New Orleans Wine & Food Experience
New Orleans Wine and Food Experience
The Royal Street Stroll, the signature event for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, will be held this year on May 22. Vintner dinners will also be held in some of NOLA's most storied restaurants.
updated 5/1/2008 3:29:06 PM ET 2008-05-01T19:29:06

Two-and-a-half years after Katrina, New Orleans gears up for the festive springtime season with a sense of guarded optimism. The streetcars are finally running, convention business has bounced back and residents are gradually returning. NOLA’s buoyant spirit is more in evidence than its woes, and now’s the perfect time to visit a city on the cusp of a comeback.

“We have more restaurants open than ever before,” says Kelly Shulz, vice president of Communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. She’s all smiles about a “fresher hotel product with $400 million of refurbishments in the past two years, a cleaner French Quarter and festivals and celebrations to indulge your senses all year long.”

To be sure, some things are better than ever. Store owners, cabbies and waiters are extra-friendly, welcoming tourists as partners in recovery. The pungent morning-after aroma of Bourbon Street has vanished. Since January 2007, local entrepreneur Sidney Torres, president of SDT Waste and Debris, has been handling trash removal and street cleaning in the French Quarter. His smartly dressed crew employs cutting-edge cleaning methods so that Sunday strollers inhale scents of lemon and eucalyptus instead of party swill. Day and night, workers tidy the streets even when the trucks aren’t rolling.

Hotels are also working hard to entice visitors. For a quintessential French Quarter experience, the glitzy Royal Sonesta provides an island of calm in a sea of activity. The tranquil courtyard, with its pool, outdoor bar and breezy cabanas, is the ideal spot to sip Sazeracs and lounge in the shade of tropical plants. Seafood-lovers pack the iconic Desire Oyster Bar overlooking Bourbon Street for its succulent shellfish and entertaining oyster shuckers. The sleek Loews Hotel, located in the Central Business District, offers a chic atmosphere along with a full-service spa and a standout contemporary Creole restaurant, Café Adelaide.

The eating scene is buzzing with news that Ruth’s Chris will bring their sizzling steaks back to NOLA in a location adjacent to Harrah’s Hotel. Cherished favorites are doing the city proud, like K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where Chef Paul Prudhomme often roams the dining room signing menus and chatting up guests who can’t resist his spicy Creole and Cajun creations. Upperline, housed in an 1877 Garden District cottage decorated with local art, oozes character and delivers memorable flavors. The seven-course “Taste of New Orleans” menu, featuring Chef Ken Smith’s fried green tomato with remoulade and his legendary duck, always pleases the palate. Donald Link, winner of the 2007 James Beard award for Best Chef, South, fearlessly reopened Herbsaint just weeks after the storm, and now the sleek bistro is packed with an arty crowd enjoying his sublime small plates and delectable deserts. Nine months after Katrina, the intrepid Link also opened Cajun restaurant Cochon, a magnet for diners addicted to his transcendent rustic fare. Don’t miss the mouthwatering rabbit and dumplings, and homemade sausages.

You can now confidently enjoy your favorite NOLA activities, like riding the St. Charles streetcar, strolling the Garden District, checking out the local music scene and window-shopping in the Quarter. Historic Royal Street reflects the city’s slow-but-steady recovery. Foot traffic has recovered to approximately 75 percent of pre-storm traffic, and the weak dollar is drawing Europeans to indulge in some of the world’s best antique shopping. The 25,000-square-foot treasure house of M.S. Rau Antiques has enjoyed 15 percent growth through 2006 and 2007. Owner Bill Rau assures that “as the convention business rebounds, we anticipate a return to pre-storm traffic and possibly beyond.”

Barry Cohen, a fifth-generation dealer at James H. Cohen and Sons Cohen Antiques, purveyor of antique firearms swords, rare coins and currency, is also optimistic: “The French Quarter is back—it’s safe, and you can breathe the air.”

Royal Sonesta, New Orleans
Royal Sonesta New Orleans
This grand hotel situated on Bourbon Street delivers an unbeatable French Quarter experience. Grab a stool at Desire Oyster Bar for a cold beer and possibly the world's most entertaining oyster shucking; then let the good times roll.
New Orleans is a party any time of year, but spring and summer bring a tempting roster of festivals that highlight the city’s cultural offerings. Jazz Fest (April 25-May 4), officially known as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, is still the mother of all jam sessions, featuring more than 600 musicians on 11 stages. This year’s festival-goers will be treated to the first full seven days of programming since 2005. Superstars like Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and Santana groove alongside homegrown celebs like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.

Swizzle Sticks Bar at Loews New Orleans Hotel
Loews New Orleans Hotel
Without a doubt, Loews is one of the most stylish additions to the NOLA hotel scene in recent years. The Bar Chef Table at the Swizzle Sticks Bar is the brainchild of mixologist Lu Brow, who pairs cocktails (rather than wine) with each course of a meal.
Foodies and oenophiles are not forgotten in this season’s festival roundup. The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (May 20-24) is getting ready for its 17th annual celebration of good taste. More than 175 wineries from around the world and 75 local restaurants will show off their wares at what’s being billed as a “Five-Day Feast for All of the Senses.” The newly-conceived Vieux To Do weekend (June 13-15) rolls three festivals into one—the Cajun Zydeco Festival, the Louisiana Seafood Festival and the Creole Tomato Festival. This extravaganza features fishermen, arts & crafts, and farmers’ villages filled with local sounds, food booths, cooking demonstrations and products fresh from the farm and the sea.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the Big Easy without celebrating the cocktail, rumored to have originated in New Orleans. Tales of the Cocktail, the 6th Annual Culinary and Cocktail Festival (July 16-20), gets visitors in the spirit by celebrating the history and culture of cocktails and regional food with five days of rum and whiskey-soaked events. Cocktail gurus from around the globe assist in presenting seminars, tastings and classes for amateurs and experts. New events on the 2008 program include a cocktail market, a cocktail cinema and seminars on erudite subjects such as molecular mixology.

There’s no reason to wait any longer. It’s time to succumb to NOLA’s southern charms all over again.

Photos: Big Easy returns

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  1. Katrina's mess

    A junked car lies near empty houses in the Lakeview neighborhood near the site of the levee breach on the 17th Street Canal, August 29, 2005. More than five months after caused by Hurricane Katrina made landfall, there was little progress in some areas of New Orleans. Today, tours are offered to visitors to have a better understanding of events pre and post Katrina. (David Rae Morris / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Big Easy blues

    Costumed revelers dressed as blue roof tarps pose at the annual MOMs Ball, thrown each year by the Krewe of Misfits, Orphans and Mystics in New Orleans. Many of this years Mardi Gras floats and costumes reference the blue tarps that still protect broken roofs across the city after Hurricane Katrina. (Matthew Cavanaugh / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Soul sounds

    Jen Pearl (L) and Michelle Loughnane stand under an umbrella with a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, April 2006. Jazz Fest '07 will be held on April 27-29 and May 4-6. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dancing in the streets

    A member of the Young Olympia Aide and New Look Social Aid and Pleasure Club dances in a second line parade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jeweled celebration

    Members of the Krewe of Thoth throw beads as they travel down St. Charles Avenue where thousands of revelers showed up to enjoy 2006 Mardi Gras festivities. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is the day before Ash Wednesday, and a celebration of the last the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Mardi Gras 2007 will be observed on Feb. 20. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Eye candy

    Revelers ogle a woman exposing herself on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Closing time

    Orleans Parish mounted Police Officers march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter announcing the official end of Mardi Gras 2006. (Sean Gardner / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A shout for freedom

    "Big Chief" Victor Armstrong wears an elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costume. The Indian tradition of Mardi Gras pays homage to the relationship between Native Americans and escaped African slaves of the 1700s. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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