Plan Your Escape to the Big Easy
Worries about office politics and your messy playroom will disappear on this classic weekend in New Orleans
Europe too far and out of your price range? No problem. In just a few hours, you and your beloved can be in America’s European city, New Orleans, enjoying unapologetically lavish and historical shopping, dining, and accommodations with only a minimal layout on babysitting and vacation time.
Start by taking Amtrak’s City of New Orleans from Memphis’ Central Station (545 S. Main Street). At nine hours, the ride takes a couple of hours more than driving, but you’ll be able to begin your relaxation early and sleep off the weekend after-effects on the return for little more than a tank of gas. Private sleeper rooms are available, as is a second-floor lounge with full restaurant and bar ($108 round-trip per person).
Upon arrival in the Big Easy, check into the St. James (330 Magazine Street) a charming boutique hotel with rooms decorated in a West Indies-themed décor, complete with hardwood floors and 10-foot ceilings. You’ll forget what country you’re in immediately if you get a room with a wrought-iron balcony or eight-foot French doors leading to a secret brick courtyard with a fountain. Only two blocks from the Quarter, the location is quiet and offers fantastic value (rates from $62.)
Head for a relaxed dinner at Sylvain, one of the Crescent City’s newer and more unique restaurants. Named for a comic opera performed in that location in 1796 (625 Chartres St.), this quirky eatery serves up a Champagne and Fries appetizer ($50 or $90, depending on how much Yellow Label Veuve Clicquot you want). Entrees like pan-fried pork shoulder with Coosa valley grits, mushrooms, mustard jus, and a creative throwback cocktail menu featuring such concoctions as the Aviation (Brokers gin, maraschino liqueur, and crème de violette) will make your taste buds forget all about the leftover mac and cheese you ate last week.
After spending a few hours soaking up New Orleans’ wild side on Bourbon Street, Café Du Monde beckons from the corner of the French Market across from Jackson Cathedral. It’s only a good place to visit at two times: Day and night.
Fortunately, it’s open 24/7. People here have mastered the mantra “do one thing and do it well,” producing tender-crunchy fried squares of dough, called beignets, buried under mounds of powdered sugar. They sell for the ridiculously low price of three for $2.35. Don’t worry: the drinks make up the difference.
Start the next day with breakfast at Brennan’s (417 Royal). Don’t mistake this for the Owen Brennan’s in Memphis; this is the old school: White tablecloth, six utensils, the real deal. You’ll do few things in your life as happily decadent as spending a morning with 41-year veteran waiter Mario as you eat a breakfast that includes an appetizer like turtle soup and an aperitif, say Brandy Milk Punch, a main course like eggs Portuguese: flaky pastry shells filled with freshly chopped tomatoes sautéed in butter with parsley and shallots, topped with poached eggs, and covered with Hollandaise sauce and wine, and a dessert that is set on fire in front of you (Bananas Foster was invented here). The old world service with deep Southern warmth will make you feel like royalty.
After brunch, hit Southern Candymakers (334 Decatur Street) for the city’s best pralines to bring home to jealous friends. Stop by the New Orleans outpost of Memphis-based women’s clothing boutique Muse (532 St. Peter St.) for Virgins Saints and Angels rosary-inspired Swarovski-beaded necklaces. Browse the first edition Tennessee Williams and William Faulkners in the exquisitely tiny Faulkner House Books (624 Pirate’s Alley); it feels like being a privileged guest in the library of a well-off Quarter resident. Here, Faulkner lived while writing his first novel in 1925.
It is an easy and scenic ride through the Garden District on the St. Charles streetcar from the St. James Hotel to heaven, where the sign above the door reads “Sucré.” Sucré is home to every sweet and delicious thing you can put in your mouth, and everything is made on the premises by bona fide pastry chefs. This includes cappuccinos with pictures of dragons drawn into the foam by expert baristas, magnificent salted caramel cupcakes in parchment paper liners, cherry croissants, and sundaes like the Taste of New Orleans.
Did I mention Bananas Foster sauce, brown butter pecan gelato, bread pudding pieces with whipped cream, and roasted pecans? There are also Black Forest cakes, pistachio and rose petal chocolates — such wholly invented and impossibly perfect desserts lined up in the display case like fine jewels. The quality to price ratio is off the charts here (3025 Magazine St.).
As you head home, exhausted and sated, remember that you could visit New Orleans a hundred times and never stay in the same beautiful hotel, eat in the same delicious restaurant, drink the same snazzy cocktail, or shop in the same store twice. It’s the perfect weekend European destination that’s never too far from home.