Today marks the start of a new series focusing solely on extreme details, i.e. "character," of American towns and cities. These will be mostly architectural but I'll mix in other elements as well, including culinary, botanical, and of course, eye-catching products, for good measure. Because what truly sets the great American cities, towns and villages apart from all the rest is character. And soul. When those element are lacking, it's impossible not to notice.
Which is why I'm starting with New Orleans, one of the most hauntingly beautiful and interesting cities I've ever visited. On a recent trip, I was struck by the perfectly-imperfect balance at every turn. Crooked door frames looked just right next to meticulously crafted shotgun style homes with ornamental brackets, and otherwise plain, sorbet-colored facades complemented balconies overloaded with hanging planters. In the Garden District, I gushed over balconies made of intricate pre-Civil War ironwork, and in the Marigny, telephone poles were covered in hundreds of ancient staples from old music fliers. Generally, much of the signage had a sense of humor. Aside from covering miles and miles of ground, I of course consumed my weight in Po' boys and Sazeracs and wish I could've stayed much, much longer.
A few favorites...
Favorite Shop: Nadine Blake
I was lucky enough to meet lovey store owner Nadine Blake, who is super active in the community and knows all the secret spots, as well as many local artists, some of whose works she hangs in her store. (One of these, a line drawing, ended up being my favorite purchase from our trip.) She also carries loads of new and vintage items for the home, including animal pillows from Areaware, colorful Moroccan poufs, and one-of-a-kind kantha blankets.
Favorite Dinner: Cochon
You can't go wrong with any of the traditional Cajun southern dishes inspired by the meals of Chef Donald Link's childhood, but definitely try the wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter. The pork, produce and seafood are locally-sourced.
Favorite Bar: Napoleon House
Yes, it's touristy but yes, you have to go. It's a 200 year old bar and it looks and feels 200 years old (dark, moody) which means it's authentic as hell and also that they've mastered their Pimms cups and Sazeracs, which are really the only two drinks you should bother ordering. Try to go during the week and not on Fri-Sun when it gets crowded.
Extremely touristy but worth it: Natchez Steamboat ride
A nice slow ride up the Mississippi with narration for the first half from the captain. It's truly worth the price of admission because you're getting so much history, plus seeing the city and river from this vantage point is different than anything you can experience by car. It's poignant to see just how far below sea level certain parts of the city are and why the were so vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina.
Extremely touristy and not worth it: Cafe du Monde
It's a cute place with history, but waiting in line to eat something (beignets) that tastes like the fried dough I've eaten at many a street fair seems unnecessary.