Easy Does It...Or Not

Megan Nix |
Travel

Why is it that when you're in a town with an abundance of amazing restaurants, you never know where to go? This affliction cursed me when I lived in New Orleans, and going back to visit, I was annoyed to find my wishy-washiness had only been magnified by distance. Did you know that post-Katrina, there are more restaurants and bars in the town than there had been before? When every corner manifests fried delights like powdered sugar beignets, dressed oyster po' boys, “better Cheddar,” and tall boy beers handed out street windows with their accompanying to-go cups, it's not so easy making decisions in a town known for its big ease.

My ideal day back in New Orleans would start on Magazine–a street unfortunately overlooked by more sedentary visitors to the town. While the quarter will give you an eyeful (and usually the same voyeuristic eyeful you could find on MTV or any tourist pamphlet showcasing Bourbon, boobs, and beads), Magazine Street will give you the family-friendly diversity of culture and music for which New Orleans is locally known. This is where lacquered antiques lounge drying in the sun and jazz tiptoes out open bar doors; where locals laze under spinning fans with their Abita beers and steaming plates of day-long marinated red beans and rice. 

If you want to start your eating spree with a little character, Surrey's Cafe {surreyscafeandjuicebar.com} in the Lower Garden District is your place. Right after the storm, Surrey's was one of the first places to re-open, and I'd often walk there for cheesy grits and orange-carrot-celery juice in styrofoam cups. While Surrey's won't serve you with the pomp and circumstance of a full-out, fill-you-til-you hurt Jazz brunch, they will give you the best of the basics–Southern food with a Central American flair and a cup of coffee so simple and good you wonder what they're putting in it behind closed doors. While you make your way through a fresh boudin breakfast biscuit from Creole Country Sausage, don't forget to look up at the local art showcased on the cottage's paneled walls. And bring cash–Surrey's, like lots of New Orleans staples, frowns upon plastic. This is a city that keeps it real.

Backtracking past the hipsters and their many colored bicycles near Juan's Flying Burrito, past the flea market on the corner of Jackson and the man with dreadlocks so long they sweep the root-busted sidewalks, you'll likely work up an appetite for a cold drink. If Bloody Marys are your thing, Cafe Rani {504.895.2500} makes a mean horseradish masterpiece, and with a little worcestershire spring in your step, the two more blocks towards uptown will feel more like two steps. Besides Cajun cookeries, Mediterranean establishments have long spiced the narrow streets of the Irish Channel, and Byblos {byblosrestaurants.com} (one of Tarek Tay's restaurants) on Magazine is one of the best. My favorite combo is the basket of warm pita triangles next to an oily lagoon of housemade hummus and overnight-soaked lamb kabob. Views include women sanding down cypress furniture at the woodshop across the way and a local boy who plays Louis Armstrong songs on the trumpet every day between Louisiana and Washington streets.

If you're in for the long haul, I'd suggest walking downtown on Magazine past the streetcar on Canal and its many flashy crazies, through the fern and wrought-iron maze of the French Quarter, all the way down to Frenchmen Street where iced coffees aren't the only thing to be had: the thumping of drum circles, sizzling coming from taco trucks, and lingering notes of an afternoon accordian and fiddle player dueling inside the Spotted Cat are all free symphonies. Cross Elysian Fields (while singing the name of it to the tune of “Strawberry Fields Forever”), and you're in the Bywater district–an off-the-beaten path artist and musician's community next to the river (get it? “by-water”), where French cafés, bars, and bookstores snuggle up with shotgun-style, turquoise-and-purple painted homes.  

It's probably late afternoon, a perfect time to finger feed yourself a few tapas at Mimi's in the Marigny {mimisinthemarigny.com} (calamari sautéed with chorizo, white wine, and cream, or manchego and guava slices on toast, anyone?) and a round of pool. My other indulgence at Mimi's is a red beer–locally brewed Abita, preferably, with a little glug of tomato juice–which turns daytime beer into a healthy snack. Cross the tracks, and you're in front of Dr. Bob's–a folk artist, half Crow Indian and half French/German, who's turned a Bywater warehouse into a cosmetic shop for salvaged swamp wood.  “Be Nice or Leave,” “Red Beans and Rice–Oh So Nice” signs and bottle-cap alligators are a few of Dr. Bob's pieces you might have seen in the mom-and-pop shops on the way. See? New Orleans is a continuum of colors and neighborhood connections.

Onward from Bob's, in the shadows of ships 10 stories tall, there it is: that little 100-year-old house across from the Mississippi. It looks like any home–white, with salt-eaten wood, kelly green shutters, and a red sign that reads Elizabeth's {elizabeths-restaurant.com} above the thin screen door. This is where you eat when you've lived in New Orleans long enough to know where to go. Bypass the small tables with checkered tablecloths and sneak up the creaky wooden staircase to a dining room that feels like your grandma's. When you ask Chef Byron Peck what to try, he'll tell you, tatooed, overalled, and using many y'alls,  “The dream burger with praline bacon”–that's right, he said praline bacon–“or the fried oysters in blue cheese soup or the hanger steak with mushrooms and red wine reduction which is also most delicious.” We had the frog legs, blue cheese oysters, and fried chicken with pickles and sweet potato casserole last time. To start.  

Truth is, neither Peck nor anyone else in town will make the burden of ordering any easier. You've walked a lot, sweated an ungodly amount, and you deserve your candied bacon, fried appetizer, steak, seafood, and stuffed mirliton, too.

But sweet Lord, don't ask what's for dessert.