Continued from The French Quarter - Part I
Lafitte's is actually a block or two beyond the "party" section of Bourbon, which helps explain some of the appeal to locals. I have a few friends in New Orleans, and they all say they prefer to do their socializing away from Bourbon Street.
However, every time we go to New Orleans, we tend to end up in some of the same places on Bourbon Street. One of our first stops is often Tropical Isle, which has three locations in the Quarter (721 Bourbon Street; corner of Orleans and Bourbon; and 738 Toulouse Street). Of the three, my favorite location is Toulouse St, a cozy nook of a location. Tropical Isle opened for the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair and has been serving up tasty frozen drinks ever since, notably its signature "Hand Grenade." This sweet green drink can be served frozen or on the rocks and comes with a green hand grenade-shaped plastic cup, but either way, it's a powerful drink, so use caution.
Pat O'Brien's has several locations around the city, but the original at 718 St. Peter St. (at Bourbon Street) is a favorite. This sprawling building was built in 1791 and originally housed the country's first Spanish Theatre. Later, it served as a private residence. During Prohibition, B.H. "Pat" O'Brien operated a speakeasy called "Mr. O'Brien's Club Tipperary". The password was "storm's brewin." In 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, O'Brien's opened his now-legal bar on the 600 block of St. Peter. It moved to its current location in 1942. O'Brien's is the originator of the Hurricane drink; legend has it that during WWII, when hard spirits were hard to come by, O'Brien had more rum than he knew what to do with. He mixed it up with fruit juices and other things and served it in 26-oz. hurricane glasses to the sailors. Today you can get this famous drink in a wide variety of sizes and glasses, and you can take the glass with you. (For a discount on refills, bring your glass back up to the counter so they don't charge you for the glass again.) The inner courtyard is a great place to hang out, especially on the raised area around the "fountain of flame."
Open-container laws in the city mean that people get their drinks of choice from their bars of choice and then wander up and down the street, people-watching and checking out bands. When I first went to New Orleans in 2000, it seemed like not too many clubs required a cover charge unless it was a Friday or Saturday. Now cover charges are nearly de riguer at places that have bands, just to ensure you spend at least a little bit of money at the club. One of my favorite places to watch live music is directly across the street from Pat O'Brien's (St. Peter St. at Bourbon)—I've been there several times and still couldn't tell you the name of the place, but if you are standing on the corner with Pat's to your back and looking across Bourbon St., then you're looking at the place. This small corner joint specializes in jazz and Dixie musicians, and while it may not be Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St.), it lacks the long lines, and the drinks are reasonable and the bar staff friendly.
Across the street from the Hall at 723 St. Peter is Rev Zombie's Voodoo Shop, a two-room place crammed full of voodoo-related items. However, do not go there looking for dolls to stick revenge pins into; the shop claims to only practice "good, helpful" voodoo. Additionally, signs on the shop request that you do not take pictures within.
Most of the shops along Bourbon Street are filled with typical tourist stuff—T-shirts, masks, and beads, mainly. Although flashing/public nudity is in fact an offense in New Orleans, there are still plenty who do it all the time. (Giving the traditional Mardi Gras cry of "Give me something, mister!" totally new meaning). As they are all out to get your buck, the prices are fairly competitive, so keep an eye on prices. However, it should be noted that, occasionally, shops will offer specialty beads that you cannot find at other locations (sports teams, specialty items, etc.), so if you find beads you like, you might want to get them while you remember. The traditional throw beads are cheap—you should be able to get anywhere from three to ten for $1.
If you continue down Bourbon, you'll come to the modest black-and-white signage for Remoulade, sister restaurant to New Orlean's famous Arnaud's Restaurant. This budget-friendly restaurant has quality Cajun eats in a pleasant atmosphere and is popular with locals and tourists alike, without feeling touristy.
Should you want something a bit more upscale, head down Rue St. Louis to Emeril's NOLA, which is probably my favorite of his restaurants. This cozy two-story restaurant serves up a delicious menu of nouveau American cuisine and has a great wine menu for those who want to give Bourbon Street's bars a pass.
Diagonally across the street from NOLA is the place that became our favorite bar in the French Quarter, Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street at St. Louis), home of the Pimm's Cup drink, which is also a favorite among writers and artists. On a historical note, the man who built this place, Nicholas Girod, was the first mayor of New Orleans (1812-1815). In 1821, he offered his residence to Napoleon as a refuge while he was in exile. (Despite 40+ years of Spanish rule, it is clear that heavy French sentiment remained.) While Napoleon never was actually able to take Girod up on his offer, the name stuck. During the day, the Napoleon is open for meals and parties. We spent much of Halloween night enjoying the Napoleon's quiet atmosphere, classical music, and rustic, charming interior. It was pleasantly tourist-free (well, aside from us), with the occasional revellers sticking their noses in the door, only to turn away when they realized this was not party central. It is not hard to imagine the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, Capote, Wilder, or Williams relaxing at a table here, soaking up observations and inspiration.
From here, you can circle back towards Jackson Square. The Pontalba townhouses, which flank both sides of the square and which are some of New Orleans most photogenic and best-known buildings, date to 1849-51. Aside from their residents and upgrades to things like plumbing and electricity, these buildings are little changed from their construction time. The story of Micaela Almonester Pontalba is quite fascinating in itself—born in 1795 and daughter of Andres Almonester y Rojas, who had put his own stamp upon the city as a notary, politician, and real estate manager, she was married to her cousin, Baon Xavier Celestin de Pontalba, at the age of 15, and eventually was shipped off to Paris to live. When she figured out her husband and stepfather were attempting to swindle her out of her inheritance, her stepfather attempted to kill her before taking his own life. She not only survived but went back to the city of her birth, where she lived out many more years, putting her own stamp upon the city.
Here, too, at Jackson Square is the French Market, home to several shops, none of them particularly remarkable, aside from Café du Monde. It is interesting to note that the Spanish actually brought about this market, but since it was located in the "French" part of town and all the butchers here were French, the name stuck. The most popular tenant here is the landmark Café du Monde, in operation since 1862. They are open 24/7 and never close, except on Christmas or when a hurricane comes too close to town. Their menu is quite limited, as well: dark-roasted coffee (with or without chicory), beignets (triangular French-style donuts, served heavily coated with powdered sugar), white and chocolate milk, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Due to changing tastes, they have added iced coffee and soft drinks to their menu, but even with such a limited menu, business is always booming. In addition to their original French Market location, they have opened a few locations around town, and you can get their original beignet mix and chicory coffee in stores around the U.S., as well as online. The café is a great place to relax, people-watch, and if you're lucky, catch street musicians and jazz bands perform alongside on the sidewalk.
And the French Quarter is definitely about the people. Whether battered or in fresh repair, the Quarter attracts them in droves to live, to visit, to play. Here you can observe the colorful variety of life and experience it firsthand. It is very walkable, and there is enough to spend a couple days walking around and exploring.