H –O –T –E, then M – O – N –T. The first few letters of the iconic rooftop sign peaked above the skyline, growing larger as I made my way down Royal Street. I zigzagged past street performers, tourists and antique shop windows until I was facing the world-famous portico sheltering the doormen and glass-and-polished-brass entry. I paused at the threshold, imagining if Woody Allen would have made “Midnight in Paris” – a film in which a nostalgic screenwriter finds himself mysteriously transported back to the 1920s – as “A Day in the French Quarter” instead. If so, it would have started at Hotel Monteleone.
Anyone can enter the doors to the lobby’s marble and chandeliers to find respite, but “for the literary traveler … that sense of relaxation comes with a special feeling of connection to Hotel Monteleone’s 125 years of literary history” – to borrow the words of Susan Larson. A former editor for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, she serves as a vice president of the 30-years-running Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. While most know Williams’ story about a particular streetcar, less are familiar with “The Rose Tattoo” which mentions the hotel.
An appropriate host to the fest, it has accommodated writers from 1920s Dixie bohemians to their contemporary counterparts –Williams, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner have suites named for them – as well as been immortalized in dozens of novels and plays. Particularly its Carousel Bar pulls them in.
Before we get to that … New Orleans.
It’s a place that conjures up connotations of plastic beads and beignets, brass instruments and booze, books and James Beard Foundation Awards (JBF).
Mere mention of “NOLA” often leads to a deluge of restaurant recommendations. Shortly after arriving, an Uber driver provided a printout of his personal picks.
Here, not only does everyone have a story to tell, but a passion for discussing which place serves the best oyster po’boy.
An unspoiled first-timer, I’d read and always romanticized about the sultry city’s Quarter. The only remaining intact North American French Colonial and Spanish settlement, the streets still maintain its architecture and ambiance –making it easier to imagine a time when people first caroused at the Carousel Bar, indulged in flaming Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, saw Williams at his window table of Galatoire’s, fine-dined at Arnaud’s or heard of the young Faulkner, then renting the apartment on Pirates Alley, where he penned his first novel.
Brennan’s eight dining rooms underwent a renovation in 2014, celebrating the opulence of dining in a city where breakfast courses and eye-opening cocktails are taken as seriously as a decadent dinner. This year marks the beloved institution’s 70th anniversary and Executive Chef Slade Rushing is bringing back refi ned renditions of dishes from initial menus, such as Frog Legs Bathurst and Crabmeat Lundi Gras.
By the time I was seated at Arnaud’s for dinner, I’d found the old New Orleans allure I was seeking. Yet, its French 75 Bar still resonates with the present, garnering a 2016 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Bar Program.
To find only what I was looking for would be too simple for The Big Easy.
When you consider the city garnered nine JBF award nominations this year from the country’s top culinary honor – and winners of Best New Restaurant (former winner Alon Shaya’s Shaya), Best Chef of the South (Justin Devillier’s La Petite Grocery; Rushing was also a nominee) and Lifetime Achievement Award (Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant) – industry leaders continue to recognize the city’s legacy as a cultural melting pot, err – bowl of Jambalaya. Each makes a strong case for exploring beyond The French Quarter, too. Another example: visit The Southern Food & Beverage Museum and the Museum of the American Cocktail.
If the city was the place to be a writer in the 1920s, today it’s where I’d be headed if I was an aspiring chef or mixologist. In fact, many industry visionaries gather to compare notes each July for Tales of the Cocktail, the world’s premier spirits festival for what’s now, what’s next and what’s back in fashion. Second to a bookstore, a bartender arguably has the most acquired stories and met plenty of characters. Prefer wine in your glass? There’s a place for you: Patrick’s Bar Vin, located within the Hotel Mazarin, part of The New Orleans Hotels Collection. The unofficial headquarters of Krewe de Cork, a lucky few can purchase personalized, clime-controlled wine lockers. Adjacent to Arnaud’s, Hotel Mazarin and the handful of elite eateries sharing its block prove that Bourbon Street doesn’t lead solely to neon signs.
At its center is a private courtyard, perfect for unwinding, as are the elegant guest rooms. Decorated in neutral tones, it was a relaxing contrast to the kaleidoscope below the balcony window. One often needs a moment, or 20, to cool off. In The Big Easy, it’s difficult to fight the urge to forget time altogether. There’s much to taste and the list continues to grow, including the Ace Hotel’s latest outpost, which opened just in time to partake in 2015’s Tennessee Williams Festival. Its 1928 Art Deco building, coupled with the boutique brand – known for its writers-in-residence and an on-site music venue –is a seamless, albeit millennial, fit.
Which brings us back to The Monteleone, where Chef de Cuisine Joseph Maynard adds a fresh spin on Creole cuisine at Criollo; meanwhile, The Carousel Bar revolves every 15 minutes.
From the bar’s continuously changing vantage point, one perhaps can see that what New Orleans has to offer is an ability to make the old come around again.
[ A version of this story originally appeared in Points North Atlanta magazine | Photos courtesy of HOTEL MONTELEONE; BRENNAN’S; ARNAUD’S; HOTEL MAZARIN; ACE HOTEL | RUSH JAGOE; COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY]