"Magnolia trees at night, sparkling bright."

By Kate Donnelly
December 12, 2019
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Legendary New Orleans crooner Louis Armstrong had it about right in his recording of "Christmas in New Orleans," when the city turns into a vast wonderland of towering bonfires on the levee, candlelight carols and decked out Garden District mansions. A sublime season where fêtes start early and run late; and where decadent, multi-course Réveillon (French for ‘awakening’) suppers, from the centuries-old Creole tradition are known to feature crispy, fried Gulf oysters and cherry-almond bread pudding. Below, a guide to what’s cooking in the Crescent City this holiday season.

Courtesy of Seaworthy

Where To Eat and Drink

Alas, you’ve come to the Big Easy to eat. Commence your stay at James Beard Award-winning chef Kelly Fields’ Willa Jean, where Southern comfort staples reign: pimento cheese dip with country ham and flakey biscuits with sausage gravy. Nearby, the light-filled Compère Lapin draws inspiration from chef Nina Compton’s Caribbean roots with dishes like coconut French toast and pecan rum sauce. Make your way to the French Quarter landmark where Brennans offers a 2-course breakfast with seafood gumbo and eggs Sardou (served until 2 p.m.).

For coastal seafood, drop by Donald Link’s Pèche and try the shrimp toast and smoked tuna dip with house-made saltines. Uptown, chef Alon Shaya’s Saba is where modern Israeli cuisine lives; don’t miss the pillowy fired-to-order pita and hummus with curried fried cauliflower. Elsewhere, the elevated French bistro Lilette serves John Harris’ simple menu including escargot with Calvados cream, Muscovy duck breast, and Loire Valley cabernets. Speaking of wine, the venerable Bacchanal doubles as a wine shop with a leafy backyard billing live jazz and shareable charcuterie plates.

Meanwhile, set in an intimate Creole cottage, Seaworthy is always prime for raw oysters and bubbles. For espresso drinks and pastries, Church Alley Coffee Bar has you covered while the hip, cheery Mammoth Espresso whips up pour-overs and cortados.

Courtesy of Josephine Estelle

From between early-December to New Year’s Day, sample the town’s Creole-inspired Réveillon dinners, three-to-five-course affairs known to include gut-expanding game pies, bisques, eggnog bread pudding, and turtle soup. Opt for French Quarter mainstays like Antoine’s or the jacket-required Galitoire’s or, perhaps, linger in the Garden Room of Commander’s Palace, where patrons nosh on a lavish, 7-course spread with lobster and grilled corn pudding. For more modern riffs, the stylish, faded dining room of Cavan serves a 4-course sprawl including caviar and crème while the airy, Italian-flared Josephine Estelle offers oyster stew and carrot ravioli with saffron and andouille.

You certainly won’t go thirsty either. Since 1914, the venerable Napoleon House has been ringing out “It’s Pimms o’clock somewhere.” Here, grab a table in the well-worn room and sip frothy brandy punches. For a nightcap, Arnaud’s French 75 shakes its namesake drink alongside bar snacks like souffle potatoes. On Rampart Street, the small, cozy Bar Tonique employs serious mixologists who are known to serve fancy Jell-O shots on Happy Hour Wednesdays. For a Bywater dive, drop by Markey’s Bar for cold beers, darts, pool tables, and po-boys.

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What To Do

With brisk, sunny days, you’ll want to savor the outdoors. Every holiday season, you can tour seven Garden District homes filled with local musicians. Later, take a lingering stroll around Lafayette Cemetery #1, where you find worn, elaborate gravestones and mausoleums. In December, St. Louis Cathedral offers candlelit caroling at Jackson Square. For arty diversions, Contemporary Arts Center Nola is showcasing artist Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, looking at representations of modern-day black women. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the eccentric House of Dance and Feathers, located in a backyard, celebrates the town’s street culture with Mardi Gras paraphernalia. You’ll also find rich visuals at Ashley Longshore Studio, where the pop artist’s signature bedazzled bling and dizzying color is splashed on her furniture and paintings.

Looking for gifts? Savory holiday staples known as Mirliton pies can be purchased at Crescent City Farmers Market. For ladies' wares, proprietor Susannah Lipsey’s cool-girl boutique Freda stocks a fashionable array of Ace & Jig, no. 6 and Caron Callahan. On Royal Street, the Beyoncé-approved Krewe Sunglasses stocks an array of vintage-inspired shades with gold-plated hardware. Inside Saint Claude Social Club, you’ll uncover hip designers such as Petra, Meegan Barnes, and Lola James. Stroll along Magazine Street where requisite stops include Ann Koerner Antiques and Malachite Home, housing a smattering of ‘70s vintage objects. Meanwhile, Sunday Shop hawks a host of vintage ceramics, Wonder Valley’s sultry hinoki body oil, and FS Objects slim candlesticks. Of course, distinguished gents who yearn for handsome, clubby plaids and preppy loafers should visit Billy Reid.

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For music, Preservation Hall still hosts some of the best in town and is famed for its standing room and liberal BYOB policy. For more intimate venues, check out Frenchmen Street’s Snug Harbor and the weathered Spotted Cat Music Club. Nearby, the laid-back, 2-story Dragon’s Den has a small dance floor to kick up your heels while Hi-Ho Lounge hosts a variety of musical genres alongside cheap suds and greasy snacks. Inside the Ace Hotel, the intimate, checkered-floored Three Keys harbors an up-and-coming, indie-scene and also caters to locals. Uptown, the institution known as Tipitina’s (est. 1977) features national acts and local brass bands.

Courtesy of Maison de la Luz

Where to Stay

For a calming respite, drop your bags at Maison de la Luz. Over the summer, the folks at Atelier Ace lovingly restored this elegant, six-story guesthouse in the Warehouse District. Designed by LA-based Studio Shamshiri, there’s a sense of being ensconced in a Wes Anderson film coupled with a whimsical Southern-French flare. Gather in the living room for board games under lighting fixtures that resemble corset boning. Later, slip into the swanky Bar Marilou for natural wines and cocktails courtesy of Paris-based Quixotic Projects. The room smacks of a vibrant Kubrick red-colored library and is accented with playful touches — think plush velvet armchairs and tiger-motif textiles. Come evening, the 67-rooms are dressed in slumber-inducing, mauve-lavender walls and crisp white linens, and pale-pink bathrooms come with free-standing tubs and showers with sculptural snake handles.

Courtesy of Maison de la Luz