Category Archives: Travel
The Lady and I took a long vacation to celebrate my sister’s sister-in-law’s wedding in St. Pete Beach. The hotel tried to move the wedding inside with a storm brewing, but the bride wanted to be on the beach. Her many large Southern male guests were glad to comply. The chairs were whisked out to the sand and the rain waited until the last group photo happened after the ceremony.
As far as I can guess, this was my tenth trip to New Orleans. My office is headquartered there and given time and money, it’s my favorite city to visit. For once, I had some vacation time saved and headed down last weekend with The Lady, BC, and his gent for five glorious days of debauchery. The weather could have cooperated a tiny bit more, but we still enjoyed highs in the 60′s for most of our visit and very few scattered thunderstorms.
Since I’ve made my rounds in the French Quarter (and outside, guided by locals), here are my recommendations if you get a chance to head down to Louisiana for a getaway of your own.
New Orleans is as much about food as it is about drinking all night and flashing your boobs at strangers. Everyone goes down expecting to find “where the locals eat” and fill up on gumbo and jambalaya. A little secret- the locals aren’t doing much eating in the French Quarter. Also, you’re not going to “discover” a restaurant there- it is the tourist district and everything is located there specifically so that tourists can find it. Get out of your need to be original and enjoy it anyway. Almost every restaurant in the Quarter serves a version of red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, oysters, po boys, and the like. And having eaten in almost all of them, they are all just fine. Don’t worry that you’re missing a mouth miracle if that’s what you want to eat- just pick one and sit down.
That being said, I usually make time to stop at Le Bayou on Bourbon that first night when I arrive and am too tired to make decisions. They can usually seat you quickly, bring you a giant Abita beer, and serve my favorite po boy in town- fried shrimp and fried green tomatoes with remoulade. If you want something slightly more upscale, Desire: An Oyster Bar, also on Bourbon and connected to the Royal Sonesta Hotel, is the way to go. Their Oysters Desire, with cheese and butter are delicious, even if you don’t like oysters. The shrimp & grits is a favorite, the servings are sizable, and they bring you as much fresh-baked bread as your table can consume (we had four loaves). They also know how to make a great cocktail- I love their Sazeracs. The servers treat you like royalty, which is rare in a restaurant that doesn’t mind if you wear jeans.
If you want to just put a sandwich in your face, Felix’s is a good choice, just off the main drag on Iberville Street. The line for the oyster bar here gets long, but at the tables, you can get a great crawfish po boy and a fried alligator appetizer. It looks like a greasy spoon, but the food (especially the fried stuff) is good eats. If you like your sandwiches with flair, you cannot go wrong at the Royal Street Deli. I had this monster. Twice.
That’s ham, Brie, apples, mustard (and the second time, golden raisins) on a fluffy roll of bread. It is a sandwich that takes two hands to eat. It also comes with a side of sweet potato salad, which I liked- and I hate potato salad. The servers are friendly and we never waited for a seat.
So, now that your tourist food needs in the French Quarter have been met, where should you go if you want to do some exploring?
If you can take just a few steps outside the French Quarter into the Marigny neighborhood, you can eat a platter that will make your face explode at The Praline Connection. Their “Taste of Soul” platter includes gumbo, red beans & rice, jambalaya, greens, fried chicken, fried catfish, ribs and bread pudding. BC and his Gent shared one and had enough to share the wealth with us. The barbecue sauce on the ribs is the best that I’ve ever tasted and the bread pudding smelled like my first cocktail of the day, in a good way. Gent also ordered their etouffee and oh.my.word. It was the best etouffee I’ve had at any restaurant in New Orleans. Ever. Next time I go back, I’ll order a giant bowl to hoard all to myself. They also have pralines in many flavors to taste (and of course, buy).
If you need a hamburger, the only way to go is to swing by Port of Call on Esplanade. It’s a dark, crowded little spot that smells like hamburger grease, but that’s because hamburgers and steaks are their only menu. That and giant loaded baked potatoes that will rock your world- they do not skimp on the toppings. I was five bites into my potato before I found an actual bite of potato under the cheese and bacon and sour cream and bacon and chives and butter. The burgers are incredible, but if you don’t like it pink, order it medium well or well. My “medium” was way over on the rare side- I didn’t mind, but if a little blood scares you, better safe than sorry. Your other mission while you are here is to order the Monsoon, their insane rum and fruit punch house drink. I am a lady who can hold my liquor, but every time I have one of these, I end up boozed up before I leave their door, with just one. I weave down sidewalks. I end up having to throw away part of it. It’s a strong one. Then again, being hammered might not be your idea of a good time. More for me.
Everyone talks about Antoine’s and Galatoire’s but if I had my choice, my last meal would be at Irene’s Cuisine. This is your “dress up” meal- get out of your tourist jeans and be ready to wait. They almost never take reservations. Brad Pitt would have to wait at this tiny place. Irene herself will greet you at the door many nights- and ask you to wait. But, it will be worth it. For $60- $80, you will eat food that you never thought possible. I had a steak that melted in my mouth and a potato side of thinly sliced, perfectly cooked au gratin that nearly brought me to tears. The story is that Irene and her husband Tommy co-owned the joint until an ugly divorce. She got to keep the restaurant, so out of spite, he opened Tommy’s Cuisine just across town. Tommy’s is bigger, the food is fine, and they take reservations. But it’s nowhere as good as Irene’s. Stick to the original.
Another first come, first served restaurant that is worth every minute waiting is the Green Goddess. This place will ruin other food for you forever. You will dream about soup that you ate there one night.
If you are a travel or food columnist and want to write about the cheese and wine lists here, you will have a winner on your hands. If you are me and show up in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and your beat-up old Converse to sit at a lovely table in the alley courtyard, you will still be greeted by the friendly chef who checks in often to be sure you are still swooning as each course arrives. The Pear 75, with champagne and pear brandy was perfection. Don’t kid yourself and just order an entrée. Go here and order the tasting menu (which changes based on the season). Every single bite that you put in your mouth will be divine. If it happens to be a warm breezy evening and you are full of this food, found tucked away in an alley that you almost didn’t find, you will rate this night one of the best of your life.
Other gems to check out, if you haven’t ruptured something yet: Liborio’s Cuban Restaurant makes a phenomenal flank steak; Zea’s (a local chain) will fill you up with rotisserie and southern style veggies and is a great excuse to hop on the St. Charles streetcar for $1.25. If you need some gelato like nobody’s business, hop on over to La Divina Gelateria- I had Creole cream cheese flavor and lapped it up after a big lunch- it was too good to waste. You have to go to Cafe’ du Monde, because it’s some kind of tourist law, but if you care more about coffee than beignets, I choose Community Coffee. I used to order 5 lbs. of their coffee and chicory shipped to my house every month or so when my budget allowed- it’s the only coffee I’d have mailed to me. If you live in the South, you are lucky and can buy their chicory coffee right on your grocery store shelves. I pick it up when I head back to visit the family.
So, what have I missed? Any New Orleans favorite dining spots that you can’t wait to get back to?
Two weeks ago, I spent four nights and five days in California with my sisters. We were on our first just-us, unsupervised, all-adults vacation. Ever. And in direct violation of my firm rule about family visits- three days is the limit. Just long enough to feel like everyone spent some time together, but not too long so that everyone reverts to their puberty selves and starts bickering over jeans and shoes.
We almost made it. It was, of course, the last full night out that put us over the top. We spent a beautiful first day touring wine country and tasting some delicious beverages, picnicking looking out over the hills full of vines and mustard, laughing at our tasting bar neighbors. In true Trousers Family style, my middle sister looked over in horror as the wine snob beside us dumped something she didn’t like out into a bucket. “What a waste!,” she whispered, and proceeded to take her sample of the same bad wine as a shooter.
We had an early night after kicking back at the hotel with a bottle of local red picked up at the Target on the way back from the wineries. (We are also cheap. Or as I prefer to put it, thrifty.)
The next day, we headed into the city to explore. We stayed in Fisherman’s Wharf at the Courtyard. Seriously, the most convenient hotel of all time. Right by the end of the trolley line, on the streetcar line, within blocks of the buses, and a couple of blocks from Pier 39, the big entertainment complex. There was plenty of good seafood to be had, bars, and a ton of affordable souvenir shopping to be done. Also, the woman at the front desk will help you find your drunken sister when she wanders off with complete strangers at 2 am. Which is what brings me to the four day rule.
We decided, after two days of sight-seeing, to “stop in” at the nightclub next to the hotel. This place looked like every episode of Jersey Shore was happening simultaneously on the dance floor. The bartender was generously pouring Maker’s Mark and Diet Cokes. We all had entirely too many. And all of a sudden, it’s lights on and last call and we are tipsy and sassy and heading for the door. We’ve passed Day Three into Day Four. And now, everyone gets a drunken opinion, because we’re not visiting anymore- we’re family. Blood, or out for blood.
This, my sisters decided, was a great time to weigh in on their thoughts about whether I should be dating a woman (no), whether they thought I spent my money properly (no), and to share that my brother-in-law believes I am in some extended delusion about myself. Day Four is ugly. We hold most of this conversation standing outside the hotel, smoking and sniping at each other, until some guys from the bar invite us to a party. As the oldest sister, with the best tolerance for booze, I decline politely and firmly. No stranger parties at 3 am. No way, no how.
The drunkest sister decides that if I won’t let her leave, she should invite these strangers up to our room where I have a bottle of wine. Another veto. I am rapidly becoming the “UnFun One” or as I like to think of it, “The Safe One When It Comes to Stranger Danger.” So, while I step out to light a cigarette and have my back turned, boom! Missing sister. Or as The Lady said when I later relayed this story, “A lost party member is right up there with The Worst.”
Yep. Much more sobered, and officially pissed off I set out to search for The Adventurer. I put out an APB with the aforementioned front desk clerk, roam the few blocks around the hotel hoping that she didn’t, God forbid, get in a car, and discover that she has left her cell phone on the night stand. Thirty minutes later, as I pace up and down the front sidewalk and the youngest cries on my shoulder, the desk clerk flags me down. And there is The Adventurer smiling like a Cheshire Cat in the hotel lobby. Exhausted, we take her upstairs and everyone passes out for the night.
But, because we are, remember, in violation of the Three Day Rule, the morning starts off with the kind of screaming match that we haven’t had since high school- accusations, insults, rapidly shifting allegiances (oh, the joy of three siblings), and a moment where we all just agreed to go off and explore for the last day without one another. A real sister explosion.
And then, a tiny miracle. As The Adventurer is declaring me an old fuddy duddy and enemy of fun and just before she goes to slam the bathroom door, I say “….All you had to say was, ‘I’m sorry.’” Silence. She takes a shower and ten minutes later, she comes out with “You know… you’re right.” Contrition, hugs all around. We head off to taste Irish coffees at the bar that claims to have invented them.
That’s the way it goes with sisters. At least with mine. And while I’m not thrilled that they feel the need to have opinions about my life that I disagree with, there’s no way I could stop them from sharing them. That’s how it works.
We find each other when we wander off; we find our ways back to each other every time.
My job sends me all over the country. I’ve been to New Orleans more times than I can count, California (Anaheim, LA, and San Francisco), Baltimore, Philadelphia, Manhattan, Atlanta, Orlando, Oklahoma, Cleveland, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Las Vegas, upstate NY, Virginia, and Arizona. I just came back from two days in Washington, DC. And lest you think this is all glamor and business class and room service, here’s what a typical business trip looks like.
I catch the earliest flight that I can from Pittsburgh, which usually means catching the 4 am airport shuttle in the dark. Because Pittsburgh isn’t a hub airport anymore and my employer is cutting costs, I almost always have to transfer at least once, if not twice. To get to DC, I flew through Boston. When I arrived in the afternoon, I took a cab (and my luggage) to my first meeting of the day, which lasted until dinner time. I stumbled two blocks from my hotel, found something affordable to eat, and stumbled back to hit the sack, since by this point, I had been awake for 17 hours.
After 6 hours of sleep, I wake up, throw on a suit and run to the hotel Starbucks for a coffee. Corporate coffee is the devil, I know, but it’s convenient and it’s not even 6:30 am yet. Then I dash off to an all-day event where I am running at top speed from 6:45 am to 7:30 pm. If I’m lucky, like on this trip, I have thirty minutes to grab a sandwich at Subway.
My co-workers planned a dinner reservation at 8:30, but since I can barely hold polite conversation by this point, it’s back to the hotel to seek room service. The hotel does not have room service. I bundle up and slump over to a restaurant a few blocks away and collapse into a chair, praying for speedy service. Before the last course shows up, I’m shoving my credit card at the waitress and begging for mercy and sleep.
A quick phone call to the Lady, responding to twenty or thirty urgent work emails and I’m back in bed. I’m up again at dawn to pack my bags and dash off to the airport in a taxi and head back home.
I have friends who claim to be jealous of all of my travel, and I suppose when you see the locations it does sound fun. But in reality, I very rarely get to see the cities that I visit. Museums close at 5 and my meetings often run much later. If I’m at a convention or training, like next week, I’m in a chain hotel by the airport without a car.
Don’t get me wrong, in this economy I’m grateful to even have a job. And every so often, a meeting will get cancelled and get me a chance to see a little piece of the cities I’m visiting. And if I get to go somewhere warm in the winter, just glimpsing some sunshine as I run around is a blessing. But, more often, I see chain restaurants, chain hotels, and entirely too much of the Applebee’s at the airport.
I think that’s why I’m really looking forward to next month’s trip with my sisters to San Francisco and Napa. A real opportunity to stroll around and see things during the day! (And to get wine buzzed with my sisters…) Then in March, I’m hoping to make a long weekend trip to New Orleans (without meetings!) with the Lady, BC, and the gang.
I’d hate to think that I never got see the cities I’ve been to. So, I suppose I’ll have to make that happen on my own time.