New Orleans: Old faves and new finds

The French Quarter of New Orleans. (Shutterstock)

The French Quarter of New Orleans. (Shutterstock)

KAREN CATCHPOLE, Horizon Writers' Group

, Last Updated: 2:22 PM ET

NEW ORLEANS -- What other city has a laundromat in a building that once housed the recording studio where Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Dr. John laid down seminal tracks? Where else will your favourite local bartender hand you a "to go cup" so you can take your favourite adult beverage with you? And when was the last time there was real, live dancing in the streets where you live?

These are just a few of the things that keep me coming back to New Orleans, also called the Crescent City and the Big Easy.

I'm not the only one who loves New Orleans. In 2010, some 8.3-million visitors generated $5.3 billion -- the highest tourism revenue in the city's history. All over town new hotels, bars and restaurants are opening and icons are being spruced up to get their piece of the action.

During a recent trip to New Orleans I branched out beyond my tired-and-true favourites and explored new territory, where I discovered fresh finds. Add them to your list of "must sees" to be sure you're experiencing the best of the latest developments.

Breakfast near bed

My top breakfast spot has always been Camellia Grill located in a building that looks like a minaturized Southern plantation house. The perpetually smiling waiters all seem to have worked here their whole lives serving up diner favourites to early risers and all-nighters. But this Garden District classic required a journey from the French Quarter all the way up St. Charles Ave. Now Camellia Grill has opened a more convenient French Quarter location (540 Chartres St., 504-522-1800, camelliagrill.net) which eerily replicates the elegantly S-shaped marble countertop and the Southern-diner menu of the uptown original including creamy freezes, but without the commute.

Happiest happy hour

An army of restoration workers and a $170 million budget -- the largest single invesment in post-Katrina revitalization in downtown New Orleans -- have brought The Roosevelt Hotel (123 Barone St., 504-648-1200, therooseveltneworleans.com) painstakingly back to life. One team of workers spent more than a year just refurbishing the crystal chandeliers in the 504-room hotel, which was built in 1893. Don't miss the antique French clock in the lobby. This masterpiece from the late 1800s was purchased by Nicholas Cage at a local antique dealer, but the actor was ultimately persuaded to sell it to the hotel.

Just off the historic lobby is the thoroughly modern Domenica (504-648-6020, domenicarestaurant.com). Overseen by celebrity chef John Besh, Domenica quietly offers one of the best daily happy hours in town, which is saying something in New Orleans. From 3 p.m.-6 p.m. the entire gourmet pizza menu is half price. That's just $6.50 for a 10-inch pie. Beer, wine by the glass and cocktails are also half price.

Lazy Louisiana lunching

The whole idea of ladies who lunch may not have started in New Orleans, but it has certainly been perfected at the city's grand dame Creole restaurants. During Friday lunch at 106-year-old Galatoire's (209 Bourbon St., 504-525-2021, galatoires.com) conservatively dressed society folk of both genders enjoy very traditional "luncheon" dishes like oysters Rockefeller accompanied by a perpetually full cocktail glass. Patrons are served by "their waiters" at "their tables" which, it is assumed, they will not vacate until dinner time.

"Welcome in!" is the greeting as you enter the assertively blue Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 504-899-8221, commanderspalace.com) in the Garden District. Where Galatoire's feels like a private club that tolerates visitors, Commander's -- which was started in 1880 -- feels like a private club whose members relish the chance to playfully show off to strangers. Creative takes on Creole classics come at surprisingly reasonable prices. "Angry Oysters" fried on a bed of roasted corn, pork cheek confit and grilled Pacific sardines were all deliciously done, not to mention the 25-cent martinis. Sensibly, these are limited to three per person "cause that's enough." Ask for the Garden Room to enjoy the ample sunlight and the leopard-print carpet.

Opened in 2003, Ralph's on the Park (900 City Park Ave., 504-488-1000, ralphsonthepark.com) is the least traditional of this lunch trio. It serves "contemporary Creole" dishes like a "Rouxben" sandwich, Louisiana Seafood Crepe and corn-fried oyster remoulade salad as well as classics like fried chicken and cheeseburgers. All orders come with views of the moss-draped oaks in City Park across the street, which is also a good spot for walking it off.

French Quarter quarters

Despite spending dozens of nights in New Orleans I had never stayed in a historic French Quarter hotel until I checked into Soniat House (1133 Chartres St., 504-522-057, soniathouse.com). The 30 antique-filled rooms and suites in two facing buildings -- adorned by elaborate iron work and original architectural details throughout -- instantly take you back to a more genteel time. An expansive street-side porch is the perfect place to watch New Orleans stroll by. Baked to order biscuits in the morning don't hurt either.

I had also never stayed close to raucous Bourbon St. and wasn't sure I wanted to. Then I discovered Hotel Le Marais (717 Conti St., 504-525-2300, hotellemarais.com). Recently renovated from top to bottom, the starkly chic hotel makes liberal use of purple, one of the three colours of Mardi Gras, and arty black-and-white photos of the city and the state. More impressively, Le Marais manages to create a serene environment just steps from Bourbon St. with quiet rooms, friendly staff and a welcoming bar that opens onto a stone courtyard with a small pool. There's even a well-stocked business centre and an efficient gym.

Div(in)e bar

The International House hotel (221 Camp St., 504-553-9550, ihhotel.com) is a celebrity haunt, now even more so with the unveiling of their new Apple Suites last April. These are kitted out with a wall-mounted LCD screen connected to an Apple TV, which wirelessly talks to all your other Apple products. The real draw, though, is Allen Walter -- just don't call him a mixologist. Walter prefers "spirit handler" which is appropriate since he has recently taken over the hotel's bar called Loa, a voodoo term for benevolent ghosts. Amid the bordello chic, Walter brews up his own bitters, makes his own sodas and concocts seasonal cocktails (which he calls "potations"). It's seriously delicious stuff.

Do some good

Tourism may be booming but the wounds inflicted by huricane Katrina are still far from healed. To help the city rebuild, and learn about local restaurants, check out The Man Who Ate New Orleans (tmwanola.sitebrew.net). Produced by Morgan Spurlock, of Supersize Me fame, the documentary chronicles Presbyterian minister Ray Cannata's quest to eat at every restaurant in New Orleans -- or at least the 742 that fit his definition of a restaurant. Cannata finished his epic feat on Oct. 21 at a meal dubbed "The Last Supper."

Despite appearances, the Reverend hasn't succumbed to one of the seven deadly sins. The New Jersey transplant believes food is at the heart of his adopted city and one of its most powerful saving graces. Proceeds from the documentary, which will go to DVD in the winter, help fund ongoing rebuilding efforts in New Orleans through Make it Right (makeitrightnola.org), Second Harvest (no-hunger.org) and Musicians Village (nolamusiciansvillage.org).

Visit the newly transformed New Orleans soon. The city's boom shows no sign of slowing and who knows what this unstoppable city will have to offer next.

IF YOU GO TO NEW ORLEANS

GETTING AROUND

Cabs come when they're called in New Orleans. The most reliable company I've used is United Cabs (unitedcabs.com, 504-522-9771.

UNSUNG FESTIVALS

Mardi Gras (mardigrasneworleans.com) and the Jazz & Heritage Festival (nojazzfest.com) are both world famous for a reason. However, New Orleans is full of lesser-known excuses to party. These include Chaz Fest, held on the Wednesday between the two Jazz & Heritage Festival weekends (May 2, $30, chazfestival.com). This "backyard throw down" is meant to give local bands who didn't make the official Jazz Fest roster a chance to perform.

FREE FUN

Enjoy free oysters and live music every Friday at LeBon Temps Roule (4801 Magazine St., 504-897-3448). In the summer, some Friday night shows are free at Tipitina's (501 Napolean Ave., 504-895-TIPS, tipitinas.com). The YLC Concerts at the Square series sees free outdoor concerts at Lafayette Square every Wednesday evening during the spring and summer (wednesdayatthesquare.com). A free Canal Street Ferry ride across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter to Algiers and back offers the best views of the New Orleans waterfront and skyline (friendsoftheferry.org).

ALT INFO

Goop.com -- run by actor Gwyneth Paltrow, a New Orleans booster whose brother and father both attended Tulane University -- offers city tips and publishes guest posts from her fabulous friends. Recently, singer Michael Stipe, of REM fame, offered his best-ofs (goop.com/newsletter/96).

HOTEL OPENINGS

Closed since hurricane Katrina, the Hyatt Hotel finally re-opened Oct. 19 after a $275 million redo upgraded the 32 storey hotel to a Hyatt Regency (601 Loyola Ave., 504-561-1234, neworleans.hyatt.com) complete with a John Besh restaurant. In the spring of 2012, The W French Quarter (316 Chartres St., 504-581-1200, starwoodhotels.com) will unveil a $10 million renovation including new guest rooms designed with tarot card and jazz themes, and a Cajun tapas bar. The Beaux Arts Audubon Building has been transformed into The Saint Hotel (931 Canal St., 504-522-5400, thesainthotelneworleans.com). It opened in mid December.


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