I LOVE good food. I mean, who doesn’t? And New Orleans has some of the best on Earth. I just got back from a week in New Orleans and I know I will be dreaming about the meals I ate there for the rest of my life. If you don’t allow yourself to experience all that New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) has to offer, you’re truly missing out on food nirvana. It’s practically a sin not to eat with a reckless abandon in the Big Easy.
But the thought of going completely off the rails and abandoning my normal (and really healthy) diet was a little frightening. I had no idea how my body was going to react.
A PLAN FOR SURVIVING FOOD DEBAUCHERY
Whether you have digestive issues (like I do) or not, you might want to take a minute before you leave home and figure out how to help your stomach cope. Eating in New Orleans is kind of like a sport, and you have to prepare yourself because the food, heat and humidity, drinking, dancing, and bar hopping requires stamina.
The first thing to know is you definitely won’t be eating a lot of salads or vegetables in New Orleans. I think most NOLA chefs are allergic to them. So you’ll want to do something to help get all that food moving through you. (Gross, but true. You’re welcome.)
Go to the grocery store first
I usually find a local organic market or Whole Foods Market as soon as I get to a new city and pick up water, fruit, and snacks. Fruit has fiber, which will help keep your digestion flowing. If you really need help, throw some flax seeds in your cart. They’ve got tons of fiber. Buy a case of bottled water (glass, of course, never plastic) if you’re there for a week or longer. It’s convenient to have bottled water on hand and a lot less expensive than buying it at your hotel.
If you visit NOLA in the summer like I did, drink a lot of water, especially if you’re consuming alcohol. The heat and humidity are oppressive, and if you get dehydrated, you won’t be able to dance all night. But more importantly, water helps your liver and kidneys flush toxins out of your body. Water can also help prevent constipation, and no one wants that on vacation.
Celery juice every morning
I have no idea whether the health claims are true about celery juice, but I went to The Green Fork every morning for my celery juice fix. And it did seem to calm down the acid in my stomach.
Celery contains antioxidants and polysaccharides that are rumored to help reduce inflammation in the gut and the formation of ulcers (something I’ve had). Managing acid and inflammation is a daily struggle for me and I was really worried about how I would react to all that rich NOLA food, but the celery juice seemed to help.
I also drank the Joy juice, which contains carrot, ginger, apple, and lemon. I ordered it with an extra kick of ginger, which helps control stomach acid.
Walk, ride a bike, or kayak
During my trip, I did a lot of walking, and it really helped my digestion (and my waistline). I didn’t get a chance to ride a bike through New Orleans, but I’d highly recommend it. I also kayaked through the swamp (yes, there were alligators and I survived). And I did about 50 sit-ups either before I went to bed or right after I woke up and that definitely got things moving in my gut. (No, I didn’t do sit-ups everyday. I mean, I was on vacation.) Exercise gets blood moving through your body, which aids digestion.
If you have digestive issues, taking digestive enzymes with each meal may help give your stomach a little help. I took one or two with each meal.
I have to say my stomach issues were pretty manageable, which is saying a lot because it’s typically a nightmare for me if I veer too far off from my normal diet. I do not know if there was one particular thing that helped or if it was a combination of all of it, but the good news was, I wasn’t in pain.
A Few More Ideas To Help Your Stomach Cope
Organic Aloe Vera Juice
I didn’t take it, but it is supposed to be helpful managing IBS. But be aware that there are side effects associated with taking Aloe Vera juice, so consult your doctor and do some research to make sure it’s right for you.
I believe probiotics have to be matched to your unique gut microbiome to be effective, but if you have some that work for you, take them.
Organic Licorice, Chamomile, Ginger, Marshmallow Root, or Dandelion tea
Licorice helps increase the mucus coating of the esophageal lining, which can help calm down the effects of too much stomach acid. It can also help to heal gastric ulcers. You can read more about each of these teas here.
Lemon juice is very acidic, so you wouldn’t think it would help neutralize stomach acid, but it has an alkalizing effect when it’s digested. Drink about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in eight ounces of water first thing in the morning and/or about 20 minutes before a meal.
Organic Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar can help address an overly acidic gut, as well. Put one tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar in one cup of warm water in the morning. If you need it, add one tablespoon of organic honey. If you have ulcers, it could be too acidic for you, so consult your doctor before drinking it.
Baking soda can help reduce excess stomach acid, too. For immediate relief, dissolve ½ teaspoon of baking soda in 4 ounces of cold water and sip it slowly (drinking it too fast can cause diarrhea and gas). Repeat every two hours. Be careful not to take it within two hours of taking other mediations.
Always consult your doctor before you take any type of home remedy, especially if you are on medication.
NOW FOR THE FUN STUFF
I spent an embarrassing amount of time planning this trip to New Orleans. It was my birthday (and New Orleans’ 300th) and my first time visiting the Crescent City, so I wanted to immerse myself in the best of everything it had to offer. But I soon discovered that you could go to a different restaurant every day for a month and still not eat all the best food in New Orleans. So I chose a representative sample of Cajun (down home country cooking) and Creole (more refined city food). And hell yes, I was going to abandon my ban on sugar for a week and visit some bakeries. I’m so grateful I did because they sprinkle happy spice inside NOLA desserts. I’m certain of it.
Here are my favorite spots in New Orleans for food, music, and sightseeing. Feel free to use this post as a travel guide. You will not be disappointed!
THE FIRST NIGHT
We were eager to hear a quintessential New Orleans brass band, so we drove to a local dive bar called the Howlin Wolf to hear the Grammy-nominated Hot 8 Brass Band (they were nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album). Their horns filled the small room with fun and joy. Just a typical Sunday night in NOLA.
MY BIRTHDAY IN THE GARDEN DISTRICT
We stayed in room #202 at the Henry Howard Hotel in the Garden District in New Orleans.
Our spacious room had floor-to-ceiling windows and a semi-private balcony that overlooked a beautiful oak tree. It was the perfect spot to relax and sip one of the hotel’s delicious drinks after a long day in the sun.
We had planned to go to Surrey’s for breakfast, but we stayed out too late and couldn’t bear to get up at 8:00am. Ruby Slipper is another great breakfast spot we missed because we couldn’t get up in time to get in line.
But we finally woke up and headed off to Magazine Street for the Two Chicks Walking Tour of the Garden District. I’m not typically a tour person, but there’s so much history in New Orleans, you have to do it. And how can you not immediately love the tour when the meeting place is District Donuts?
District Donuts makes all their donuts from scratch using only all-natural ingredients. We scarfed one down and sat at one of the booths in the air conditioning to listen to our guide tell tales about the history of the Garden District before we set off.As we walked through the Garden District, we learned a little about everyone of note who lives, or lived, in the gorgeous houses. Then we made our way to the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Our guide was a local with family ties dating back generations, so we got some unique insights, including a look at his family’s tomb.
I didn’t plan where to eat lunch on my birthday because I wanted my intuition to guide me. And it took me to Shaya.
Shaya is an upscale Israeli/Middle Eastern restaurant, and OMG it was incredible! Normally, I loathe pita bread. It tastes like cardboard. But Shaya’s homemade pita bread is like nothing you’ve ever had before. It comes out warm from their wood-burning oven and when you dip it in the cauliflower hummus and the za’atar-spiced olive oil, you never want to eat anything else. It was love at first taste. I was a happy birthday girl. Good job, intuition!
Esquire called Shaya the Best New Restaurant in America. The owner, Alon Shaya, was the winner of the 2015 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Oh, and Shaya has a Michelin Star.
We drove up St. Charles Street after lunch, but we should have taken a ride on the historic St. Charles Streetcar. It’s ridiculously charming. If you take it Uptown, you can see the majestic oak tree lined streets with the most gorgeous Antebellum mansions. The St. Charles Streetcar line has been in operation since 1835, making it the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. We saw Tulane University and the stunning Academy of the Sacred Heart (a Catholic college and preparatory school for girls). We spent hours taking in the sights.
DINNER AT COMMANDER’S PALACE
There was only one place to go for my celebratory birthday dinner and that was Commander’s Palace. It was the first reservation I made.
The food, the service, and the atmosphere went beyond my wildest dreams. They put balloons by my table when I sat down, in honor of my birthday, and brought out a big chef’s hat for me to wear while I ate my dessert. It was pretty special. Everything was delicious, and because the pretty Garden Room was closed for the evening (despite several requests and confirmations), they gave us a tour of the entire restaurant, including the chef’s table located in middle of the kitchen.
The winner of six James Beard Foundation Awards, Commander’s Palace has evolved into a culinary legend.
We spent so much time at Commander’s Palace that we ended up leaving really late for our “Big Shot” reserved seats in the front row at Preservation Hall. (If you can’t be a big shot on your birthday, when can you be?) We got there just in time to hear the last song. But the manager got word that we missed the set and offered to get us in the next day. How sweet is that? Of course, we went the next day, and it was some of the most entertaining music we heard in NOLA.Preservation Hall was established in 1961 to honor and preserve traditional New Orleans Jazz.
THE FRENCH QUARTER
The following day, it was time to get serious and see the infamous French Quarter. First, we strolled by the street that bears my family name. Then we headed to breakfast at Brennan’s, another NOLA institution. It was technically the day after my birthday, but it didn’t stop Brennan’s from putting a pink sash on our table and bringing out a pink cotton candy bowl with a special dessert inside. I felt like a princess and it was only breakfast! The food and service was perfect. If you go, sit outside in their pretty garden (that is, if it isn’t like a furnace outside) and say hello to the baby turtles.
After breakfast, we walked around the French Quarter, Jackson Square, and, of course, the famous Café Du Monde for beignets. There’s powdered sugar everywhere, but you don’t care. Yum. Good thing they’re open 24 hours.
One of the benefits of going to New Orleans in the summer is you don’t have to deal with all the crowds and long, long, lines, but you also probably miss out on a lot of the spontaneous music that happens in the street. We didn’t get to experience a second line parade, but we did hear an incredible trumpet player with his band jamming outside on the side of the street. I could have listened to him for hours.
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum was very interesting, especially for someone who believes in using natural medicine whenever possible. You can trace the history of all kinds of natural remedies, even those having a resurgence, like the dreaded leeches. Yuck!
FRIED CHICKEN AT WILLA MAE’S WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Thankfully, our hungry bellies overpowered the unappetizing image of leeches, so we made our way to Willa Mae’s Scotch House. I was so excited to try this chicken that people wait in long lines in the hot sun for. This is why it pays to go in the middle of the week in July.
Make no mistake: Mrs. Willa Mae knows how to fry chicken. It’s so good the waiter doesn’t even have to ask. I finished one serving and ordered another. I will dream about the chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House for the rest of my life.
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by the Carousal Bar & Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone. Yes, it’s actually a carousel. If you’re sitting at the bar, you turn one revolution every 15 minutes. It gives new meaning to having “the spins.”
DINNER AT BRIGTSEN’S
As long as I live, I will never forget the dinner we had at Brigtsen’s. When I think about the fact that I almost didn’t book it, I cringe. You walk in and wonder if it’s going to live up to your expectations, and it surpasses them—mightily. I could have eaten three orders of the shrimp. But let’s get to what really matters: the desserts. They were the best two desserts I’ve ever had in my life, hands down. The pecan pie in caramel sauce and the strawberry shortcake are world class. Neither one is too sweet. I ate both (yes, I’m a total pig) and did not get a toothache or a sugar rush. Top that, every other dessert in the world.
If I ever go back to New Orleans, Brigtsen’s will be the first reservation I make. Their pecan pie was on The Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate—twice. The strawberry shortcake is everything you want it to be and more. I ate them as a child, but this was even better than the one my grandma made.
After dinner, we rushed out to get to the Maple Leaf Bar (a local music venue and bar far away from the tourists in the French Quarter) to hear what the locals call the best brass band in New Orleans. The Rebirth Brass Band had people waiting for over an hour. The anticipation was palpable, and everyone was jockeying for a position close to the stage. Good thing I have strong elbows! When they started playing, the dance floor went wild.
BYWATER, MY FAVORITE PLACE IN NOLA
If I had to choose a place to live in New Orleans, it would be Bywater.
The Bywater neighborhood has an artsy vibe, bright, colorful houses, great restaurants, and incredible murals. There’s art everywhere. It’s worth spending a day or two wandering the streets. If I had more time I would have taken a bike tour to learn more about Bywater’s history.
Our first stop was The Country Club (no, it’s not an actual country club—it’s a restaurant and bar that’s been in the Bywater neighborhood for 40 years). Be sure to bring your bathing suit because there’s a heated saltwater pool in the back (which is a welcome relief from the killer heat and humidity in July). The Bywater vibe is so hippy, the pool used to be clothing optional, but neighbors put the kibosh on that. It’s one of the prettiest restaurants you’ll ever see. It took four months to hand paint the walls in each room. Even the bathroom is gorgeous. The Country Club is a great welcome to Bywater.
Everywhere you go in New Orleans, there are these “Be Nice or Leave” signs. Our next stop was to Dr. Bob’s Folk Art to buy one.
I love everything about Bywater, but one of the most memorable moments for me was stumbling across Plessy Park.
The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” laws in the United States. It allowed segregation to survive in the Jim Crow South for the next fifty years. In 1954, at beginning of the civil rights movement, the justices came to their senses and unanimously overturned the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. I had read both cases in college, so they were meaningful to me. I had no idea that right where I stood at the intersection of Homer Plessy (yes, he got a street named after him) and Royal marked the spot where, in 1892, Homer Plessy entered a whites-only train car and got arrested. I got chills and shed a few tears just thinking about it.
The block-long mural at the Plessy Park is a visual representation of the importance of that case.
STUDIO BEBrandan “BMike” Odeums’ Studio Be warehouse right across the street from Plessy Park is the perfect place to showcase art that depicts black culture and the ongoing struggle for equality in America. There are large-scale murals that reflect the social issues that still plague black people in this country today, like police brutality and the lack of assistance after hurricane Katrina. The art celebrates MLK Jr., Nina Simone, Harriet Tubman, and includes quotes like I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams. It’s pretty powerful and was one of the highlights of my trip. Please read more about it here.
New Orleans is a magical city, it’s amazing ― the resilience of the people has always surfaced. My goal is to speak to issues happening in the community. We have to create the change we want to see. — Brandan “BMike” Odeums
We spent almost two hours wandering through Studio BE, and by the time we got to the end, our stomachs were rumbling.
BACCHANAL WINE FOR LUNCH
Bacchanal Wine was close by and a perfect spot for lunch. We hung out at the bar and had incredible cocktails and delicious food. I wish we could have tried everything on the menu. Of course, they have wines from all over the world and cheese plates adorned with cornichons, olives, candied nuts, chutney, and fresh ciabatta bread. Bacchanal has live music in the charming courtyard every day (but Sunday night is really popular). People come from all over the world to hang out here.
Bacchanal is a wine laboratory where food, music, and culture collude with Holy Vino to create the most unique evenings you will ever experience in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. — Bacchanal
CLIMB THE RAINBOW TO CRESCENT PARK
We wanted to work off the calories from lunch, so we climbed the “Rusty Rainbow” bridge over to Crescent Park. The stairs, which feel like they go straight up to the clouds, take you from Piety Street over the railroad tracks to Crescent Park. There you can walk along the Mississippi River and get a clear view of New Orleans.
SATSUMA CAFE, FINALLY SOMETHING ORGANIC
We worked up an appetite on the walk and decided to get a snack and a refreshing drink at Satusma Café. Finally, an organic restaurant that uses only local ingredients. Everything is made from scratch and there’s no high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, or additives in anything. It’s a really charming spot with beautiful stained glass windows.
Another good place to try for a light snack and/or more drinks is Paloma Café. The décor is gorgeous and the food and cocktails look mouthwateringly good. We didn’t eat there, but popped in just to see it. There’s also The Sneaky Pickle, which serves farm-fresh homemade food, and has options for vegans and vegetarians.
The St. Roch Market is another really cool place to pick up lunch, a snack, or some cupcakes.
DINNER AT GABRIELLE’S, WAIT, NO, AUGUST
We had planned to eat at Gabrielle’s, a neighborhood corner restaurant with great Cajun food, but they had a special champagne dinner thing going on and I screwed up the time. So, in a pinch, we headed over to the Central Business District (CBD) to see if we could get a table at August.
I had gone back-and-forth about eating at August and originally decided not to because I find that most of those really chefy restaurants aren’t worth the money. You leave either hungry or with an upset stomach, and while one thing on the menu may be outstanding, most of it is meh. But that wasn’t the case at August. There was a real artistry to both the cooking and the plating and that made it so worth it. It was all the most modern food trends I’d seen on the Food Network come to life; even the cocktails were complex and perfectly balanced.
MUSIC ON FRENCHMAN STREET
We spent the rest of the night listening to great music on Frenchman Street. Of course, we went to the infamous The Spotted Cat. What’s cool about Frenchman Street is it’s lined with tons of good bars and music venues. You can spend all night bar hopping. Yes, it’s touristy, but what else would you expect in NOLA?
TIME TO GET SWAMPY
The next morning we drove about a half hour out of town to visit the Barataria Preserve at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. In the park, you walk along a raised wood platform that takes you through the swamps. It’s drop-dead gorgeous.
The ONLY downside was that it was hideously hot and I had to wear jeans and a light weight long sleeve jacket because I’m major mosquito bait (and since I hate using DEET, I prefer to spray it on as little exposed skin as possible).
I expected to be walking through alligator row, but we didn’t see one until we got to the end of the trail, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.
The alligator was quite docile and totally mesmerizing. If you provoke one, you might get a close-up view of their huge jaw and teeth, but it might be the last thing you ever see, so don’t. On the way back, we saw a few baby alligators along the walkway, just hanging out. Their tails are incredible. Once we finished our swamp walk, we headed out to the plantations. But I have to say, the walk did leave me wanting to see more alligators.
THE WHITNEY PLANTATION
If you’re in the South, you have to visit a plantation. The Whitney Plantation Museum is the best place to start. It recently (December 2014) opened its doors to the public for the first time in 262 years and it’s a sight to see. The Whitney Planation puts an emphasis on slavery and they don’t sugar coat it. You have to buy a ticket and take a tour to experience the plantation, but it’s well worth it.
Many of the plantations are within a few minutes of each other. You’ll see the Evergreen Plantation on your way to Whitney. Quentin Tarantino used the front of the house in Django Unchained.
OAK ALLEY PLANTATION
Our next stop was Oak Alley Plantation. It’s an absolutely stunning property and the oaks that lead up to the house do not disappoint.
The Houmas House Plantation and Gardens was too far away for us given our limited time, but I wished I had stopped by to see the beautiful gardens. Also, if you have time, The Melrose Plantation houses some of folk artist Clementine Hunter’s work. We didn’t have time to go to the family-owned St. Joseph’s Plantation, but it’s supposed to be quite an authentic experience. We were also too late to hit B&C Seafood for lunch. Bummer.
THE DAY BEFORE WE LEFT
Our next to last day in NOLA started with breakfast in the Central Business District at Willa Jean’s. I love their wire whip chandeliers.
I could move to New Orleans just for their breakfast and pastries. The owner used to make desserts for a prominent restaurant group in NOLA before she decided to do her own thing. The old-fashioned glazed donut was the best I’ve ever had, as were the chocolate chip cookies, which have just a pinch of salt sprinkled on top.
I literally called Willa Jean’s when I got home to see if they ship. They do not, and I’m still heartbroken. This place is a gem.
After breakfast, we drove up Esplande Avenue and checked out all the gorgeous Antebellum mansions on the way to City Park in Uptown New Orleans.
THE SINGING OAK @ CITY PARK
Next, we had an oak tree to visit. New Orleans is so musical that even their oak trees sing. Well, maybe just this one. The Singing Oak has wind chimes strung throughout its branches that are perfectly tuned and coordinated to play a gentle song when the wind blows. It’s so relaxing. I could have sat there all day.
I WANT TO SEE MORE ALLIGATORS!
When we got back in the car, I started to regret that I hadn’t booked the kayak trip trough the swamps. People thought I was crazy for wanting to kayak in a swamp full of alligators, but what do they know? So we called New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours and booked the Manchac Mystic Tour for 9:00 am the next morning. We had to give up our planned brunch, but hey, we had eaten enough.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Now that that was done, we were on our way to visit another oak. The Tree of Life in the Audubon Park was planted in 1740. It’s one of the oldest oak trees in New Orleans.
I didn’t do it, but if you climb high enough, and it’s the right time of day, you can spot a giraffe in the Audubon Zoo. (If you fall and break your leg, you didn’t hear about it here.) Oh, and don’t forget the bug spray. I was eaten alive.
LUNCH AT BREADS ON OAK
Being an organic girl, we had to go into Breads on Oak. It’s an artisan plant-based bakery and café. They use organic flours and all-natural ingredients. We had kinda forgotten what a salad was so we ordered one and also got some homemade sourdough bread with the best vegan “butter” I’ve ever had. I swore it was real butter. Everything at Breads on Oaks is plant-based and delicious.
The Big Easy is supposed to be one of the most haunted cities in the United States. I didn’t get a chance to have a cocktail with the ghost at the Columns Hotel, but I have a feeling it will be waiting for me when I come back.
The hotel is supposedly haunted and is the only remaining example of a large group of Italianate houses designed by one of New Orleans’ great architects, Thomas Sully, in the late 1880s. It’s definitely got a presence. Another famous NOLA establishment rumored to have a ghost is Muriel’s Jackson Square. They actually leave an empty table with a glass of wine for their ghost. And they have a Seance Lounge just in case he wants a place to chill (can you see him in the picture below?).
EARLY DINNER AT SABA
When we finished exploring, we drove back to the Garden District for an early dinner at Saba. A local told us about it, so we had to try it before we left New Orleans.
Alon Shaya split with his former partners at the Best Restaurant Group last year and opened his new restaurant, Saba. Saba reflects Shaya’s heritage and includes influences from the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. Yes, their pita bread is just as good as Shaya’s, the Harissa Roasted Chicken was so good I dove in and forgot to take a picture first (forgive me), and the décor is gorgeous. You feel like you’re on vacation when you’re at Saba. It’s the kind of place you could hang out in all day.
A LITTLE VOODOO, BECAUSE IT’S NEW ORLEANS
The Dark Lady of New Orleans voodoo shop is just a few doors away from Saba, so we stopped in and picked up some gifts. There are several quaint little shops in Uptown. We spent a little time walking around. I could live in this part of town.
ANOTHER NIGHT OUT?
I was really looking forward to DJ Soul Sister’s Hustle! Dance Party or maybe even Tipitina’s Foundation Free Fridays, but I was beyond tired and we had to get up early for the kayak tour. Now that I’m back home, I wished I had rallied.
OUR LAST DAY IN NOLA, TIME TO KAYAK!We gave up brunch at Atchafalaya, put on our sunscreen and bug spray, and headed to the swamp, which was an hour outside of town. It was the best decision ever. An alligator swam next to our kayak before gracefully diving under the water. What a gorgeous place. I bet we were the only people from Los Angeles who spent the morning in a Louisiana swamp.
TIME TO GO HOME
We got back from the hotel, washed off the swamp, packed, and checked out. We knew what we had to do next: go back to Willa Jean’s and get some goodies for the plane ride home. Sadly, they didn’t have donuts! Why didn’t we hoard all we could the day before?
We had a few minutes to kill before heading to the airport, so we ran by Hansen’s Sno-Bliz to pick up a snowball (aka snow cone). But when we got there the line was so LOOONG that we had to abandon that plan. Why didn’t we go during the week? Hansen’s is a family-owned snowball stand that makes soft shaved ice and homemade syrups. Yum.
GOODBYE NEW ORLEANS
New Orleans is a little gritty around the edges, but it has some of the best food, music, colorful neighborhoods, and friendliest people you’ll find in the U.S. I already want to go back and it’s only been a week.
If you go to New Orleans, have fun! And remember . . .