Even for a city like New Orleans, which has been reeling from viral, weather and other calamities for three centuries, the last few years have been difficult. But today, the nation’s freest city struts with a sense of relief and renewed confidence, seducing visitors with time-tested charms and some shiny new baubles.
In particular, a spirit of studied elegance and experimentation has made its mark on the hospitality scene, with custom boutique hotels popping up in neighborhoods beyond the French Quarter, and major international players including Virgin Hotels and Four Seasons. Hotels and Resorts, which open outposts near the heart of the old city.
A place that runs on tourism dollars and conviviality was bound to take some notable losses in the pandemic, particularly in the dining world. Among them was K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, the French Quarter fixture that closed in 2020 after decades of spreading the gospel of Cajun and Creole cuisine. More die-hard foodies are mourning the loss of Upperline, JoAnn Clevenger’s chic casual dining spot in Uptown, which suits the neighborhood like the best wrinkled shirt.
But fear not: no one goes home hungry. Restaurants new and old are booming again as tourists return to town and locals return to their love affair with their city.
On the cultural front, returning visitors will be impressed with a new museum dedicated to southern Jewish history, while a pair of art and technology-driven attractions offer immersive, virtual glimpses of what it means to be in New Orleans.
Eat and sleep
Although the French tend to be the most prominent, the Spanish-speaking world has also had a huge impact on the culture of New Orleans, from the Spanish colonial era to the crucial months after Katrina, when Mexican and Central American workers helped drive the reconstruction effort. One of the city’s most talked about new restaurants, Lengua Madre pays homage to chef Ana Castro’s family roots in Mexico City. Its sophisticated five-course tasting menu ($70) promises to uncover the culinary and cultural connections of the two cities: One of its mottos is “New Orleans is home, Mexico is life.” The menu is constantly changing, but it’s the kind of place where you’re likely to find mustard greens on your tlacoyo.
Pandemic precautions, including the use of masks and proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test, have been lifted for restaurants and bars. The city’s famous bastions of Creole cuisine, including Dookie Chase’s Restaurant, Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s, are going strong and masterfully churning out the biggest hits. Elsewhere, diners will find new experiments and extravagances. A new Uptown restaurant called Mister Mao, by transplanted chef and “Chopped” TV show champion Sophina Uong, bills itself as a “tropical roadside restaurant” that is “inauthentic,” with Southeast Asian influences , Mexican and Indian: think pakoras, mayan sikil pak pumpkin seed sauce, khmer grapefruit and mango salad, all chatting to each other at the same table. In the trendy Bywater neighborhood, new pop-up Chance In Hell SnoBalls (slogan: “Frosted treats for a world on fire!”) is gleefully pushing the boundaries of New Orleans summer treat, with homemade flavors that have included sweet corn with thyme and a “Tom Kha” version with basil, ginger, mint, lemongrass, lime and coconut milk.
An ancient port city is home to these kinds of mixes, while also honoring its traditions. In fact, over the years, Israeli-American chef Alon Shaya earned his status as a New Orleans homebody while whipping up high-quality labneh and hummus in the land of jambalaya and crab étouffée. There’s something about the pace and tone of a New Orleans brunch, in particular, that Mr. Shaya seems to understand. So there was a lot of anticipation for his new project, Miss River, which opens in August 2021 at the new Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans. He’s calling Miss River his “love letter to Louisiana,” offering his version of duck and andouille gumbo and a whole fried chicken with buttermilk, served in a dining room that evokes Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age.
The Four Seasons, which also opened last year, is its own big story, bringing 341 luxury rooms (doubles from $395) to a repurposed downtown office tower formerly known as the World Trade Center. It boasts a noteworthy second restaurant, Chemin à la Mer, by talented Louisiana chef Donald Link, and a crescent-shaped rooftop pool that offers views of the Mississippi River.
On a different scale, and setting the tone for the city’s boutique hotel movement, is the Hotel Peter and Paul (doubles in the summer from $159), which opened in the Faubourg Marigny in 2018 and occupies a cluster of buildings. old (old school, rectory, convent and church). Visiting can feel like living through an imaginative fictional remix of their true stories. The same can be said for two more recent studies of hotel hyperreality: The Chloe, a converted 14-room mansion (doubles from $550) on St. Charles Avenue (whose vibe rhymes closely with Columns, the long-beloved mansion-hotel weather). -place just at the end of the street); and the Hotel Saint Vincent (doubles recently started at $305), housed in a 19th-century Garden District orphanage that until recently was a budget hostel. All three offer great places to grab a drink and indulge in interior design micro-fantasies, each evoking a different iteration of Wes Anderson’s subtropical chic.
culture and revelry
The rule of thumb for having a good time in New Orleans remains the same: trust your improvisational instincts, avoid fruity booze served in flashy, novelty glasses, and follow your ears, particularly for parade sounds. strays, which are once again rolling through the neighborhoods. Radio station WWOZ FM 90.7 continues to be the best resource for following these types of events and for music club action. New to the scene and old at the same time is the revamped Toulouse Theater in the heart of the French Quarter, which until recently was home to a venue called One Eyed Jacks. Long before that, New Orleans piano legend James Booker had a permanent concert there. The new management reserves an eclectic mix of 21st century R&B, indie rock and other delights.
Two new attractions seek to explain and expand the New Orleans experience. Jamnola (for “Joy Art Music New Orleans”) is a 12-room immersive art space, each addressing an aspect of the city’s cultural riches. Vue Orleans, atop the Four Seasons, offers panoramic views of the city and technological presentations of the city’s history and culture.
A more specific kind of historical immersion can be found in the new home of the Southern Jewish Experience Museum, offering welcome nuances to the history of a region too often thought of exclusively as pure Bible Belt. With its roots in a Mississippi Jewish summer camp, the museum has moved to downtown New Orleans and had a soft opening in 2021. Its new home makes sense in a city where Jews have played a significant, if underappreciated, role in education, health care, commerce and culture, and complements the nearby National World War II Museum, which has evolved, through numerous expansions, into a world-class attraction that is reason enough to visit New Orleans for If only.
Elsewhere, the city continues to recover from a rough patch that included not only the pandemic, but also Hurricane Ida, the Category 4 storm that hit Louisiana in August. New Orleans was spared the kind of widespread catastrophe it suffered in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. But there were some major injuries to the cultural scene. Among them was the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a handmade love letter to New Orleans’ black carnival and mask culture.
The museum has been closed for months after the building that housed it, a former funeral home in the Treme neighborhood, was damaged in the storm. But in a recent interview, Dominique Dilling, the museum’s executive director, said a revival is in the works, with a new location selected in the heart of Treme and a grand reopening celebration scheduled for July 9.