Although I've traveled to some delightful spots on this planet, my favorite destination remains the place where I grew up, New Orleans. In particular, there is one street I cherish, right at the nexus of the tourist town and my own private memories: Chartres Street, which runs the length of the French Quarter.
I am one of those people who relish authentic experiences and local color when I travel. So why do I love this street in the heart of the well-visited Quarter?Because unlike its aptly named neighbors—the liquored-up Bourbon Street and the antiques-laden Royal Street—Chartres (pronounced "chart-ers," as per my hometown's style of domesticating French words) is a jambalaya of neighborhood haunts and tourist attractions that captures the essence of New Orleans. Down-home dishes mingle with Creole clichés on restaurant menus, and the same is true for the city itself: it puts on a façade for visitors, the same way everyone dresses up for Mardi Gras. But to experience the authentic New Orleans is to blur the distinction between the revelry masks and the underlying realities, and to enjoy the mix.
Nowhere is this more possible than on Chartres Street. When I visit I always try to walk its length, beginning at Canal Street, where the narrow vista of wrought-iron balconies frames the spires of St. Louis Cathedral.
My first stop is Crescent City Books, a cluttered warren filled with Southern novels and leather-bound histories. During my last visit I found a rare volume of Benjamin Franklin's essays. On the same block is the Civil War Store, with a lot of toy soldiers, and Whisnant Galleries, which has more than 800 pieces of centuries-old arms and armor, including a chain-mail vest that I'm saving up for.
A few steps past clothing stores too hip for me except to browse, is Bacco, one of the many restaurants owned by the city's Brennan clan. It's a fancy Creole-accented Italian place, best enjoyed by those who like that sort of thing. I prefer homier fare, so I head to a corner joint on the next block called Tally-Ho, where you can have a red-bean omelette with alligator sausage for breakfast. Or I go a couple more doors up to K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, which is a lot more civil these days, now that Paul Prudhomme isn't the celebrity chef du jour. Skip his signature blackened fish, which I always thought was a misconceived gimmick, and try the Cajun meat loaf, which manages to be comforting and spicy at the same time (the true New Orleans mix). A block away at Chartres and St. Louis, the current celebrity chef du jour, Emeril Lagasse, has a restaurant called Nola, almost as noisy as he is (bam!). Its spicy Creole-American concoctions may likewise improve once his fame recedes.
MY WIFE RIGHTLY CHARGES THAT I'M A TRADITIONALIST, since typically I prefer to detour a block up St. Louis Street to Antoine's, founded in 1840. Bernard Guste, the fifth generation of his family to run this Creole shrine, has changed almost nothing, thank heaven. For my next birthday I plan to eat there with a few friends, begin with oysters Rockefeller (which they invented and still make without spinach), and then have the trout amandine. Antoine's has been called a tourist trap, but to get the full experience, it helps to book a specific waiter—ask a local for advice. Over the years my favorites kept dying on me, so I now have latched onto the youngest one, a third-generation server named Charles.
Back on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis is the greatest of old New Orleans drinking haunts, the Napoleon House, in a 1797 building that the then mayor offered to the exiled emperor as a refuge. This tiled café has classical music and secluded tables where aspiring writers join faded ones to salve their egos. In summer I have the Pimm's Cup, in winter the more warming Sazerac. Across the street is Maspero's, once known as the Slave Exchange, a good place to use as a backup when meeting friends at the Napoleon House, which is often either too crowded or closed for some obscure family reason. On the corner of Chartres and Toulouse Streets, past a 180-year-old apothecary that's now a pharmacy museum, is Keuffer's Bar, which has good billiard tables and people shooting pool at 4 a.m.
My walk then takes me past the Alpine restaurant, where you can get gumbo for breakfast, and sometimes I make a quick detour up St. Peter Street to Preservation Hall, where Sandra Jaffe still keeps the music authentic. At the corner of St. Peter, where Chartres runs into Jackson Square, is Le Petit Théâtre, which used to have great locally produced plays but more often presents mindless musical revues these days. But it's nice to know that a little theater still thrives there.
JACKSON SQUARE IS FLANKED BY THE HISTORIC Pontalba Apartments, where some friends and I lived when I worked for the local newspaper years ago. Tour guides would stop their horse-drawn buggies beneath our balcony and declare that these were the oldest apartments in America (somehow I doubt it: they were built in 1850), and we would coax the patrons of the 24-hour Café du Monde to toss beignets up to us. My friend Jim Smith, who runs New Orleans Tours, still keeps an apartment there, and he lets me use it so I can feel like a local.
The square attracts a youthful crowd of musicians, artists, performers, and slackers at all hours, and traditional jazz mixes with newer renditions of songs by the Neville Brothers and Professor Longhair. Back in the seventies, the city council cracked down on begging and tried to bar street musicians from collecting money. I interviewed some legal experts and wrote a column outlining a compromise that would ban begging but still allow musicians to accept donations, a proposal the council then adopted. Never since have I had such impact as a journalist, which makes the music all the more sweet.
Facing the square is St. Louis Cathedral, a minor basilica where there's often some ceremony that's worth attending. (On my last visit, a Wednesday afternoon in April, a new bishop was being installed.) In the center of the square, Andrew Jackson doffs his cap to the pigeons who squat on his head—a reminder not to take our heroes too seriously. Benjamin Butler, the Union general who occupied the city during the Civil War, found his own defiant use for the statue: he carved on its base Jackson's words, THE UNION MUST AND SHALL BE PRESERVED.
In the cobblestoned Pirate's Alley next to the cathedral is another used-book store, Faulkner House Books, selling William Faulkner's works in the house where he lived. The mark of a truly great street is three used-book stores, and indeed a block up Chartres is another such gem, the Librairie Book Shop. On the corner is the only newish restaurant on Chartres worth trying, Irene's Cuisine, with a funky décor and Italian-inspired dishes.
BECAUSE I'M PLANNING TO INVITE FRIENDS TO HELP CELEBRATE my birthday, on my last walk I checked out two small hotels. For families, I'll recommend the reasonably priced Chateau Hotel, on the corner of St. Philip Street, which has a cozy, magical courtyard and a small pool. For those seeking luxury, and those who can afford it, a block farther down is the Soniat House: with its French and Louisiana antiques and custom beds, it's the most beautiful small hotel in town.
At the eastern edge of the Quarter, Chartres hits Frenchmen Street, where you'll find my favorite jazz joint, Snug Harbor. Music there is a family affair: on most Monday nights, Charmaine Neville, the talented daughter in a clan of famed brothers, does a great imitation of Louis Armstrong's scat singing; on Friday there's Ellis Marsalis, who used to teach music to my friends at Fortier High School, but not as well as he taught his sons Wynton, Branford, Delfaeyo, and Jason.
After the last session at Snug Harbor, it's time to wander back down Chartres for a cup of coffee and chicory from the Café du Monde. I sometimes drink it on the adjoining levee, listening to the predawn melody of tugboat horns I loved as a child. As the great poet of that river, T. S. Eliot, wrote:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Tally-Ho 400 Chartres St.; 504/566-7071; breakfast for two $15.
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen 416 Chartres St.; 504/524-7394; dinner for two $110.
Antoine's 713 St. Louis St.; 504/581-4422; dinner for two $120.
Alpine 620 Chartres St.; 504/523-3005; breakfast for two $15.
Café du Monde 800 Decatur St.; 504/525-4544; beignets and coffee for two $6.
Irene's Cuisine 539 St. Philip St.; 504/529-8811; dinner for two $60.
BARS AND CLUBS
Napoleon House 500 Chartres St.; 504/524-9752.
Maspero's 440 Chartres St.; 504/524-8990.
Keuffer's Bar 540 Chartres St.; 504/523-8705.
Preservation Hall 726 St. Peter St.; 504/522-2841.
Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro 626 Frenchmen St.; 504/949-0696.
Crescent City Books 204 Chartres St.; 504/524-4997.
Civil War Store 212 Chartres St.; 504/522-3328.
Whisnant Galleries 222 Chartres St.; 504/524-9766.
Faulkner House Books 624 Pirate's Alley; 504/524-2940.
Librairie Book Shop 823 Chartres St.; 504/525-4837.
Chateau Hotel 1001 Chartres St.; 800/828-1822, fax 504/525-2989; doubles from $109.
Soniat House 1133 Chartres St.; 800/544-8808, fax 504/522-7208; doubles from $195.