You can hear the music immediately upon turning onto Canal Street. Sounds of trombones and French horns, acoustic guitars and bottle-capped tap shoes float their way down the streets of the French Quarter. It's New Orleans' way of welcoming its guests, and it's hard not to join the party.
This was my first trip to New Orleans and I was, pardon the pun, simply jazzed to be here. I had heard about the spirit of the city - the intoxicating warmth and endless eccentricities of its people - but I had never had the pleasure of seeing it first hand. With 24 hours to spare, I hopped a flight from Boston to New Orleans and took in as much of New Orleans as 24 hours would allow.
First stop: Johnny's for some po-boys. The oldest family owned po-boy restaurant in the city of New Orleans, Johnny's has one motto: "Even my failures are edible." I found no fault in anything at Johnny's, but I'm just a visitor. Located at 511 St. Louis St., the walk-up restaurant that has been open since 1959 is always busy, and always worth the wait. I slathered tabasco sauce on the half-oyster/half-shrimp po-boy that arrived on a paper plate, took a bite and melted into my seat.
The only way to recover from a po-boy food coma is to walk it off. Thankfully, New Orleans is a walking city and, much to my surprise, a walking-with-cocktails city. There's only one rule: no glass bottles. I popped into a pub, ordered a Pimm's Cup to go, and headed toward Royal Street.
While the younger generation converged on Bourbon Street, I found magic on Royal Street - one of New Orleans' more artsy areas. The street is lined with galleries, antique shops, estate stores and boutiques. For beads and "Who Dat" t-shirts, head one street over; for authentic New Orleans gems, stop into the stores on Royal Street and find what you're looking for.
Second stop: Fleur de Paris couture boutique (523 Royal Street). Joe Parrino, Sr. opened Fleur de Paris in 1980 with the purpose of serving the special occasions market. His one-of-a-kind couture designs attract consumers from around the world looking for the unique gown, hat, bag or piece of jewelry to be debuted at everything from the Kentucky Derby to the Academy Awards. I modeled hats ranging in style from pill-box to derby chic, and priced from $299 to $549. While I resisted the urge to try on the handmade original silk dresses and mink stoles, I couldn't help but imagine myself in a past life walking the streets of the French Quarter, coiffed in a couture hat and dress, and headed for the races.
The French Quarter is filled with secret passageways and hidden streets, many of them only opened up when a Second Line parade forms for no apparent reason. Too many Pimm's Cups or Sazerac's and you'll miss some of the more pristine and alluring shops in the city. Hidden inside secret gardens and beyond cobble-stoned streets live designers, artists and fortune tellers who open their doors to the public on their time. There's an intoxicating enigma about New Orleans that's often overlooked under the hype of Mardi Gras and pub crawls on Bourbon Street, but one look through a secret garden in this city and you'll find yourself intrigued by the mystery that surrounds the streets.
I made my way back to the hotel to get ready for dinner and jazz at M Bistro and the Davenport Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans. The options for good food and soulful jazz and endless are in this city, but for one night I opted for something a little more elegant than the "standing room only blues" bars, which I would no doubt frequent the following night.
M Bistro, run by Executive Chef Matt Murphy, offers diners everything from smoked duck gumbo to Cajun redfish. The evening started with a bottle of Pinot Noir from the hotel's wine list and eased into appetizers of tomato salads and tuna carpaccio. Murphy's farm-to-table approach of dining results in the freshest catch of the day next to the crispest vegetables and sides, and it all pairs well with a New Orleans cocktail. While I'm sure Cafe du Monde is a fan favorite for the beignets, the famous French treats were nothing short of nirvana at M Bistro.
As the night got longer, the lights got dimmer, and just after 9 p.m. St. Louis-native Jeremy Davenport took the stage with his band. The trumpet-playing jazz singer has an effect on the audience. Within seconds, people were off their chairs and on the dance floor, swinging their partners around like it was a Saturday night in the 1920s. Thanks to the casual couture style of New Orleans, there was a still a flapper-like effect on the night. Hats with feathers and black cocktail dresses swayed around the dance floor. Part-Rat Pack, part-King Oliver, the Grammy-nominated artist (and one of People Magazine's Top 50 Bachelors), crooned to the audience as if he were speaking just to them. From newlyweds to toddlers to grandparents to college-aged kids, watching the generations merge while Davenport played was half the fun.
New Orleans music can take its toll on you. With one note you're up and celebrating, and the next you're reflecting on what might have been, or where you want to be. A D-flat can take you down, a C-sharp can rise you up; the music takes your dreams and makes them reality, or forces you to take a closer look at what's broken and figure out how to fix it.
I sat and listened to Davenport and his band play the first set and allow myself to sink into the emotions the music stirred. As 24 hours in New Orleans comes to an end, it was the music that made the greatest impact. From the bottle-capped tap shoes on kids to the solo guitarist on the street to the sounds of Davenport on the trumpet, there's a certain spirit that embodies New Orleans - the city can lead you down a boulevard of broken dreams, then pull you out into an entirely new world filled with a renewed spirit and endless passion.