To be honest, I hadn’t thought about doing much out of the ordinary for my 40th birthday. Maybe something slightly bigger than a normal birthday, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. But then, last winter, I saw some of my friends doing some traveling for their 40th birthdays. And the wheels began to turn…maybe I should go somewhere too! And once that idea grabbed hold, it was hard to let go.
I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been, that had great food, and that would be fun to explore with friends. My final list was New Orleans, Austin (TX) and Portland (OR). Now, Portland broke the “never been” rule, but I’d barely scratched the surface and felt it was fair game. I reached out to the small group that I was hoping would attend and gathered opinions. After all, if they were going to spend money to travel somewhere for me, I’d like it to be more of a group decision. In the end, New Orleans won out and the Labor Day weekend extravaganza started to take shape.
In late spring, the only prep I did was line up reservations for our dinners and Sunday brunch. I did a bunch of research, and felt pretty confident in all my picks. However, as the trip approached, I realized some of the people on the trip are not as adventurous in their eating as I am. So I started looking into back-up options, just in case. The good news was that a very experienced pastry chef I know sent me his go-to list of places in New Orleans a few weeks before the trip, and everything I’d selected was on it. That reassured.
Other than that, I didn’t put much thought into the trip. I didn’t want to overbook myself or my friends, and wanted to leave the schedule open enough for us to explore and do whatever we wanted. As a well-known city with large crowds of tourists, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to fill the days. I also didn’t want people to feel stuck to the group. In the end, by the time I departed for my flight, I felt like we were set up for a delicious and enjoyable trip to the Crescent City.The trip, with everyone, ended up as six people total. It seemed, ahead of time, to be the perfect amount. Not too big as to be hard to do things, and not so small as to become suffocating. I was the first arrival, landing in the middle of Friday afternoon. With four of the five remaining participants not arriving until late that night, I had some exploring time to myself.
The hotel I’d chosen was in the Warehouse District, and it ended up being a great spot. Close enough to the French Quarter but without staying in the mayhem; walkable to the historic Garden District; and inside a busy-enough neighborhood. I love exploring new places and enjoyed wandering around and checking everything out. The Warehouse District, as you might imagine, is filled with warehouses – some old and repurposed, some still in use, and some gone and replaced by new structures.
My walking tour led me to Willa Jean, a bakery and restaurant that had been on my list of places to check out but hadn’t made the final cut for one of our official meals. I intended to just get a snack, as it was about 4 pm (2 pm LA time) and I had a dinner reservation I was looking forward to.I’m a sucker for cornbread and ate way more of this than was necessary. Especially for a “snack.” This was only a mistake in the sense that it ruined my appetite. It was not a mistake that I ate the whole sandwich. I even managed to squeeze in a few cookies (just a bite or two of each) as I headed out. But walking away, I knew I’d overdone it. I was full. And not just full, but stuffed. My dinner reservation was at Cochon, and I walked by and pushed it back by an hour. But as the evening dragged on, my stomach didn’t seem to be freeing up any space for another meal. As I looked at Cochon’s menu, I realized it would be silly to try to eat any of the meat-heavy dishes. So I shifted my plan to an upscale pizza and veggies place, Domenica, and pushed the reservation back another 30 minutes.
After a nap, against my better judgment, I started walking to Domenica. My plan had changed from getting some pizza and a salad to maybe just a salad. But as I kept walking, even forcing a salad in seemed like lunacy. As if I needed any divine influence, it also began to rain. And that, finally, sealed the deal. I hated to “lose” a meal on this trip, but it was the right call. And in reality, while I didn’t get to eat at Cochon, I did have a great meal at Willa Jean.
A few hours later, my sister Maggie and her now-husband Ben arrived at the hotel, a few minutes after Jason and Liz did. While all were tired and hungry, Jason and Liz – the early risers – decided to just call it a night and be ready for the morning. Maggie and Ben regrouped quickly and I accompanied them on a quest for food after midnight. There were a few swings-and-misses, but we ended up at bar with a kitchen that was still open. I managed to do nothing but sneak in a french fry and a bite of burger. My stomach was returning to normal and I wanted to make sure I was ready to go in the morning.
So, Jason and Liz were up and raring to go in the morning, while Maggie and Ben were starting a little slower. That meant a three-person trek for doughnuts! I’d been following District Donuts on Instagram for a while and was excited to try their stuff for the first time. Not just doughnuts, but also fried chicken!
It was a hot and steamy day, and the humidity was already sapping our energy. When we finally made it in the air-conditioned environs of the doughnut shop, we were ready for sustenance.
Despite this bounty of doughnuts, the fried chicken wasn’t available until 11 am. That was a bummer. I was counting on some protein to balance out my carb-and-sugar (over)load.
Overall, the doughnuts were pretty good. However, my major issue with them is that despite the wide variety available, it seemed clear that the doughnut dough was the same for all of the varieties and it was just the toppings/fillings that changed. While there’s nothing wrong with that, and as a baker I could understand the logic of it from an efficiency standpoint, but I’ve come to expect more from the newer, popular doughnut places hitting the scene. So, while I enjoyed everything we ate, it wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped it would be. There was a little variation, because the buttermilk drop and the biscuit were both different doughs, but that was it.
Regardless, we were stuffed and satisfied and began heading back to the hotel to regroup with Maggie and Ben. It only took us a block or two in the simmering outdoors before we decided an Uber back was the smart move. Soon after, we found ourselves at the Carousel Bar for a few cool drinks before braving the late summer heat.My original plan for our Saturday lunch was to head to another part of town for the famous fried chicken at Willie Mae’s. We got there and saw a line stretching down the block. While a good sign for its quality (or popularity), it wasn’t good news for us. We had a 2:30 pm steamboat ride scheduled and this line had the potential to rule out the feasibility of this meal. I went up to the front and asked the woman checking people in how long she thought it would be, and when she said “Ninety minutes,” I knew our venture was over. Especially since none of us really could fathom standing in the hot, humid sun for that long.
Another Uber ride later, we were back in central Nola and ended up at my backup spot from the previous night’s aborted dinner, Domenica. Open, cool, bright and with a menu that worked fast enough to let us enjoy our meal and still make it to our boat ride.
Bellies full, we headed down the street toward the riverfront. This was the only non-food excursion I’d planned: a ride down the Mississippi on the Natchez, one of the few remaining steamboats. It was a two-hour ride and was supposed to feature live jazz. As we approached, however, the sky was clouding up and it appeared that not only was rain coming, but a lightning storm. The folks at the Natchez check-in didn’t seem bothered by it and, with a little hesitance, we headed onboard. We managed to find some outdoor seats undercover, although the falling rain was still nipping at our knees and below. But despite the weather, which improved after a little while, I enjoyed the trip. We got to stop what we were doing and just sit, and chat, and observe. The voice over the loudspeaker pointed out interesting sites along the way, some more than necessary.
Halfway through the cruise, the tour guide stopped his spiel and the music took over. A bit more blues than jazz, it was fun nonetheless, and we moved inside to listen. When we got off the ship, we all headed to our next destination – Cafe Du Monde. This legendary beignet shop attracts people from all over and we knew, on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend, that the wait would probably be a long one. However, everyone was up for it, and we headed just a few blocks away to our destination.
I’ll pick up our beignet visit, the arrival of our sixth and final tripgoer Michael, and the rest of the New Orleans weekend in part two of this post. Coming soon!