New Orleans native, Harry Connick Jr., shares his favorite dining and music hot spots in the Big Easy.
By Brendan Byrnes
“Just go hungry and get plenty of sleep before,” recommends Harry Connick Jr. to anyone visiting his hometown of New Orleans. Connick–a jazz musician, actor, and AAA member–recently shared his thoughts on the Big Easy to provide visitors insight.
Above: Harry Connick Jr. Harry Connick.com photo
Below: Harry Connick Jr. and his family dine at Commander’s Palace while visiting his hometown. Commander’s Palace photo
His advice embodies multiple meanings when considering all the different offerings in New Orleans. A hunger for original and local jazz will lead travelers to exquisite bars and clubs along the famed Bourbon Street and the lesser-known Frenchmen Street. A physical hunger encourages travelers to enjoy a smorgasbord of delectable dishes, from a unique scallop and fish blend to turtle soup and bread pudding.
All these offerings create a New Orleans that “has recovered more than 100 percent” from its pre-Katrina days according to Connick. “It’s just different,” Connick said.
On a recent trip, our small tour group was determined to discover how and why.
A Welcome Harbor
One way the city is different is the expansion of music venues on Frenchmen Street.
“When I played down there, the only place was Snug Harbor. I used to work there regularly,” Connick said.
Visitors today can saunter into other venues, such as Spotted Cat Music Club, located across from Snug Harbor, that has live jazz nightly and a local scene that’s not afraid of dancing on the 4-foot by 4-foot dance floor. The quaint bar has a small stage, local paintings of New Orleans street scenes and, of course, spotted cat art adorning the walls.
On a Monday night in June, a local quartet played four sets of dance-inducing jazz with the occasional guest trumpet player. The band also welcomed an elderly man named Captain Lionel, who sang skat and mimicked the trombone with his voice and his cane held up against his face. After two songs, he pointed up above the bar to a portrait of himself, many years earlier as a leader in a Mardi Gras parade band.
The Court of Two Sisters (AAA Two Diamonds) on Royal Street in the French Quarter holds a live jazz brunch every day from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. with more than 60 items on the buffet. Guests will typically hear blends of snare drum, clarinet, stand-up bass, guitar, banjo, and other instruments at the restaurant.
Set in a large courtyard with a fountain and a well that dates to the 1700s, the property was once home to Sieur Etienne de Perier, royal governor of colonial Louisiana, before being owned by Emma and Bertha Camors, two aristocratic Creole sisters who sold gowns, lace, and perfumes out of the storefront.
Owned by Joseph Fein, the storefront is now the kitchen, and diners are served in the open air among vines, intricate wrought iron decoration, and a strolling jazz trio.
A Palace fit for the Connicks
A city known for its world-class cuisine presents challenges in deciding where to eat. Our first evening meal was at Commander’s Palace (AAA Four Diamonds), reached via the colorful and historical St. Charles Streetcar Line, a 15-minute ride from the French Quarter to the historic Garden District where Commander’s Palace on Washington Street has served neighborhood residents and tourists since 1880.
Remodeled in 2006 following Katrina, the restaurant is a dining gem blending Creole and American heritage dishes, as well as Executive Chef Tory McPhail’s own cuisine creations.
The Brennan family, who also owns and operates Brennan’s restaurant where the world-famous Bananas Foster dessert was created and first served, owns Commander’s Palace.
Our meal was fantastic and included the famous turtle soup with sherry and champagne soaked crabmeat. Dan Davis, wine director and sommelier, shared the 129-page wine list with more than 2,500 wines ranging in price from $30 to more than $1,000.
“I look for mature wines at affordable prices that have longevity and value for our guests,” Davis said.
Waiter Dennis Dilosa noted most of the staff and kitchen help were experienced restaurant cooks, waiters and managers who took part in Commanders Palace’s resurgence right after hurricane Katrina.
“Today we have maybe a 50-50 split between locals and tourists,” said Lovey Wakefield, director of marketing for the popular restaurant. “Locals are most important and we want tourists to get the same experience.”
When Harry Connick Jr. returns to his hometown he makes time for family first.
“Last time I was home, we went to Commander’s Palace,” he recalled. “They’re great.”
A fish story to savor
GW Fins on Bienville Street is known for its seafood and has been lauded by magazines, chefs, tourists, gourmets and other fine-dining aficionados. Executive Chef Tenney Flynn prepares a separate menu everyday and is known for popular dishes such as sizzling smoked oysters, lobster dumplings, wood-grilled salmon and pompano, sautéed New Zealand John Dory. For dessert, try the apple pie with a cheddar cheese straw crust and vanilla bean ice cream.
More than 70 wines are available by the glass.
“We have been here a little more than 10 years,” said Debbie Rosen, marketing manager for GW Fins. “If you love seafood, you come here.”
Recovery and reinvention
Businesses have had to adapt to survive the disaster in 2005.
“There’s a newfound commitment to the culture and heritage,” said Connick when asked about the recovery.
“I’d say it’s returned more than 100 percent of its (New Orleans’s) former self,” he said.
Brendan Byrnes is manager of public relations, Carolina Motor Club, Charlotte, N.C.