Downtown New Orleans: Step away from the Quarter and meet the locals

Downtown New Orleans: Step away from the Quarter and meet the locals
June 4, 2011
By Helen Anders

NEW ORLEANS — I'm not sure what it says about New Orleans that the best happy hour in town is at the World War II Museum. But, sure enough, the large, sleek bar is loaded with locals, most dressed as though they've just come from the office.

This hour is happy, but not delirious. The young crowd is sipping wine and martinis, not swigging hurricanes. There lies the difference between downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter as the sun starts to set.

Like almost everybody else, I enjoy the French Quarter, but you don't get to talk to a whole lot of locals there. If you want a taste of local New Orleans, get a few blocks away. The World War II Museum (945 Magazine St., continues to grow by leaps and bounds (I got to peek inside a building where a PT boat is being assembled). It's the epicenter of a burst of growth in this part of town, bolstered by other museums and a healthy helping of restaurants and bars.

As for the World War II happy hour's popularity, it doesn't hurt that it features John Besh's piquant, little pulled-pork sliders topped with crunchy onion rings for 75 cents each. The American Sector restaurant and bar are Besh creations that opened a year and a half ago.

One guy I'm eating sliders with works at the museum and lives across the parking lot in the Cotton Mill condominiums, created from a former cotton gin. This live-work-play neighborhood arrangement has been going on for years all over the country, but it's a new thing here, and the locals are almost giddy about it. Turn-of-the-century buildings are being turned into apartments and condos, and restaurants like this one are luring downtown residents.

After drinks, we walk (for this is an evening on foot) over to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp St., where, because it's a Thursday night, there's music playing in the atrium. Drinks are being served along with crawfish and macaroni and cheese prepared by a local soul food caterer known as Miss Linda.

A lot of museums, including Austin's Blanton, have these music-and-art evenings. But there's something different about this one: It's quiet. Guests — some sitting, some leaning over a banister above, some standing on the steps — are listening intently to the music. They're not talking.

This is the great respect for creativity that's feeding the city right now. Creative types are moving to New Orleans because it's cheaper to ply their trades here than in California and New York. The number of art galleries is increasing on nearby Julia Street, where art walks are organized the first Saturday of every month.

After Hours at the Ogden showcases Southern musicians and offers an opportunity to stroll while you listen. (Put your drinks down outside the galleries.) The museum's galleries are filled with eye-opening art. Beyond a few, such as David Bates, I don't know these artists, but I enjoy their work. We work our way up to the rooftop sculpture garden, where we grab another drink and watch the traffic backup on the bridge over the Mississippi River.

Dinner is nearby at the new St. Marie (930 Poydras St.), where we enjoy escargot tumbled over French bread, fresh asparagus and a little gnocchi with cauliflower. Restaurants keep springing up in this part of downtown, and they're getting noticed. Chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St.) recently won a well-deserved 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South for his inventive pig-centric food.

We ended our night with a drink at the Victory Bar (339 Baronne St.). The name is actually that of the proprietor, the irrepressible Daniel Victory, a longtime Ritz-Carlton bartender. The crowds vary — big on nights when there's something going on at the Superdome, not so much at other times. But the bar's getting a reputation for its creative mixology, and the citrusy concoction I was served (I honestly can't remember the long list of ingredients; he invented it for just that night) backs up the claims.

Where to stay downtown? We enjoyed International House Hotel (221 Camp St., , perfectly located just a couple of blocks outside the French Quarter and within an easy walk of everything I've written about here, as well as Harrah's casino and the waterfront, where we grabbed some excellent smoked oysters at Drago's. The hotel's rooms are simple but elegant, with summer rates starting at $139. It has a good, hot $10 breakfast in its restaurant, as well as a convivial bar and friendly, helpful staff. Parking is $32.
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