By Brad Japhe
Updated February 21, 2020
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New Orleans Parade
Credit: EMILY KASK/AFP via Getty Images

It’s near noon on a January’s Tuesday in the French Quarter. Brass music is spilling out onto the streets. A flamboyant procession of second liners struts by. The scene is nothing if not quintessential New Orleans; even if you’ve never been, you can probably picture it. Although Mardi Gras marks the unofficial start of spring in this part of the world — and with it, the beginning of the tourist high-season — most locals yearn for another time of year. It turns out, when the days are short, the parties are long. And the Big Easy becomes a winter wonderland.

"For most, winter is a time to hibernate, but not for those of us living in New Orleans,” explains Sean Cummings, proprietor of the International House Hotel in the Central Business District. “It marks a time to celebrate our local rituals, projecting an authentic modern expression of the city.” At the Loa Bar adjoining the lobby, Cummings’ guests are treated to tipples that literally taste like the season, inflected with botanical trimmings positioned alongside bottles and shakers. 

Bottles at Ioa
Credit: Eugenia Uhl

Indeed, across much of the city the flavors of winter feature prominently on the menu. Leading up to Christmas, restaurants observe the century’s old tradition of Reveillon dinners. Originally conceived as a feast to enjoy after midnight mass, now the custom has extended into much of December. During that time visitors can observe festive bonfires atop the levees, before partaking in one of the largest New Year’s celebrations in the South. 

And while the remainder of the country is tending to resolutions and month-long proclamations of abstinence, here they never miss a beat. “After the holidays the city is only allowed a few days rest before coming alive on King's Day, January 6th,” adds Cummings. “The revelry continues until spring with more energy, more enthusiasm, and more fun for the most anticipated celebration of all: Mardi Gras.” 

But for the natives, the ramping up to Fat Tuesday is far preferable to the ballyhooed festival itself. “The best part is when locals do their thing in the days and weeks beforehand,” according to Denver Nicks, local, and author of “Hot Sauce Nation.” “People have house parties and block parties. You’re likely as not to run into folks in wigs and costumes. Hell, you might end up wearing one yourself.”

Colder days also provide the perfect excuse to warm yourself up with the city’s legendary comfort food. Nicks collects his in the form of a bowl of creole gumbo at Liuzza’s by the Track. He’s also particularly fond of the yaka mein from the Manchu Food Store in the Seventh Word. And when he’s craving a fancier sit-down, he heads to Meauxbar for some shrimps and grits. He follows it up with live music for dessert.

“During the winter lots of the great local musicians are in town,” he explains. “They go on tour in the summer. Last night was the parade of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbaccus. Today it’s 72 degrees and sunny. I'm taking a dog to the park with a frisbee — it’s February 2nd.”

This winter represents an especially auspicious period for the city. October marked the opening of the Sazerac House, an interactive museum and nano-distillery honoring the region’s cocktail heritage. In November, they cut the ribbon on a $1.5 billion airport terminal — the newest in the nation. And a string of restaurant, hotel, and bar openings are adding fresh flavors to one of the world’s great culinary destinations.

Fish of the day at International House Hote
Credit: Eugenia Uhl

Rockrose is one notable example, a downtown eatery honoring the city’s undervalued Greek bonafides — in both edible and drinkable formats. In the shrimp souvlaki or the braised lamb with orzo, a pinch of creole flourish is affixed to Mediterranean foundations. Chartreuse mingles with mastiha and brandy with ouzo on a cocktail menu unlike anything else in town.

"It's no wonder why immigrants from Greece landed in New Orleans when they first made their way to the Western Hemisphere: it was the temperate climate,” explains Nick Asphrodites, owner of the nascent hotspot. “As is this case with Greece, if you're hoping to explore New Orleans like a local, there is no better time to visit than winter. It often feels like the perfect spring day, with temperatures ranging in the mid-60s, making it easy to walk for hours and enjoy the city's architecture and history.” 

Or you can live inside of it, if only temporarily, by booking a stay at the Soniat House. Its two-hundred-year-old townhouses straddle Chartres street, showcasing to guests a quieter side of the French Quarter; along its northeastern edge, far removed from the over-served masses. A winter morning here affords contemplative moments amidst the crisp, cool air of the property’s private courtyard.

Award-winning chef Nina Compton, of Compère Lapin, opts for a carriage ride through the Quarter during these months, before the area becomes overwhelmed with crowds. “Winter also means the beginning of crawfish season,” she adds. “And there’s nothing more special than getting invited to a boil and hanging out with friends.”

Maison de la Luz
Credit: Stephen Kent

Although, cozying up to the counter at Bar Marilou is probably a close second. The French-inspired salon is accessed through a hidden entrance in the lobby of the boutiquey Maison de la Luz. Here you’ll choose from a catalog of victuals ranging from Old World classics to nouveau New Orleans. Both the liquor parlor and its adjoining hotel have quickly become staples of the city’s booming Warehouse District. No season seems capable of slowing this neighborhood down.

 “Everyone knows New Orleans is festive all year round,” adds Compton. “But winter is — without a doubt — the most festive time of the year.”