In this week's podcast, host Kelly Regan and Mary Herczog (New Orleans resident and author of several of our New Orleans guides) discuss indefatigable New Orleans. Mary gives us her take on the remarkable post-Katrina Jazzfest, and the spirit of the city. While urging travelers to return to New Orleans and stimulate growth in the region, Mary also gives us the inside scoop on what's open for business, where to go, great places to eat, hot spots for nightlife and music -- and what to expect in the areas still trying to recover. Visiting New Orleans now allows you be observe history in the making, so listen in and head on down.
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- Traditional Tourism Areas: French Quarter, The Garden District, Uptown
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us as www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to the frommers.com travel pocast. I'm Kelly Regan, the editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides and your host.
My guest today is Mary Herzog, the author of our book "Frommer's New Orleans," and also "Frommer's Portable New Orleans," which is on sale now. The "Frommer's Portable New Orleans" book is our first post-Katrina guidebook.
Mary's here to talk with us about New Orleans, what's happening with the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and what's going on in the city these days.
Mary, welcome, thanks for joining us.
Mary Herzog: Thank you so much for having me.
Kelly: So, Mary, you're a part time resident of New Orleans, you've had a house there for a while. By now you've experienced both your first post-Katrina Mardi Gras and your first post-Katrina Jazz Fest. I'm curious a little bit about what the mood was like during Jazz Fest a few weeks ago. What was different to you, having been there several times -- to the festival -- and, almost as importantly, what was the same?
Mary: Well, that was my 16th straight Jazz Fest, this year.
Mary: And the fantastic part about it -- the unbelievable part about it -- was that it looked like any other Jazz Fest. And that is a testimony to the remarkable job done by The Festival Productions, who put it on every year. Because we all sat around on September 1st thinking, "We'll never see this again, or we certainly aren't going to see it anytime soon."
Mary: If you really looked hard, you could tell that there were some differences. There was one day less, there was a small reduction in the number of acts, there was a stage missing, there was a few food booths that weren't able to come back. But if you weren't looking that hard and if you didn't know, you could not tell the difference.
The other thing that was really different was the enormous crowds waiting at the gate on Friday morning when they first opened. People never do that. But people really wanted to be there to hear the announcer say, "Have a happy festival, everyone." It was so important for people to be there from the very first moment of music. Nobody took this festival for granted.
Mary: It was fantastic. It was magical. By the first weekend was fraught with those kinds of moments. By the second weekend, people started getting into their groove and started just talking about it as the "Fest." But that, in itself, is an important symbolic moment in itself as well, because people are getting a little tired of having everything weighted with Katrina. They want to get on with their lives. That's what Jazz Fest really symbolized.
Kelly: That's an interesting point that you're making. Because I think it speaks to people wanting to start traveling back to New Orleans again and visiting it as a tourist destination -- as you said -- without the specter of Katrina hanging over it. I think, that's what I wanted to talk a little about now, is what people can expect if they come to New Orleans now. Are businesses up and running? I know that some of the hotels have had staffing shortages and things like that. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what people can expect when they come to visit as tourists.
Mary: I cannot encourage people enough to go to New Orleans. If people want to really help now, that's the only way we're going to get the city back on its feet. Tourism is the number one industry there, or certainly one of the top industries there. The economic revival is going to be predicated almost entirely on tourism. If you really want to help New Orleans now, you need to go there and spend your money. Stay in a hotel, eat in some restaurants, go to some bars, hit some clubs, shop, go to museums. Stimulate that economy, and that's going to help the city in ways that you can't possibly imagine.
What can you expect if you go there? You're not going to get away from the specter of Katrina and the flood for years to come. Having said that, if it's really important for you to avoid that, you can, if you stick to the traditional tourism areas like the French Quarter, the Garden District and Uptown. Those areas had minimal, minimal damage. You might not even know that anything actually happened, just looking around at the odd building here and there that got whacked by a tree, the oak trees that looked like they got pruned by drunks, that sort of thing.
Otherwise, it looks pretty good, and it looks about the way it always did. And just about everything in those areas, of significance, has reopened. The St. Charles streetcar line -- which is iconic -- is still down and is likely to be down for a number of months. But the other streetcar line -- the Canal streetcar line -- is actually using the old St. Charles cars. So, if you wanted to just stick to tourism areas, which most tourists do anyway, you might not see any visible signs that anything actually happened.
However, there are staffing shortages all over the city in every establishment. So, hours of restaurants and shops are shorter than normal or more limited. Not universally, but pretty much generally, certainly. A restaurant meal might take a little bit longer than you'd like, your service might not be as swift at your hotel. I can't make any guarantees, because it's going to vary from place to place. But, for the most part, that's the problem. They just don't have enough people back in town to be fully staffed and be as efficient and as perfect as they want to be.
Having said that, every establishment is so thankful and pleased for tourism and for business, that you'll just be treated like gold.
Kelly: It sounds to me like what you're saying is that people just need to be a little bit more flexible in terms of rolling with whatever challenges might come up just because of certain logistical matters. I think, for the most part, people would be willing to do that.
Tell me about some of the famous restaurants. How have these staffing shortages and things like that affected some of the places that, really, people come to New Orleans to see or to eat at, like Caf du Monde, or Brennen's or Commander's Palace. Are they all up and running, and if not, do they have plans to do so soon?
Mary: Almost every major name has reopened, with a couple of notable exceptions, the most obvious being Commander's Palace. In the immediate days after the storm, the building looked great, but it turned out that they had enough roof damage that let some water in between the walls and they ended up having to strip themselves down to the studs both inside and out. They're undergoing a major renovation. They're going to look pretty much like they always did when they're done, and look fantastic on the inside. As did many establishments, they took advantage of this to do some renovations they'd been putting off for a while anyway.
So, they won't be open again until at least July. That's going to be a huge thing for the city, a huge shot in the arm for everybody's moral when they re-open. Just about everybody else has re-opened. Emeril's second restaurant, Delmonico's, is not open yet. I think they're also waiting on staffing problems. They had some renovation problems as well.
A large number came back within a couple of months. It was really remarkable and a testimony to the indefatigable spirit of the city. A lot of neighborhood restaurants that are funky places that are maybe not as high profile nationally, but are definitely the soul of the place have reopened, are about to reopen or are working on reopening. Leah Chase's iconic Dooky Chase, they're working very hard top get her back up and running soon. Liuzza's, which is a great neighborhood joint, did a soft opening as Jazz Fest and the cheers were enormous. Those places really help the spirit of the city like you cannot believe.
Kelly: Oh, that's great. Sure.
Mary: And, as for the food, there are plenty of restaurants open. It's just that the hours are a little bit shorter. But everybody's actually doing better work now than maybe before the storm.
Kelly: Oh, that's interesting. In what way?
Mary: These are just theories, but I think there's a couple of things going on. Because there's kind of minimal staffing, the chefs are really having to do a lot of it. You're getting very personal work, which is great. There are also some places that haven't quite gotten their freezers back, so they were having to use especially fresh fish.
Kelly: Oh, well, there's nothing wrong with that.
Mary: Right. But it may just be a rededication to the work. I don't know. That's all speculation. But over and over again, I've been hearing from people locally feeling like many places are doing some of their best work ever. It's a great time to be eating there.
Kelly: Wow, that's great. Tell me what's your favorite restaurant in town right now, and why it's your favorite.
Mary: I can never just pick one. That's like picking your favorite child. The four right now that are dear to me for varying reasons, would be Cuvee, which is in the central business district on Magazine. They are doing some completely innovative, hilarious, delicious dishes over there. They're doing things like foie gras creme brulee, and they actually have this thing called a foie gras twinkie, which is much better than it sounds. They're doing some really clever, haute cuisine, playful food. I think they're the most exciting restaurant at this precise moment. These things can always change.
Kelly: I think that foie gras twinkie is probably as playful as you can get.
Mary: Exactly. We ate there during Jazz Fest, and I didn't have a bum dish the whole evening. And we ate a lot. I can't wait to go back there.
Cafe Adelaide, which is run by the same people who do Commander's Palace, took their sous chef, Danny Trace, I think he was a sous chef. They made him the executive chef at Cafe Adelaide, and he's doing fantastic work. The place has really blossomed. It has become consistently excellent.
Kelly: What kind of food is that?
Mary: I would call it contemporary Creole. They're very similar to Commander's. There are a couple of dishes that have some crossover. They're doing things like using local ingredients in interesting ways like a Tabasco soy -- I did not know Tabasco made soy-glazed tuna, I think it is. For those of us who are needing our Commander's fix, it's really helping. It's just a delightful place.
Then from the old guard, I think the big three are three of the oldest restaurants in town are Arnaud's, Galatoire's, and Antoine's. Arnaud's has been doing some great work with their classic Creole.
And Galatoire's you never really went to Galatoire's necessarily for the food. I just horrified an entire section of New Orleans who think that it's the best restaurant in town. But you go there for the entire experience. When they reopened in January and I went there, it was like nothing had happened. Something about being in a place that's exactly as it always was, even down to having virtually their entire menu. Many places are doing a limited menu because they can't do anything more than that because of the staffing problems. But they have virtually their entire menu back up again. Having that connection, and being able for a moment to forget that this misery and tragedy even happened.
But Arnaud's is doing the same thing, but with maybe a touch more ambition.
I think that's covering it all. You've got your innovation, you've got your terrific modern day current, and you've got your two touchstones to the past for two different reasons. Then I've just left out 12 more places that I adore.
Kelly: I know that you love your good dinners.
Mary: Oh, I do.
Kelly: I know that it's a hard thing.
Mary: And lunches and breakfasts.
Kelly: And breakfast, exactly. I know that that's one of the things that New Orleans is really known for. Another thing they're known for is the nightlife. What's the nightlife scene like? Are people still coming in to let the good times roll? Give me a little snapshot of what's going on.
Mary: That one's a little trickier, because an enormous number of local musicians were displaced by the storm. Many of them, a heartbreaking number, lost everything, including their instruments. So a number of them have not been able to return to the city. Having said that, a good number of some well-known and justly beloved local names have returned, like Kermit Ruffins, John Butay, the Rebirth Brass Band, Tom McDermott, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the all stars and I think the Rebirth Brass Band. They're all playing regularly as they always did. Oh, and Ellis Marsalis and Charmaine Neville are back as well. They're all playing pretty regularly, two, three, four, five times a week, the way that they've always done. So again, that's this sense of normalcy. But we're still waiting for a lot of musicians to come back. There's a great concern about what will happen, not so much to nightlife, which will always remain, but to the sense of culture and continuity and tradition that is so important, and undergirds New Orleans music.
One of the things the city did very well was programs that try to foster and continue this tradition. So you get little kids being handed trumpets when they're barely old enough to blow bubble gum. They're encouraged to join choirs or brass bands or school bands or any number of things. They're learning Louis Armstrong music when they're just kids.
The Andrews Brothers, Troy and James Andrews, who are still very young, they're in their very early 20's, have been playing this kind of music since they could walk, I think. They too lost everything in the storm, and they've been sponsored by some people to try to help get their groups back together and help start performing again regularly. But there's a great concern that if the school systems don't come back, if locals don't come back, if the children don't come back, that we might lose that tradition. But the people that are there are so dedicated and working so hard on it.
The exciting thing for me was summed up by one moment at Jazz Fest, when I was watching a band called the Mahogany Brass Band. Prior to the storm, they were just a typical New Orleans party band, very good, very competent, but not anything particularly notable. They were badly hit by the storm. Their leader, I believe, lost his house. I watched them perform at Jazz Fest, and I felt as though I saw a bunch of musicians transformed into artists.
Mary: Almost to their surprise. It often takes an event like this, maybe not one quite as catastrophic, to deepen and enrich you as an artist.
Kelly: It's going to affect you in ways you would never anticipate.
Mary: Right. I think that in many ways, as many difficulties as there will be for the musical community to get through this, they're also going to benefit by it in ways that we can't even imagine. That's going to be very exciting to see.
All of which was a really long answer to your question of nightlife. The clubs are up and going, and there's some hot music going on there. It's really fun.
Kelly: Let's go back to something you just said. There's such a long musical tradition, and it stretches back a hundred or more years, back through the past of the city. And you say they're concerned whether that tradition will be affected at all because people have been displaced and lost their homes and things like that. We're about to enter another hurricane season, as you are probably more than well aware.
Mary: Yeah, I've heard a thing or two about it.
Kelly: Have folks been moving back to the city? Families who were displaced by the storm? Are people wary? What steps have been taken to address any potential threats that might come through in the next couple months?
Mary: This is very controversial, of course, on so many different levels. Yes, people are moving back. The anticipation is that we'll see potentially a bigger boom starting about now, because schools are ending for the term. A lot of people who relocated just wanted to stay put until their kids were done with school, rather than uproot them again. So we should see another wave of people coming back in because of that, right about now.
Has enough been done to protect the city? No, probably not. There's constant stories about what the Army Corps of Engineers has and has not done in terms of repairing the levees, and the general feeling is that they have not done so adequately.
The joke about that is that the country of Holland has successfully protected their entire nation from an ocean for a very long time, and surely the United States of America can protect one city from a lake. It has not been done adequately. So that's a huge concern. What's going to happen because of that is anybody's guess. I think that we have to remember, with this constant talk of hurricane season, that any time there's anything more than a drizzle out in the Gulf of Mexico, every camera in the world will be turned on it.
You see these news cycles all the time. It's pit bulls one year, it's car jacking the next. We need to take a deep breath and calm down a little bit.
Kelly: Right. And get some perspective.
Mary: Yes. This was called a 100-year storm for a reason. Having said that, it's also important to point out that Katrina was not the problem, it was the flooding. As far as New Orleans goes, Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast and the damage that happened to the east was entirely Katrina-related. Biloxi and all the rest of it are in terrible shape. New Orleans almost entirely was damaged by the flood. In the first hours after the storm passed, there was only a couple of inches of water in the street, and the place didn't even look all that bad. It probably got hit worse by Tropical Storm Dennis. It was the flood that ruined the city.
So again, a hurricane isn't necessarily going to hurt this city. It depends on how strong it is, it depends on how it's positioned. It depends on a lot of things. So even if it gets hit again, it doesn't necessarily mean anything all that bad especially since everybody's got new roofs now. At least I like to think that's going to help!
The city has made it very clear that they're going to demand evacuations for any serious category storm. The residents are sharply divided about whether or not they're going to ignore that. There was a great article in Time magazine this past week about what efforts some people are going to, some people have actually bought homes outside of the city to have a place that's easy to evacuate to.
Kelly: Oh, my gosh.
Mary: There was one woman who got three feet of water in her house. So she raised her house 11 feet onto concrete pillars, and she said she's not going. She's quite prepared. It's an extreme, but there you go.
So nobody really knows. It's all a bunch of guesswork, and everybody's trying to figure it out for themselves. It gets exhausting to evacuate. It's a lot of effort. You get stuck in a long traffic jam on the causeway. You're gone for several days. You have to disrupt your business. You don't know what the result's going to be. People get tired of false alarms. And a lot of people feel that if they had been in New Orleans and had not left, they might have salvaged their business. They might have had a chance to fix some problems. But because people were kept away for so many weeks, their problems were compounded.
Kelly: There's definitely no right or wrong answer to that question about to evacuate or not to evacuate. I find it very interesting that this whole milieu, if you will, is unfolding at a time when the city just faced a mayoral election. I'm curious to hear what your impressions were. Mayor Nagin got re-elected for another term. Do you find that his reelection was a referendum on the job that he's done so far? How do you feel this city government has been progressing?
Obviously, these things are not as easy as people would make them out to be. There are city government issues to contend with. There are federal government issues, with FEMA and things like that. How are people feeling about Mayor Nagin? I mean, he obviously got reelected, so they must be feeling somewhat positively towards him.
Mary: It was a pretty close election, and I would say that half of the population that voted for him are feeling really good about it, and the other half are resigned, and determined to support the mayor. There are some feelings that the city council is as important.
There are two issues going on. There's how to handle dealing with upcoming hurricanes, and then there's also how to handle the reconstruction of New Orleans. And folded into that is the understanding that New Orleans was in pretty bad shape, in many areas, love it though we do, prior to the hurricane. Now is this incredible opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over.
There is some feeling that the city council was not as effective in working on those great problems as it could have been. Several people were voted off the city council and new people put in their place. So there's considerable optimism as far as that goes. I don't know if this was a referendum on Mayor Nagin doing Mayor Nagin's job, as much as it might have been people feeling comfortable with him and not wanting to change at this time. It's really hard to say. But I know that the overwhelming feeling was, he's the mayor and we're going to stand by him now. Let's move on.
Kelly: Let's move on. It feels like that's the theme of what we've been talking about today. There's definitely this specter of this tragedy that can't be overlooked, but by the same token, people want to get on with their life. People in the city want to enjoy the great restaurants. The people who have been displaced want to move back. And the people who have stayed away from New Orleans for obvious reasons want to return and express their faith in the city, and their desire to boost it up again.
Mary: Yes, absolutely. Again, Katrina is not going to be vanquished from their consciousness in our lifetime. The city has changed irrevocably because of it. The interesting part is that this city has always been a perfect example of the fabled melting pot. First it was French, and then it was Spanish, and then it was French again, and then it was American, and then it was Irish and German and Italian and all of those elements, to say nothing of the tragic legacy of the slave trade. All of those elements go into New Orleans. And I forgot, more recently, the Vietnamese population.
We're going to be seeing a great Latino influx. We may see a diaspora, which we hope won't remain, because we can't bear to lose any of our citizens. Before the storm, I heard a statistic, which was that New Orleans had the largest percentage of people who had been born there living there, of any major city in the United States.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Mary: Yeah. People can't just go to Texas or North Carolina or Michigan or Colorado, who were born and raised in New Orleans, and be entirely happy there. I heard one musician at Jazz Fest, and I think I remember who it was, but I'm not going to say the name incase I got it wrong, who talked about how all these people are going to come back. He said, "You want to know why? Because we don't like you all's music and we hate your food."
So this is going to be a very interesting and very exciting couple of decades for this city, as it's going to evolve. Inevitably it cannot stay the same. But that's actually for the good, because there were a lot of problems with New Orleans, as I said. It's going to be fascinating to see how this incredibly absorbent and fluid culture once again morphs and adapts over time. History is never comfortable to observe first hand, but it certainly is interesting. And history is what's being made right now.
Kelly: And we'll all be here to witness it. I think that's a good note to end on. That's all the time that we have for today. So thanks again.
I've been talking with Mary Herzog, who's the author of our Frommer's New Orleans guidebooks and our book "Frommer's Portable New Orleans", which is our first full update post-Katrina of the New Orleans guide book, is on sale now.
So Mary, thank you so much for joining us, and I hope we'll get a chance to talk again soon.
Mary: I do too. Please go to New Orleans and have a great New Orleans meal today.
Kelly: Yes, we will. And I'm sure you'll be having lots of great New Orleans meals soon. Thanks again,. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's New Orleans travel guides, and we'll talk again soon.
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