I’m not a massive Jazz fan by any stretch. My Dad always played a lot of jazz records at home growing up so I know my Satchmo from my Duke Ellington. But to be honest, it wasn’t the music that drew me to New Orleans for their annual Jazz & Heritage Festival in May – it was the food!
I’d always heard so much about Nawlins cuisine that apparently ‘I just had to try’, so on a recent travel whim I decided to divert from California (following the hedonistic Coachella Music Festival) and headed south-east to the colourful state of Louisiana.
Po Boys, Gumbo, Crawfish and Gator-sausage. All things that sound like a Dr Suess breakfast, would be sampled (and re-sampled) over the five days of my visit to the city of jazz.
So based on my five days tearing around New Orleans, here are five things that I can recommend checking out on your first visit:
Commanders Palace Restaurant
OK, this is one recommendation with two options…
If you’re looking to go somewhere that is rich in history with world class cuisine presented to you like a well choreographed ballet by some of the most professional wait staff you’ll ever see, go here for dinner. I don’t want to ruin it for you by giving away too much, just go, it’s an experience you’ll talk about at many a dinner party to come.
However, if you’re not up for the formal experience but still want to see what the fuss is about, do what every local Nawlins law firm does and head along on Friday for lunch.
Q: So why are all the local lawyers here for lunch on a Friday?
A: Because Friday’s are 25c Martini day!
You’ll need to book as it’s a popular place, but you get the full Palace experience with a lot more local feel and rowdiness without needing to be too fancy. The lunch menu is a cut down version of the dinner menu, the Turtle Soup is their signature dish and they have two and three course set-menu options that are very reasonably priced, (so you can get a taste of all the good stuff in one sitting).
Tip:If you’re traveling with friends, it’s a great way to kick off a weekend of partying and one occasion where you won’t mind picking up the tab!
When my wife suggested we do a plantation tour, I was not sold.
Big old houses out in the sticks where their rich white owners would keep slaves? Didn’t sound very good to me, but I’m so glad I buckled because the plantation tour was one of the highlights of my whole trip.
The Laura Plantation is a Creole sugar cane plantation, about an hour’s drive out of New Orleans city. Upon arrival, you check in at the gift shop and pay for your guided tour of the grounds (ours was included in the package tour price, but if you’re driving a rental car you can purchase guided tours at the gift shop).
The tour itself lasts about an hour as you follow a guide in small groups around the different areas of the plantation grounds, while they give you a story about the different events that took place on the grounds over the last 300 years. Laura was a unique plantation in that it was run mainly by women, the most colourful and successful of them all was a headstrong Creole dame named Laura.
OK, this one is purely for the party people. We were staying in the city and most nights ended up out until the wee smalls so Daisy Dukes became our second home. Open 24 hours a day, this is the place to go for a New Orleans cuisine fix, when everything else is shut or looks like a tacky tourist trap.
Shrimp Po Boys (basically a bread roll with fried shrimp and seafood cocktail sauce), Gumbo, Gator Sausage and Crawfish cooked to order and served to the locals, by the locals, every day of the year. The menu isn’t fancy or expensive but it’s good home style cookin’ that will fill the gap nicely. If you aren’t game to try any of the local specialties, they have plenty of normal American diner fare to keep everyone happy.
Did someone say Crawfish?!
By day you can sit out the front, cafe style, and watch the doin’s goin on. It’s located really close to the French Quarter and many of the most popular hotels.
(Our regular waitress was actually called Daisy, true story).
Frenchmen Street By Day
If you’re wanting to check out a real New Orleans jazz club, then head down to Frenchmen Street any night of the week and pop your head in the first place you hear music. This is where the locals come to hear their favourite musicians play in characteristic bars that are often packed to the back.
Located in the 7th Ward district of New Orleans, this three block section of clubs and bars will put a smile on your dial that will last all night and is only a $5-8 cab from the centre of town.
Many places ask for a 2 drink minimum and Phil normally comes round between each set (that’s Phil as in Phil Up The Bucket with tips!). I don’t want to recommend any bar over another because half the fun is exploring the street for yourself and wandering in and out until you find your right vibe.
A good tip is to head down early (around 6ish), saddle up in one of the bars and enjoy a meal. The food is always good in these places, they’re here to serve the locals after all. Unlike the tourist traps you find up on Bourbon St, these bars fight for their patronage so maintain a really high standard of food and entertainment.
Some bars may have a cover charge later on at night, but don’t walk away, think about where you are, this could be the last time you ever come here! Normally the most you’ll pay is around $5-10 per person if they do have a cover and if you’re ordering food, make sure you include fried pickles, they’re amazing.
It’s a real bohemian style neighbourhood with interesting art sprawled all over the sides of the wooden buildings and when you’re not bar-hopping, you’ll always be entertained by the talented street performers.
But what about the Jazz Festival you cry?? To be honest, if you weren’t into jazz in a big way, I would advise you to visit New Orleans outside of the 2 weeks of Jazz Fest. As you would expect, hotel prices are hiked up and the good restaurants can be hard to get into during this busy time.
But if you ARE into jazz? Then I would recommend grabbing your tickets EARLY and booking your accommodation early too.