THE SECRET SIDE OF CARNIVAL CITY
IS NEW ORLEANS the NEW WILLIAMSBURG? SHANNON MAHANTY CHECKS out THE LOUISIANA HOTSPOT THAT’S as ARTY AS IT IS PARTY
It’s home to Solange Knowles and has a thriving jazz and art scene. Here are more reasons New Orleans should be on your travel bucket list
‘THERE’S A REAL ENERGY ABOUT THIS CITY,’ declares our cool, twenty-something waitress. She’s wearing distressed jeans and a white silk Seventies blouse, and attributes her effortless style to the city’s bounty of up-andcoming designers and thriving vintage scene. Placing a bowl of roasted cauliflower with smoked almonds and salsa on our table, she adds: ‘And it’s a great place to be a woman.’
It’s only our first night in Louisiana’s most famous city, and she’s right: there’s a celebratory energy here. It’s not even Mardi Gras (the next one is 5 March 2O19), but many of the trees still drip with beads in festival tradition, and the streets are buzzing. We’re staying in the illustrious French Quarter, the oldest (and most touristy) part, but my friend Nellie and I decide to escape the crowds and the stag dos that dominate the area in favour of nearby Bywater. A quieter, yet equally spirited part of town a 3O-minute walk away, it was put on the map when Solange moved there a few years ago.
Close to the Mississippi River, it’s full of tree-lined streets and brightly painted 19th-century houses – locals are quick to point us in the direction of Bywater’s under-the-radar cafés, bars and restaurants. In recent years, the area has been described as ‘the Williamsburg of New Orleans’, and while it shares some similarities with New York’s hipster neighbourhood (cafés, galleries, an influx of artists, a growing nightlife scene), it feels calmer – an antithesis to the more densely populated areas.
Tonight, we’re at Paloma Cafe, a LatinCaribbean-inspired restaurant by twentysomething chefs Danny Alas and Justin Rodriguez (palomanola.com). The menu offers a modern take on Louisiana favourites, such as steamed shrimp and charred tomatoes served with masa, a Latin version of grits, made from soaked maize flour. It’s rich, delicious and beautifully presented, but the charm of Paloma goes way past its menu. ‘As queer, Latinx [nongender-specific Latin-American] chefs, we’ve experienced the implications of the negative narrative understood by society, based on gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity,’ says Alas. ‘Justin and I have always been eager to create a restaurant where our Latin heritage is at the forefront of what we share with our greater community. The space encourages people to hang out – come with your laptop in the late morning and stay through happy hour with friends.’
On a tip from Paloma’s staff, we head to local dive bar Bud Rip’s. Unassuming from the outside, it’s full of atmospherewithin.Low-hanging glass spheres dimly light a wood-panelled bar that’s the length of the room. There’s a jukebox, pool table and a range of cocktails and craft beers. We could easily stay all night, but head back to the French Quarter in search of jazz. We avoid Bourbon Street – a sea of intoxicated partygoers – and head to The Spotted Cat, an intimate club on Frenchmen Street (spottedcatmusicclub.com). It’s packed, and a five-piece brass band on a tiny stage plays jazz, funk and blues.
The music spills out on to the street and, as we head back to boutique hotel Soniat House, we pass a saxophonist on one corner and a group drumming on buckets on another. The hotel, by comparison, is a peaceful haven: behind its wrought-iron balconies lies a leafy, candlelit courtyard, and our room is decorated with antiques and oil paintings in gilded frames.
While New Orleans is famous for everything from Mardi Gras to crawfish, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Beyond the fried
beignets (fritters) is a city of subcultures and surprises. Take the famous food scene. We head to Galatoire’s, a century-old French-Creole restaurant, to try gumbo,
MUSIC a traditional stew made with Andouille sausage, shrimp, tomatoes and Cajun spices (galatoires.
com). Less expected is Red’s, a cool-but-kitsch Chinese restaurant that attracts a young, artsy crowd (redschinese.com), or Shaya, an awardwinning modern Israeli restaurant with delicious sharing dishes and incredible service (shaya
restaurant.com). New Orleans has a big Vietnamese community (especially across the Mississippi in Gretna), so it’s a great place to eat Southeast Asian cuisine. In Mid-City, Mopho dishes up Vietnamese pho with Creole influences, and the boba (bubble) tea comes in delicious cocktail form (mophonola.com).
With lower rents than many US cities, NOLA, as New Orleans is affectionately known, has become a magnet for creatives. Artist Ashley Longshore has a studio in the
Garden District, making vibrant pieces that draw on pop culture, fashion and feminism (Blake Lively is a regular customer). ‘There is such a participatory spirit,’ says painter and illustrator Jessica Bizer. ‘I feel like I live in a weird summer arts camp. It’s easy for an artist to find collaborators and show work; there’s such a sense of community.’ The city is full of small galleries. Antenna
(antenna.works), The Front (nolafront.org) and the Good Children Gallery (goodchildrengallery.com) were all established when the devastated city was trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Now more than ten years old, these collaborative, artist-run spaces are really coming into their own as venues where breakthrough talent can experiment. There are big shows, too: the New Orleans Museum of Art
(noma.org) hosted A Queen Within earlier this year, showcasing hundreds of rare and experimental pieces from Alexander McQueen, Prada, Gypsy Sport and Iris van Herpen.
Fashion doesn’t just exist behind a glass case in NOLA, and shopping should be on every to-do list. Top of that list is United Apparel Liquidators (shopual.com), an unassuming store we stumbled upon. Part of a small chain, it’s crammed with discounted designer pieces. UAL never advertises, relying on word of mouth, which evidently works: we meet two women in the fitting rooms who make regular trips from New York. Balenciaga and Vetements boots retail at 8O% off their original price, and we fall in love with a floral Raf Simons for Calvin Klein dress selling for a fraction of the cost. UAL is full of pieces from unexpected designers, too. We try on Molly Goddard skirts, Jacquemus jackets and Shrimps co-ordinates. We return several times (new stock arrives daily), leaving with overflowing bags and the manager’s personal number.
We find a slew of stores stocking everything from vintage Chanel suits to Twenties ball gowns. One particular favourite is Bambi DeVille, its three rooms overflowing with one-off pieces (bambi
deville.com). We find silk slip dresses in every colour and a pair of nearperfect Eighties Manolo Blahniks. In recent years, NOLA has become the go-to for costume designers – owner Bambi tells us she recently sold a piece for Netflix’s American Horror
Story. With New Orleans being the setting for recent films such as Girls Trip, Marvel’s new
Cloak & Dagger franchise, Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed Queen Sugar series and much of Beyoncé’s longer-form Lemonade video, it’s unsurprising Hollywood is heading east. The relocation of celebrities such as Solange helped define the city as a place full of creative energy.
The Country Club is just one of the spots she’s known to frequent, so we head there on our final day (thecountryclubneworleans.com). It’s a beautiful, pastel-yellow building housing a restaurant and pool, and the $2O entry includes lounger and towel hire. Arrive before 11am to have it to yourself for a few hours – in a city that loves to party, the afternoons become crowded as the music gets louder. Our time here is so perfect that our only disappointment is missing its well-known Drag Brunch the following day. We take a taxi back and, like the majority of Ubers during our stay, the driver is female. As we share experiences of the city, I tell her what the waitress we met on our first night said, and she agrees: with all the culture and easy-going partying, New Orleans is a great city for women.