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.
z 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.