Even for a city like New Orleans, which has been recovering from viral, meteorological and other disasters for three centuries, the last few years have been rough. But today, the country’s most freewheeling city moves on with a sense of relief and renewed confidence, tempting visitors with tried-and-true charms and a few bright new baubles.
A spirit of studied elegance and experimentation, in particular, has left its mark on the hospitality industry, with bespoke boutique hotels popping up in neighborhoods outside the French Quarter, and major international players, including Virgin Hotels and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, opening outposts in near the heart of the old town.
A place that runs on tourist dollars and socializing would certainly suffer significant losses during the pandemic, especially in the food world. Among them was K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, the French Quarter that closed in 2020 after decades of spreading the gospel of Creole and Cajun cooking. More dialed-in foodies mourn the loss of Upperline, JoAnn Clevenger’s casually elegant Uptown dining room, which fits the bill as the best kind of wrinkled button-up shirt.
But fear not: no one goes home hungry. New and old restaurants roar again as tourists flock back to the city and locals return to their love affair with their city.
Culturally, return visitors will be impressed by a new museum dedicated to Southern Jewish history, while a number of art and technology-driven attractions offer an immersive and virtual look at what it means to be in New Orleans.
eat and sleep
While the French tend to get the highest bills, the Spanish-speaking world has also had an inordinate influence on New Orleans culture, from the Spanish colonial era to the pivotal months after Katrina, when Mexican and Central American workers helped out in the reconstruction. One of the hottest new restaurants in town, Lengua Madre pays tribute to Chef Ana Castro’s family roots in Mexico City. Her sophisticated five-course tasting menu ($70) promises to tease the culinary and cultural connections to the two cities: One of her mottos is “New Orleans is home, Mexico is life.” The menu changes all the time, but it’s the kind of place where you’re likely to find mustard greens on your tlacoyo.
Pandemic precautions, including wearing a mask and proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test, have been lifted for restaurants and bars. The legendary bastions of Creole cuisine – including Dookie Chase’s Restaurant, Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s – thrive and masterfully make the biggest hits. Elsewhere, guests will find new experimentation and whimsy. A new Uptown restaurant called Mister Mao, from transplanted chef and “Chopped” TV show champion Sophina Uong, bills itself as a “tropical roadhouse” that’s “blatantly inauthentic” with Southeast Asian, Mexican and Indian influences: think of pakoras, Maya sikil pak pumpkin seed dip, Khmer grapefruit and mango salad all chatting at the same table. In the hip Bywater neighborhood, the new Chance In Hell SnoBalls pop-up (motto: “Icy treats for a world on fire!”) gleefully pushes the boundaries of the New Orleans summer treat, with homemade flavors including sweetcorn with thyme and a “Tom Kha” version with basil, ginger, mint, lemongrass, lime and coconut milk.
An old port city is home to such mash-ups, even if it honors its traditions. Indeed, over the years, Israeli-American chef Alon Shaya has earned homeboy status in New Orleans while swinging labneh and high-end hummus in the land of jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. There’s something about the pace and pitch of brunch in New Orleans, in particular, that Mr. Shaya just seems to understand. So there was a lot of anticipatory drool over his new project, Miss River, which opened in August 2021 at the new Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans. He calls Miss River his “love letter to Louisiana,” offering his take on duck and andouille gumbo and a whole buttermilk fried chicken, served in a dining room reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age.
The Four Seasons, which also opened last year, is its own big story, bringing 341 high-end rooms (doubling $395) into a repurposed downtown office tower formerly known as the World Trade Center. It features a second notable restaurant, Chemin à la Mer, by talented Louisiana chef Donald Link, and a crescent-shaped rooftop pool overlooking 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 2018 in Faubourg Marigny and a number of old buildings (former school, rectory , monastery and church). A visit can feel like living through an imaginative fictional remix of their actual history. 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 atmosphere rhymes closely with the Columns, the much-loved old mansion hotel hangout further up the street). street); and the Hotel Saint Vincent (recently doubling at $305), located in a 19th-century Garden District orphanage that was until recently a budget hostel. All three offer fine places to grab a drink and bask in interior design microfantasies, each evoking a distinct iteration of sub-tropical Wes Anderson chic.
Culture and revelry
The rule for a good time in New Orleans remains the same: Trust your instinct for improvisation, avoid fruity alcoholic drinks served in showy novelty cups, and follow your ears, especially to the sounds of street parades rolling through the neighborhoods again. The radio station WWOZ FM 90.7 remains the best source for following such events and for the action in the music clubs. New to the scene and old at the same time, Toulouse’s renovated theater is in the heart of the French Quarter, which until recently housed a venue called One Eyed Jacks. Long before that, New Orleans piano legend James Booker had a standing performance there. The new management is booking an eclectic mix of 21st century R&B, indie rock and other delights.
Two new attractions attempt to explain and extend the New Orleans experience. Jamnola (for “Joy Art Music New Orleans”) is an immersive 12-room art space, with each room highlighting an aspect of the city’s cultural wealth. Vue Orleans, atop the Four Seasons, offers panoramic views of the city and forward-thinking presentations of the city’s history and culture.
A more specific kind of historical immersion can be found in the new home of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which offers welcome nuances to the story of a region all too often brushed broadly solely as pure Bible Belt. With its roots in a Jewish summer camp in Mississippi, the museum moved to downtown New Orleans and had a soft opening in 2021. The new home makes sense in a city where Jews have played an important, yet underappreciated, role in education, health care , commerce and culture, and it complements the nearby National World War II Museum, which has evolved with numerous expansions into a world-class attraction that is reason enough to visit New Orleans alone.
Elsewhere, the city continues to heal from a period of hardship that included not only the pandemic but also Hurricane Ida, the Category 4 storm that slammed into Louisiana in August. New Orleans was spared the kind of widespread catastrophe it suffered during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But there were some significant injuries on the cultural scene. Among them was the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a handmade love letter to the Black New Orleans carnival and the culture of masking.
The museum has been closed for months after the building it housed, an old funeral home in the Treme neighborhood, was damaged by the storm. But in a recent interview, Dominique Dilling, the museum’s executive director, said a rebirth is in the works, with a new location selected in the heart of Treme and a grand reopening party on July 9.