The New New Orleans

What do you make of a town where the dead attend their own wake with champagne flute in hand?

Just such a thing happened last year when friends propped up socialite Mickey Easterling’s corpse in the newly restored Saenger Theater lobby to host one last carousal.

No one batted an eye. Not after what we’ve been through.

Ten years ago, New Orleans was as dead as the diva, drowned in foul waters when its man-made levees failed in Hurricane Katrina.

Always considered a frivolous place, given to overexuberance (“We dance even if there’s no radio,” wrote local author Chris Rose), our critics predicted The End. Yet the city’s irrepressible spirit proved to be a secret strength in our resurrection.

We scooped up. Dug out, hammered, and built. We preserved. We persevered. Creole cottages and crawfish; Jackson Square and jambalaya; gris-gris, gumbo, and Galatoire’s—all are as they were.

But there’s a future here now, not just a past.

More than 20,000 young newcomers call New Orleans home. Settled in since the storm, they busy themselves founding start-ups and pop-ups, or just meeting up in the city’s 1,400-plus restaurants—603 more than there were in pre-Katrina 2005, according to Tom Fitzmorris, aka New Orleans’ Mr. Food.

They’ve also shown little interest in joining the city’s insular, if picaresque, social order of white-glove debutantes and white-shoe lawyers.

Instead, the tattoogeoise hastened the revival of neighborhoods such as Tremé, Mid-City, the Irish Channel, and the Bywater. They created new entertainment destinations like Freret Street and commute on the new Lafitte Greenway—a 2.6-mile bike park stretching from the Quarter to Carrollton.

So, come explore the NOLA renaissance. There’s culture high and low.

Bump to brass bands on Frenchmen Street or hoot and holler over neo-burlesque cabarets on St. Claude. Moon over Uptown’s amorous architecture. Join a second line. Antique on Royal. Eat everywhere. And too much. Drink a little. Maybe try it neat. As one Uptowner explained, “Straight up makes the fun start faster, baby.”

As we observe Katrina’s 10th anniversary, we’ll remember those we lost and celebrate what we’ve become. But I don’t think we’re going to bed anytime soon.

> The Taste of Now <

Ginger scallion noodles and kung pao pastrami at Red’s Chinese. Israeli hummus and pita at Shaya. Gooey, sassy donuts from District.

Local food columnist and radio personality Ian McNulty relishes the new dishes joining old standards like Bourbon House oysters with bowfin caviar and the smoked soft-shell crab at Clancy’s.

But, he says, whatever you order, make it authentic.

At the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFab), utensils, menus, posters, and foodstuffs display the history and influences of America’s most distinctive region.

The institution established a beachhead last year in the rapidly gentrifying section of Central City along Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and across the street from the recently opened Jazz Market performance space. SoFab even comes with its own restaurant, Purloo.

“When you eat in New Orleans, seek out what makes the city unique,” McNulty says. “And that’s our rich heritage of taste.”

He lists several places serving contemporary takes on the classic creole and Cajun fare: Sac-A-Lait in the Warehouse District, Toups’ Meatery in Mid-City, La Petite Grocery in Uptown.

“You can still get a po’ boy at Ye Olde College Inn, but now it’s served with greens and garnishes from their garden across the street,” McNulty says.

From Cajun to contemporary, five ways to savor the taste of now in NOLA:

  • Shrimp-stuffed deviled eggs at Square Root, Lower Garden District
  • Som tam salad from Mopho, Mid-City
  • Roast chicken stuffed with andouille sausage at Carrollton Market, Uptown
  • Whole Gulf fish at Pêche, Warehouse District
  • Chocolate pecan pie at High Hat, Freret Street

> The Nouveau Nightlife <

A thick fog infiltrates the French Quarter evening, obscuring the centuries-old streets and softening St. Louis Cathedral’s outline.

On Decatur, the rum house Cane & Table, with its crumbly walls, crystal chandeliers, and dark wood bar, provides the perfect backdrop for an interview with a vampire, or, even better, Wayne Curtis, author and alcohol authority, on NOLA’s twin nocturnal obsessions: music and booze.

“New Orleans always took its drinking seriously,” he says, ordering a “Watch You Burn,” a mix of aged rum and artistry. “We preferred classic ingredients and our own drinks, like Sazeracs and Ramos gin fizzes. After the storm our bars and bartenders became very experimental.”

Curtis credits Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal for popularizing craft cocktails. Their Freret Street bar Cure became a bellwether for migrant mixologists.

Other notables? SoBou and Bar Tonique in the Quarter, Barrel Proof, the bourbon-and-beer watering hole in the Lower Garden District, and The Branch, a downriver speakeasy-style lounge behind the Oxalis Bywater courtyard.

And with the drinks comes the notes. Curtis names three venues for hearing standout New Orleans music.

Chickie Wah Wah draws a mostly local crowd with great performers and respectful audiences.

Bywater wine bar Bacchanal gets the nod for its funky vibe. “Get a table and a bottle of wine and enjoy [regular performer] Helen Gillet,” Curtis recommends.

Lastly, on Frenchmen Street, d.b.a. stands out for its “good sound and the best whiskey selection in the neighborhood.”

> The New Creative Class <

“The city’s cultural institutions have flourished since Katrina,” says Chaney Tullos, one of the directors at New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. “And it’s been driven by locals.”

Tullos is a good example. Louisiana born and bred, he never thought his home state could support a thriving theater scene. But the post-storm arts boom in New Orleans—recently named the top U.S. city for creatives—welcomed Tullos and dozens of other exiled artists back home.

The happy result? A wealth of performances to see year-round.

“The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) is worth discovering,” says Tullos. “And every August their White Linen Night unfolds along the Julia Street art galleries. It’s steamy and fun.”

For Tullos, new director Susan Taylor’s New Orleans Museum of Art is superb. “Their sculpture garden is the best free deal in the city,” he says. “Look for ‘Pablo Casal’s Obelisk‘ [by the artist Arman]. It’s a favorite.”

Even more good news: The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra is soon to move back into a newly restored Orpheum Theater.

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Tullos’s own group stages several plays each summer.

“New Orleanians, especially young ones, are so used to performance in their daily lives—from Mardi Gras to music—[that] they ‘get’ Shakespeare right away.”

> The Makers’ Mark <

In similar fashion, following Katrina, imaginative innovators washed off the muck and began to craft and sell goods imbued with a distinct New Orleans flavor.

“In the simplest sense these makers wanted to be part of rebuilding, to be connected to something larger than themselves,” says publisher-blogger Justin Shiels, whose InvadeNOLA media company covers the city’s rising creative class.

Shiels cites Tabitha and Micaiah Bethune, who fashion beautiful clothing for men and women at downtown retail collective The Wild Life Reserve, as a case in point.

In the Lower Garden District, the design-minded covet the bags and backpacks at Tchoup Industries, made using regionally sourced repurposed materials, and the bold metal jewelry at Gogo Borgerding.

Tippy Tippens creates black glycerin soaps that dissolve to reveal a white ceramic bird inside. Sold in Uptown’s Hattie Sparks, 50 percent of proceeds fund ongoing environmental clean-up from 2010’s devastating BP oil spill.

Shiels marvels at the success of Kathleen Currie’s artisanal Smoke perfume oils. “Smoke is blowing up,” he says, adding, for purposes of clarification, that Currie’s scents aren’t combustible, simply causing a sensation.

And Louisiana native Alex Geriner’s furniture, built from the wrought iron and cypress ruins of century-old Katrina houses, wows at Doorman Designs.

“This wood is New Orleans history,” says Geriner. “Each piece, each board is a story. I feel like my work allows this beautifully ancient city to keep speaking.”

New Orleans-based writer Andrew Nelson is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewnelson.

Photographer Kris Davidson is also a resident of New Orleans. Follow her on Instagram @hellokrisdavidson.

This feature first appeared in Traveler magazine’s August 2015 issue.

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