Most travelers don’t exactly head to New Orleans to see a fast-paced, cutting edge city. From its graceful wrought iron railings to its careful traditions around jazz, Mardi Gras, and cooking, visitors are lured more by a sense of its lovingly preserved past. If you look closer, though, there's reinvention happening in this classic American city, whether it’s with a host of stylish new hotels, or a new riff on classic southern cuisine. Here’s what to see and do the next time you’re in the Crescent City.
New Orleans has always had a cluster of high-end hotels that rely heavily on gold leaf and chandeliers to set the mood. The new wave of lodging, however, borrows from the styles of the past without being imprisoned by them. The new Ace Hotel, which opened in March of 2016, has led the way with its black walls, clean-lined lobby performance space, and leafy rooftop pool. Vintage-inspired amenities in the rooms, like record players, Smeg refrigerators, and hand-painted furniture have never felt more of-the-moment. Meanwhile, the menu at its newly opened oyster bar, Seaworthy, features bivalves from around the U.S., caviar, desserts like peach tart and guava cheesecake, and a formidable list of wines.
The Pontchartrain Hotel, rebooted in 2016 after several years as an apartment complex, follows in the same vein as it tries to recapture its starry past when it was one of the most sought after hotels in the city. Velvet and flowered wallpapered rooms feel like the cool reimagining of your grandmother’s house, plus or minus a quirky piece of art. The hotel's Caribbean Room restaurant, done in white wicker and mirrors, bedecked with plants, feels right for a family celebration, while the the rooftop bar, Hot Tin, is the place for after-hours drinks with friends. Stop by the latter for its cabinet-of-curiosities-inspired decor and its view of the skyline and the Superdome.
Other new hotels on our radar include the Henry Howard, which is built into a glamorous Garden District mansion and uses both blue chintz and saxophones to deck its walls, and the Catahoula, with rooms that feel like they’re part of a soothing, uncluttered city apartment.
In a city filled with, and known for, great food, a handful of newcomers are more than worth a visit. Start at Compere Lapin, the first restaurant from Top Chef runner-up Nina Compton, which already enjoys a buzzy popularity. Combining Caribbean and Italian flavors with more traditional New Orleans fare, the menu includes such flavorful -- and diet-obliterating -- items as spiced pig ears with smoked aioli, crispy dirty rice arancini, and curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi. The low-lit, tin-roof ambiance makes this a great place for a romantic dinner, and the amiable staff is happy to make recommendations.
If Compere Lapin is your dinner spot of choice, try happy hour at Dryades Public Market, which is helping to revitalize the Central City neighborhood. Built into a former public school, the market is so much more than what it initially appears to be -- that is, a chandelier-bedecked grocery store. Providing high-quality, affordable food to the neighborhood, it’s also home to an excellent cocktail and oyster bar. The unbeatable happy hour special includes $1 Gulf oysters and drinks from $1 to $3.
For lunch, make your way to the Marigny neighborhood and St. Roch (pronounced “Rock”) Market. Opened this year under somewhat controversial circumstances -- some residents decried gentrification in this area -- the market stands as a symbol of New Orleans at the crossroads of old and new. The original structure was built in the 1830s as an open air food market and operated as such until the 1950s. It was closed after Hurricane Katrina, but a new renovation has it gleaming and ready for the hungry crowd that gathers here to eat everything from pork buns to French macarons. Vendors and cuisines rotate, but they currently include health food and juice at Juicenola; updated New Orleans classics at Fete au Fete; and Haitian specialties at Fritai.
If you’re in Central City at Dryades Public Market, make a stop nearby to see the beautifully executed Southern Food and Beverage Museum. With artful exhibits that cover each state, and descriptions that paint a vivid picture of the breadth and diversity of southern flavor, you’ll learn something new every few feet. Check their calendar for demonstrations, tastings, and chef appearances, and don’t miss The Museum of the American Cocktail, which occupies a meticulously curated space along one wall.
A wander through the French Quarter will undoubtedly take you past some classics -- the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, the beignets at Cafe du Monde with their small mountains of powdered sugar -- but one new fixture is the art gallery of photographer Frank Relle. His photographs treat New Orleans homes like people, showing them in eerie light and in exacting detail. Stop in to see what’s new, and chat with the helpful staff about the artist or individual pieces. (Also, check out our Q&A with Frank, where he spills some of the French Quarter's secrets.)