John neighborhood.
City Park features the oldest grove of mature live oaks in the world. The Singing Oak, near the park’s Esplanade entrance, is one of the most enchanting spots in the city. The work of local artist Jim Hart, the tree is subtly adorned with giant chimes (up to 14 feet long), positioned to catch the breeze from the nearby lake and ring a pentatonic scale. Sit beneath the shade of the drooping live oak and enjoy the gentle symphony. It’s the perfect place for a picnic: Grab provisions at mid-city’s neighborhood grocery store Canseco’s or, better yet, pick up a few pounds of cooked crawfish from Danny’s #1 Seafood in the Seventh Ward. Short of stumbling upon a neighborhood crawfish boil, a do-it-yourself, peel-and-eat picnic is the best way to have crawfish in New Orleans; skip the buckets at overpriced French Quarter restaurants and get a big bag fresh from Danny’s or from Cajun Seafood, which has various locations around town. FYI for the hardcore mudbug fanatics eager to host your own boil: You can get live crawfish shipped home or even take them as a carry-on on a plane.
MUSICAL ART: The live oak chime tree in City Park.
One of the most delightful ways to see a long stretch of the city is to hop on a streetcar. If you’re in the French Quarter and want to see uptown New Orleans, take the St. Charles streetcar, which goes all the way from the heart of the Quarter to the riverbend on the other side of the town, through the north end of the Garden District, Audubon Park and just south of the Loyola and Tulane campuses. It’s a perfect trip for house-gazing and people-watching. New Orleans Original Daiquiris is just around the corner from the last stop uptown; pick up a daiquiri to give your ride a little buzz. Warning: Trying to take the streetcar on Mardi Gras weekend can be nearly impossible because of the crowds; the St. Charles streetcar is also not an option when St. Charles is on a parade route.
For shopping and strolling, try Magazine Street six blocks south of St. Charles at the other end of the Garden District, a charming stretch of boutiques, antiques and restaurants. The French Quarter is also great for ambling. Skip Bourbon Street unless you just have to have a grain alcohol concoction in a novelty neon container; instead hop one block over and try walking the length of Royal Street from Canal to Esplanade during the daytime. You can also catch a $2 ride at the foot of Canal Street on the Algiers Ferry, which offers beautiful views of the city as it crosses the Mississippi River to Algiers Point, a walkable neighborhood on the West Bank.
RECORD COLLECTOR’S HEAVEN: Domino Sound.
And make time for these absolute New Orleans treasures: Domino Sound Record Shack, a collector’s paradise; the interactive sound installation Music Box Village, an open-to-the-public wonderland of musical houses and structures; and the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a warmly curated collection honoring Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, jazz funerals and other aspects of the city’s black cultural history.
If you want the absolute pinnacle of Mardi Gras madness, you’ll want to make the trip for Mardi Gras day and the weekend preceding it, but keep in mind that the parades and celebrations of Carnival go on for weeks beforehand, with schedules easy to find online.
The bigger parades can be overwhelming, but they’re a fun window into how much of a communal, family event Carnival is (particularly further from the Quarter on the parade routes). The best of the biggies: the irreverent Krewe du Vieux, famous for its wicked satire, kicks things off in mid-February; the all-female Krewe of Muses rolls uptown on the Thursday before Mardi Gras (its elaborately bedazzled shoes are one of the most prized “throws” of Mardi Gras season); and the historically black Krewe of Zulu tosses hand-painted coconuts in its mammoth procession on Mardi Gras day.
Everyone, at least once, should try the bone-rattling thrill of hanging out under an overpass on a Mardi Gras parade route, where the processions pause for the high-school marching bands to take advantage of the throbbing acoustics under the bridge.
Various nontraditional parades have more manageable crowds, more opportunities for impromptu participation, and often the most interesting DIY art. Dance along with the costumed revelers at the Box of Wine and Red Beans walking parades; check out the incredible shoebox-sized tiny floats of the all-miniature parade, ‘tit Rex; gawk at the rolling art installation that is the science-fiction-themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus; and woof along with Barkus, the all-dog parade. Things get stranger still if you can hunt down one of the various secret, no-permit parades by word of mouth; the Mystic Krewe of Eris provides an experience you won’t soon forget if you can find them.
If you are in town for Mardi Gras weekend, check out the Panorama Brass Band at AllWays Lounge on Saturday night. Make sure to get some sleep on Monday — the party on Mardi Gras day starts first thing in the morning and lasts all day. Start downtown with the walking parades of the Society of St. Anne or the St. Anthony Ramblers, featuring the most lovingly outlandish costumes in the city. They don’t follow precise routes, but R Bar or Mimi’s are good spots to join up, and they roll down Royal all the way into the Quarter. Or start your morning uptown on St. Charles to watch Zulu and follow them into the Quarter. One way or another, spend some time checking out the costumes and mini-krewes on Royal, which provides a steady stream of wonders all day. Catch an outdoor band in Jackson Square, then duck into Pirate’s Alley around the corner for an absinthe, then mosey to the Moonwalk riverfront park, where the day’s adventurers take a minute to relax by the Mississippi.
It may take some searching, but Mardi Gras day is also one of just two days a year that you can witness an utterly singular New Orleans cultural tradition: Mardi Gras Indians are out chanting, singing and strutting in the stunning costumes that they have worked on all year. The best spots to find them are under the I-10 overpass on Claiborne and outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Seventh Ward.