For those looking to expand their brain and not just their waistline, New Orleans is home to some pretty cool museums and educational attractions. This probably comes as a surprise to most tourists, who often never step foot off Bourbon Street.
First and foremost is the award-winning National WWII Museum. Wanna see grown men cry? Check this place out. Originally started as just the D-Day Museum, it has gained such acclaim that it continues to expand and it now covers the entire war. It's located in the Central Business District and is relatively close to the downtown/French Quarter area. A long walk or a quick ride on the St. Charles streetcar will get you there. Don't miss the 4-D cinematic experience, Beyond All Boundaries, narrated and acted by some of Hollywood's biggest stars, including Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Tobey Maguire, and Patricia Clarkson. And when you're done, stop for a delicious bite to eat at The American Sector, a John Besh restaurant.
Have no fear, art lovers, because New Orleans has got a little something for you, too. A ride on the streetcar down Canal Street and up North Carrollton Avenue will drop you right off at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The museum sits on the corner of New Orleans' largest green space, City Park. Here at NOMA you'll find a wide variety of painting, photography and decorative arts. Outside the museum is the five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, one of the most important sculpture installations in the United States.
When it comes to art, though, I've always preferred the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. It's very close to the National WWII Museum in the CBD, just off Lee Circle and easily accessible via the St. Charles streetcar. Here you'll find more contemporary works exclusively from local and regional artists.
Also in the same area as the Ogden and WWII museums is the Louisiana Children's Museum. If you're travelling with kids, the myriad interactive exhibits found here make learning fun. Just be sure to bring your running shoes and lots of energy.
Made famous by The Meters song of the same name, the Audubon Zoo is a favorite among tourists and locals alike. You'll have to make your way uptown, where you'll find the zoo nestled in the middle of beautiful Audubon Park. There's plenty to see and do but it's all very manageable. Be sure to hitch a ride on the Swamp Train and stand atop Monkey Hill, the highest point in the city. You'll laugh when you see this "hill." And when you're done, you can walk around Audubon Park. Bring your clubs and play a round on the well-maintained golf course. You might even spot Drew Brees, who lives just off the park, playing with his kids. Cross the street and walk around the beautiful campus of nearby Tulane University.
Located in the U.S. Custom House downtown, the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium is a newer attraction, having opened in 2008. If you think bugs are beautiful, this is the place for you. Highlights include the super cool Butterfly Garden that lets you walk among thousands of the former caterpillars, and my personal favorite the Tiny Termite Cafe, which gives you the opportunity to actually eat insects like crickets and waxworms.
Perhaps creatures of the sea are more your cup of tea. If that's the case, then head on over to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, also located downtown by the river. Take advantage of the new Backstage Penguin Pass, a new program that gives you the opportunity to go behind the scenes for a private session with an endangered African penguin. But my favorite exhibit is Caribbean Reef, a long underwater glass tunnel that completely surrounds you with ocean life. You can save money by purchasing the Audubon Experience package and getting tickets to all three Audubon attractions, plus the IMAX theater. A good deal if you're spending a significant amount of time during your stay in New Orleans.
"New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." - Mark Twain
Fortunately for you, dear reader, this is my area of expertise. Most Americans eat to live, but in New Orleans we live to eat. And like most New Orleanians, I've devoured my way through this town, so I'm a self-proclaimed expert.
My father always says when he visits -- and I've heard this from others as well -- you really can't find a bad meal in New Orleans. What my father obviously fails to realize is that his entire culinary experience has been led by me, so his impression has been positively skewed. Friends and family don't let friends and family eat at bad restaurants in New Orleans. There are just too many wonderfully unique options out there.
So please allow me to guide you...
Heroes, submarines, hoagies, grinders ... In New Orleans we call them po-boys. I won't get into the history of the sandwich but they're served on flaky french bread loaves (the best come from Leidenheimer Baking Co.) and filled with anything from fried seafood to hot sausage to french fries and "dressed" with some combination of lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickles.
Down the block from the Superdome, toward the river, is Mother's Restaurant. They're known for their Ferdi Special, a po-boy packed with baked ham, roast beef, debris (the roast beef that falls into the gravy while baking in the oven) and gravy, served dressed. But there's always a long line down the block on a regular Tuesday, so I can't imagine what it's going to be like during the Super Bowl.
That's OK, you can skip it. Instead, go to the unassuming Domilise's uptown on Annunciation Street. It's absolutely nowhere near where you're most likely staying, so hop in a cab. I'd go with the half-and-half fried shrimp and fried oyster po-boy, quite possibly the best in the city. If they ask if you want it dressed, shut your mouth and nod politely. Football fans should note that Domilise's also has the distinct honor of being the Manning family's favorite place to get a po-boy, so multiple photos of Archie, Peyton and Eli adorn the walls.
Also off the beaten path but worth a trip is Parkway Bakery and Tavern on Hagan Avenue in mid-city. If it's good enough for President Obama, it's good enough for you. You could try the fried shrimp po-boy here, but my recommendation would be the super sloppy roast beef po-boy. Just roll up your sleeves and keep plenty of napkins nearby.
Geez, I don't even know where to start. Attempting to come up with an adequate yet concise listing of restaurants to try in New Orleans seems an almost impossible task. There are so many great options.
Which ones do I include, which ones do I leave out?
I've decided it's best if I try and stick with restaurants only in the downtown area since that's likely where most people will be staying and hanging out, even if it means not mentioning some of my personal favorites. I've also decided the best way to organize this is by chef, followed by a listing of a few of my all-time favorite dishes that I highly recommend you seek out and enjoy.
Of course everyone knows Emeril Lagasse. He's not originally from New Orleans but his culinary career took off here in New Orleans when he became executive chef at the world famous Commander's Palace. He left Commander's to start his own restaurant, Emeril's, and the rest is history. Emeril now has two other restaurants in addition to his flagship here in the city and a bunch more all over the world. They are all definitely good places to enjoy a meal. NOLA, which is on St. Louis Street in the Quarter, is probably the most casual. Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue is the most formal. And the original Emeril's is right in between, on Julia Street.
Immediately before Emeril took over the job, Paul Prudhomme was the executive chef at Commander's Palace. He's the guy who looks like Dom Deluise and has his own line of sauces and seasonings most likely found in your local grocery store. Prudhomme made blackened redfish a wildly popular culinary craze across the country in the 80s, so much so that the Louisiana government had to ban the commercial catching of redfish just to save the species. His restaurant on Chartres Street in the Quarter, where you can still get multiple blackened dishes, is called K-Paul's. Everything is incredibly rich and delicious.
By the way, as you could imagine, Commander's Palace is a pretty good restaurant known for cultivating culinary talent. It's located in the Garden District a little ways outside the downtown area and it's arguably the city's most famous and respected dining establishment. Commander's is owned and operated by members of the Brennan family, which is important to note because the Brennan family operates a lot of restaurants in New Orleans and chances are you will end up eating at one.
Aside from Commander's, the Brennan family operates Brennan's (invented Bananas Foster), Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse (great steaks), Red Fish Grill (for seafood lovers), Palace Cafe, Mr. B's Bistro (probably my personal favorite, saw Jim Mora Sr. eating here once), and Bourbon House Seafood (had my rehearsal dinner here). They are all located in the Quarter and they are excellent places to eat.
Another famous young chef -- and arguably New Orleans' best right now -- quickly building a restaurant empire here in New Orleans is John Besh. If you ever watch Food Network, you've undoubtedly seen him on numerous shows. His flagship restaurant and still his best is Restaurant August. It's pricey and the portions are small, but they are damn delectable. Besh now also owns and operates his Besh Steakhouse, a Franco-German brasserie called Luke, an Italian restaurant inside the Roosevelt hotel called Domenica, a casual 40s-themed diner located in the National WWII Museum called American Sector, and his newest Borgne, which focuses on local seafood. All are in the downtown area and easily accessible on foot. Try to go to at least one of these restaurants during your stay.
The newest top chef to make a huge splash in New Orleans is Donald Link, the genius behind one of the city's most popular and talked-about restaurants, Cochon. As the name implies, Link focuses on pork in the traditional cajun style he grew up with. At Cochon, no part of the pig goes to waste so you'll find unique menu items like pork cheeks, hogshead cheese, stuffed pig foot, fried livers, and hog jowls. Chef Donald also owns one of my favorite restaurants, Herbsaint, on St. Charles Avenue. Everything at this French and Italian-inspired is incredible.
Below are a handful of some of the best dishes I've ever had the pleasure of tasting in New Orleans. Please do yourself a favor and try one of two of these. Trust me, you will thank me later.
Chargrilled oysters from Drago's at the Hilton Riverside. This is Drew Brees' favorite thing to eat in New Orleans. Layered with garlic, butter and cheeses then grilled to perfection.
Potato gnocchi from Restaurant August. Handmade with Louisiana blue crab, shaved parmesan and black truffle. Quite possibly the richest, creamiest thing you'll ever enjoy.
Fried alligator with chili garlic aoili from Cochon. If you only eat alligator once, this is the way to do it.
Escargot Orleans from Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse. Tender escargot sautéed with smoked bacon, fennel and mushrooms in roasted garlic butter over a flaky vol-au-vent shell. Ask for extra bread for dipping.
Honey ginger glazed pork chop from Mr. B's Bistro. Grilled over a wood fire and lightly smoked, this chop is just the right combination of sweet and savory.
Luke burger from Luke. A truly gourmet burger topped with Allan Benton's bacon, caramelized onions, tomatoes, Emmenthaler Swiss cheese. Served with house-made fries on its own carving board.
"New Orleans life is such a night life. The thing that comes up very often is that our day essentially doesn't start until midnight or 2 in the morning." - Robert Asprin
I know what you're thinking: this is going to be all about Bourbon Street.
Bourbon Street is a tourist trap. I'm not saying you shouldn't go. It's a must, especially if it's your first time in New Orleans. Spend a night strolling the blocks, and pop into a few bars that catch your fancy. Catch at song at Preservation Hall, the birthplace of jazz. Definitely drink a Hurricane from Pat O'Briens and enjoy it by the flaming fountain in the courtyard. Stop in for a libation at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, the oldest bar in the country. Then pick up a Hand Grenade from Tropical Isle, to go, and chase it with a "Huge Ass Beer." By then you should be liquored up enough to sing a song at Cat's Meow karaoke bar.
But please don't let your entire New Orleans nightlife experience revolve around Bourbon Street. It's an all too common mistake. A huge mistake. I can't emphasize this point enough.
Pro Tip: Open container laws apply to the entire city, not just Bourbon Street or the French Quarter. Take your beverage everywhere!
For a change in scenery, spend an evening just beyond the Quarter on Frenchman Street instead. It's kinda like a smaller, more hipster version of Bourbon. You'll find a much more local crowd here and lots of cool, laid back music clubs. The Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor host lots of great live jazz. The Apple Barrel is a small joint usually with a blues musician playing.
But I would highly recommend going to see New Orleans Bingo Show! at d.b.a. on Thursday night (Jan. 31). They're an interactive theatrical cabaret and rock band. There's not other way to describe it. My favorite musical venue in the city, and probably the most famous, is Tipitina's. Named after a Professor Longhair song, Tips is located uptown on the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. Grab a cab to get there. What's great about Tipitina's is that it offers such a wide variety of music, from the best local musicians to national touring acts, all in a relatively intimate venue.
On Friday night (Feb. 1) you can catch Ludacris.
Also in the uptown area are local music hotspots The Maple Leaf (Oak Street), Les Bon Temps (Magazine Street), Rock & Bowl (South Carrollton Avenue) and Dos Jefes Cigar Bar (Tchoupitoulas). But there are literally hundreds of places to catch live music all over the city.
Show Alert: House of Blues will have a Hurricane Sandy relief concert hosted by Drew Brees, featuring Nelly and Swizz Beats on Friday (Feb. 1) for a $1,000 per ticket. They will also have Snoop Dogg performing late night on Saturday night (Feb. 2) at a much more reasonable price.
There are so many unique watering holes in each of New Orleans' neighborhoods that I wouldn't even know where to begin. One thing is for sure, whatever you're looking for, New Orleans is sure to have it. But if you're downtown and you're looking for the perfect cocktail concoction by a professional mixologist, I recommend the following places:
Arnauds French 75: Chris Hannah perfects the classics and invents some new ones.
Loa: Alan Walter serves up progressive drinks with unusual home-made ingredients.
Carousel Bar: The Hotel Monteleone Bar is unique for its slowly revolving bar.
And if you love to gamble, Harrah's New Orleans is just down the street from the Superdome and will make you feel like you're in Vegas with over 2,000 slots, tons of table games and a full service poker room.
What's great is that Super Bowl XLVII happens to be right smack in the middle of Mardi Gras. Two worlds are colliding! Unfortunately, because having parades and the Super Bowl going on at the same time in downtown New Orleans would have been complete chaos and too much to handle, the city has moved up the parades to the weekend before. Which means visitors for the big game won't get to see any authentic Mardi Gras action.
Unless, that is, you make the short trip to Metairie on Saturday night and take advantage of the unique opportunity to see the Krewe of Caesar rolling on its traditional Metaire route. The theme of this year's parade is "Caesar's Walk in the Park" and will feature elaborate costumes, extravagant floats, and unique throws all with theme park motif.
For Mardi Gras rookies, this will be your one and only chance to get a taste of genuine Mardi Gras action. The Hilton and Harrah's hotels will be busing guests out to the parade route. If you're not staying in one of those hotels, be sure to ask your concierge how you can check it out. It's a family-oriented parade, so bring the whole gang!
And when you go, be sure to look for me and my family on the Harry Potter-themed float No. 22.