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    Rolling on the River in the ‘New’ New Orleans

    By David Landis–

    When a dear friend and his wife said that they wanted to celebrate a milestone birthday in New Orleans and asked us to join them, it took less than a New York minute to say, “Yes.”

    I’ve always said that New Orleans is one of the most unique American cities. The food, the architecture, the nightlife, the welcoming hospitality of the locals, the walkability and the music (oh, and did I mention the bars?) all combine for a singular vacation destination. But truth be told, my husband and I hadn’t been back to NOLA (as the locals call it—get it, short for “New Orleans, Louisiana”) since before Hurricane Katrina. My, how the city has changed. And that would be for the good.

    The city still prides itself on its well-known, tried and true haunts. (There will be more on that later—after all, isn’t that what you expect from “The Gay Gourmet”?) But, there’s a whole “new” New Orleans just waiting to be discovered.

    One of NOLA’s hot new neighborhoods is the Bywater—just a hop, skip and a jump from the charming French Quarter and the jazz-filled streets of the Faubourg Marigny. Colorfully painted Victorians dot the streetscape and the district boasts one of the city’s proud new achievements: the riverfront Crescent Park. Walking along this stretch of green, one feels transported to a different city. But as you climb the Rusty Rainbow Bridge to the park, you’ll have a surprising—and breathtaking—reminder that you’re still in NOLA, with a magnificent view of downtown and the mighty Mississippi from the top.

    In the Bywater, there are two bucket-list restaurants. The first is Bacchanal Wine, a wine bar that’s also a cheese shop, outdoor courtyard, jazz club and laid-back party. As the owners describe it, “What started as a sleepy little wine shop on the outskirts of New Orleans slowly emerged as an eclectic Bywater watering hole. After Katrina, it became an epic part of the city’s recovery as guest chefs from around the city came and cooked for the crowds.”

    At Bacchanal, you select your cheeses from the refrigerator in the front store (along with your wine, which you buy at retail prices), and then the kitchen delivers it to you at the backyard patio with bread, cheese, olives, condiments and more. If you want something more substantial, there’s a pop-up window where you can order hot food (we had a brie and bacon sandwich special that was off the charts). Or, you can mosey upstairs to the craft cocktail bar and watch the action from above—all of this while dining al fresco with live jazz every day.

    The second go-to restaurant in Bywater is LGBT-friendly The Country Club, which doubles as a poolside retreat (members only, or you can buy day passes) and fine dining destination. Chef Chris Barbato’s credentials include a stint at one of the city’s dining stalwarts, Commander’s Palace. An elegant escape, The Country Club is set in a gracious home. Dining on the veranda (as we did) takes you back to an era of cosmopolitan Southern living, but with modern, innovative cuisine. Try the crabmeat beignets and the grilled gulf fish. And the Sunday drag brunches are a hoot (but they sell out weeks in advance, so reserve early).

    Another hopping area is the Faubourg Marigny, centered along buzzing Frenchman Street adjacent to the French Quarter. Jazz bars, hotels, bohemians, artists and cafes all stand shoulder to shoulder in this fun, emerging neighborhood. I’d recommend the Frenchman Hotel—an LGBT-friendly bed and breakfast in an old Victorian with a charming courtyard—for your jumping off point.

    Nearby is the outdoor Palace Market, a destination for handmade New Orleans art (we got original hand-painted one-of-a-kind sports jackets from 1 of 1 Blazers). The marketplace really comes alive at night, but we visited during the day and it was still hip and happening. Jazz bars like Snug Harbor and the Spotted Cat are nearby and dozens of bars and restaurants make it easy to find a nosh or something to whet your whistle, whatever your taste.

    A favorite new speakeasy, opened by the folks who oversee Bacchanal, is the Elysian Bar. It’s located in the upscale and sophisticated Hotel Peter and Paul, set in a converted Catholic Church with a courtyard on Burgundy St. Their aperitivo happy hour (from 4–7 pm daily) is a great deal: order the house-made Negroni, one of the best anywhere.

    It’s New Orleans, where drinking is a fine art. So, it’s important to know the great LGBT places to meet, drink and be merry. The oldest gay bar in town is Café Lafitte in Exile, a must-see just because of its history. Down the street, also in the French Quarter, are two popular bars (right across the street from each other): Oz and Bourbon Pub & Parade—each with big dance floors, fun drag shows and strippers on select nights. And for lesbians, there’s Grrl Spot, a monthly lesbian pop-up dance party on the third Saturdays of the month.
    If you’re into art, Julia Street is the place to go for up and coming contemporary art. Strolling along this four-block stretch of historic buildings, you’ll happen upon Callan Contemporary, the Arthur Roger Gallery and more, as well as the Auction House Market Food Hall with dozens of artisanal food vendors. Close by is the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the National World War II Museum—both well worth a visit.

    After all of that museum-going and art-hopping, if you’re puckish, I’d recommend the Cochon Butcher for their house-made muffaletta sandwich (all of their meats are made on the premises). It’s a butcher shop, sandwich counter and wine shop all rolled into one great venue. (Insider’s tip: Sit at the bar and they serve you, otherwise you order at the counter and must find a seat at communal tables.)

    I also recommend a trip to the Longue Vue House and Gardens. It evokes Louisiana’s grand past, without the long drive to more rural areas. This historic home is set on 8 beautiful acres and was built by an heiress from the Sears family and her husband. It has a collection of museum-quality art, and landscaped gardens and fountains that take their cue from Generalife, the former summer house of sultans in Granada, Spain.

    Another off-the-radar neighborhood for a relaxing stroll is the Bayou St. John. Near New Orleans’ famous City Park, this stretch of waterway was made famous in years past for voodoo rituals along its shores. Now, you’re more likely to encounter dogs, bikers, kayakers and hipster cafes and restaurants along its verdant shore. For a delicious repast, I’d recommend the French-inspired offerings at the charming Café Degas. (Did you know that Degas lived in New Orleans for a short period of time?)

    We’re in New Orleans, so we have to pay homage to the tried and true—which, as you know, is The Gay Gourmet’s specialty!

    • Friday lunch at the historic Galatoire’s is a must, but line up early as there are no reservations.
    • Book early for brunch at Brennan’s and ask for a courtyard table. Order the turtle soup, eggs Sardou and bananas Foster, where it was invented.
    • Visit Acme Oysters for lunch, but if the line is too long, head to Felix’s across the street.
    • Save a dinner for Arnaud’s with a nightcap next door at their intimate French 75 bar (where, naturally, the drink was invented).
    • Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District, is still the reigning king of longstanding New Orleans restaurants.
    • Don’t forget a drink at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. It includes a replica of a real carousel and the bar actually revolves.
    • Sneak a peek into the public spaces at The Hotel Roosevelt and its famous Sazerac Bar, where that cocktail was created.

    After all of the activity, eating and drinking, you might need to buy some bigger sizes when you return to San Francisco—but your memories will always make you return to the magic of The Big Easy.

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him: @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com.