Newcomers to New Orleans – tourists or the visiting business type with a dangerously tempting gap between meetings – they’re forever talking about “getting lost” in the French Quarter, of wandering its dizzying streets and alleys until they can’t tell up from down, never mind lakeside from riverside.
People, listen: the neighborhood is built on a grid. Yes, we change the street names on you as they cross Canal Street into the French Quarter, but this isn’t some medieval labyrinth.
Still, maybe there’s something else behind this penchant toward perdido for those meandering about the French Quarter. The old neighborhood is, after all, the leading magnet and incubator for the eccentric, freewheeling and quirky in the heart of a city generally known to exude those qualities at large. In the swirl of offbeat places, distinctive individuals and off-kilter happenings it’s easy to feel swept away, and maybe even a little lost, if delightfully so.
This is a neighborhood – and remember, always, it’s first and foremost a neighborhood – that regularly blossoms into a full-fledged costume party, whether it’s for Halloween and Mardi Gras or a drag-themed parade of men in bonnets on Easter Sunday or a sweaty procession of berets and tricolors to honor Bastille Day in the middle of the July swelter.
There are everyday places here to drop by for a drink or a bite and feel that in the process you’ve stolen a little break from time and place. Think of the Croissant d’Or bakery, with its hidden pocket patio in back, or of Sylvain, a decidedly hip offshoot of the burger-and-cocktail gastropub trend that’s graced here with the weathered brick, scaling catwalks and deep, cool remove of a timeless courtyard.
The French Quarter is praised for its architecture, but it isn’t just about the buildings. If so, it would be a second-rate Williamsburg in need of a scrubbing and more costumed re-enactors. No, the allure here goes deeper, to something more organic – though imprecise. It has something more to do with the pliant personality of the place, with its uncanny way of changing when needed, its sympathetic melancholia during a rain shower or its Caribbean radiance when the sun is shining.
Some of the great moments here can sneak up on you, like a glimpse down Exchange Place, that block-long shortcut, an alley really, that might be the single most European-looking stretch of New Orleans. Then you sit down at a café table to peruse the menu of the Green Goddess, a wickedly creative trove of interesting eats packed into an impossibly small box of a space. Why are exotica like Indian-spiced lentil pancakes listed beside a Louisiana all-star dish of andouille-crusted Gulf fish? Because somehow this works in the middle of the French Quarter.
But maybe Pirate’s Alley earns most-European status. There is an open-air storm drain etched into the flagstone pavers here and, if you follow it in from Jackson Square, you’ll find yourself at the bead-fringed doors of the Pirate’s Alley Café, a bar with a Key West-esque pirate theme, an elaborate presentation for absinthe and a decidedly local following that ranges from off-duty tour guides to criminal defense attorneys. And there this tiny watering hole sits, in the middle of a colonial-era alley, beside the peaceful St. Anthony’s Garden wrapped in wrought-iron fencing and right in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral. In the French Quarter, the faithful raise prayers to heaven just steps from where the frivolous raise toasts to the rafters.
Next door, there’s the narrow, yellow strip of a building that houses Faulkner House Books, a store where the palpable reverence for books draws a hush from all who step inside. However, that hush is just a momentary, involuntary reaction, because shortly after you’ll be chatting with the literary experts who run the place, or with an author who happens to be dropping in at that moment. Anyone despairing over the future of actual, bound, printed, beautiful books in this age of gadgets can take comfort in the ambiance and even the paper-and-leather aroma of this place.
Kitchen Witch Books
Alas, some stretches of the French Quarter are filled with stores where you can buy identical lewd T-shirts, sometimes right next door to each other. But what a joy it is to find the little unexpected shops around the neighborhood, places with that only-in-New-Orleans vibe. There is Greg’s Antiques, a small warehouse where dusty old wardrobes and buffets are arrayed around the occasional display of Mardi Gras Indian regalia and folk art lawn sculpture. Or there’s Kitchen Witch Cookbooks, where a pack of small, preternaturally calm dogs, each tethered by a line, slumps on a sales floor filled with classic and obscure books on culinaria, amid a rich, scattered collage of found objects, old signs, canned peas and table lamps. It is hard to tell what’s for sale and what’s just shop clutter but it’s all a feast for the eyes.
As if people-watching along the human zoo of Bourbon or Decatur streets were not enough, there’s always the hardscrabble theater of street performers at work around the French Quarter. Next to Café du Monde, a high-energy troupe of tumblers works through a sidewalk floor show to a thumping hip-hop soundtrack, and a lone young man wanders Jackson Square offering on-the-spot jokes for donations. Head down Royal Street and you may find an escape artist wrapped in chains, puppeteers, a magician in a top hat and tank top and a lady of a certain age – known as Big Mama Sunshine – who wears a church dress and veil and bangs out honky-tonk numbers on an electric keyboard.
New Orleans is a city with enormous open rooms, like our 76,000-seat Superdome or our 3.1-million-square-foot convention center. Yet when we need a gathering place for spontaneity, an arena for whimsy and a destination for unscripted exploration, it’s no surprise that we turn to our historic and, yes, perhaps sometimes perplexing, French Quarter.
Locations in order mentioned:
617 Uruslines Ave.
625 Chartres St.
307 Exchange Place
Pirate’s Alley Café
622 Pirates Alley
Faulkner House Books
624 Pirates Alley
1209 Decatur St.
Kitchen Witch Cookbooks
631 Toulouse St.
Café Du Monde
800 Decatur St.