Getting to know a city in neighborhood-size bites
The world’s great cities are hard to visit. From Shanghai to Florence, from Istanbul to New York City, these densely stacked mille-feuilles of history, culture, food, drink, street corners, and alleyways offer up more than any short immersion can satisfy. It was not until I began visiting New Orleans—undoubtedly a member of the “great cities” club—with increasing desire and frequency, that I came up with a plan to taste the city in bites I could manage, even savor.
The secret? Begin with an inn grounded in local culture—ownership, décor, and style of hospitality. Make its neighborhood your universe, and suddenly you’ll have a city you can get to know.
Which is how I came to be sitting on the veranda of the Park View Guest House, set splendidly along St. Charles Avenue in Uptown New Orleans, as the late-afternoon sun turned the live oak canopy in the distance to glowing. I’d planned to get a little work done en plein air, but who was I fooling? I was here to drink a glass of wine, eat my Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtators, and watch the parade of Uptown life.
Carnival-season visitors often judge New Orleans by its crazed and colorful Mardi Gras parades. But those more familiar with the city know that every day is a parade and that every neighborhood marches to a different beat. From the drunken rapids of tourists on Bourbon Street to funked-up Sunday second line parades in the Tremé, humanity constantly takes to the streets. In Uptown, it’s a saunter-speed rolling of dowagers, families, university students, and post-Katrina arrivistes who make the grand avenues and quiet side-streets their homes, and who cultivate village-like pockets of restaurants, bookstores, bars, and boutiques as carefully as their Uptown gardens.
And the Park View’s broad porches, which give way to St. Charles along the inn’s entrance and to glorious Audubon Park along its flank, are the best parade stands a visitor could hope for. Tulane and Loyola students, professors, and staff make their day’s-end way across the avenue’s wide tributary. Strollers, joggers, and helmet-less cyclists weave around each other along the sidewalk. Every few minutes, the clatter and electric buzz of the historic St. Charles streetcars announce the city’s cheapest, slowest, best form of public transportation. Through those always-open windows, conversations drift out of the olive green cars and mix in the humid air with hip-hop beats from passing automobiles. Life is lived, they say, out in public more in New Orleans than in any other American city, and it’s true. Everything—and everyone—mixes here.
A security guard in her starched uniform ambles up the Park View’s steps. She works nearby, and her rounds include a stop by for a quick glass of lemonade and a short laugh with the staff inside. She’ll be back at the end of her shift, when the streets are dark and the Park View blazes with incandescent welcome, offering a velvet bench for a rest and another round of sweet drink and conversation.
THE HOME BASE
It’s been more than a century of welcome here at Park View, which was built in 1894 as an “exclusive boarding house”—a grand guesthouse for visitors, particularly families, to stay in when visiting New Orleans’ newly subdivided (and mansioned) plantation lands to the west of the French Quarter. Think extended stay hotel meets country manor, with the filigreed exuberance of the late Victorians setting the architectural mood.
And what a mood it is. Restored and in a state of perpetual refinement in the hands of Terry and Liz Creel, Park View’s owners since 2009, the inn’s Queen Anne, Eastlake, and Colonial Revival influences play throughout the building, from massive columns anchoring the front porch, to leaded glass entry doors, to high ceilings, ornate mantels, and pristine crown moldings in the common rooms.
The magic wrought by the Creels is substantial, and has restored a property that had fallen on increasing hard times over the years. Liz confesses that when they bought the place, she and Terry hesitated to tell their friends they now owned the Park View. “It was pretty faded,” she said, describing a third floor room that had “Motel 6 furniture, a stretch of unpainted drywall as a divider, and a padlock on the door.” Working to stay open and regain reputation, the Creels did a This Old House-style blitzkrieg of four rooms at a time, and finished the final rooms in the fall of 2013.
Now every corner is both historic and beautiful. Terry, an emergency room physician, scours the Internet for antiques set free from New Orleans estates, and the couple counts many dealers and auctioneers as friends. The interiors at Park View show it, especially a collection of forty working antique clocks in the common rooms (they all keep time, although they are not always all wound, lending a classically New Orleans suspension of time depending on where you look). Period sofas and chairs, pedestal tables, chandeliers, and artwork, such as antique Mardi Gras parade bulletins, all hail from the nineteenth century, as well as from New Orleans.
Upstairs, the inn’s twenty-one guestrooms feature antique beds, headboards, and armoires that reflect the couple’s passion for beauty and local provenance. Liz, a fifth-generation New Orleanian, is crazy about their latest find: an ornate tester bed and armoire made by nineteenth-century New Orleans furniture maker William McCracken. Icing on the cake? It came out of a house right in the neighborhood, she said.
INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Uptown is not only a fine part of town in which to retrieve rare furniture. It’s also full of pedestrian delights, and the best first meander is to step off Park View’s porch right into its namesake: Audubon Park.
Still featuring much of its original late-nineteenth-century design by the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architects, the park is both sanctuary from the tight urban confines of the city and a place where locals head to play: tennis, golf, swimming, walks, runs, and even horseback rides. Schoolgirls imagine their weddings beneath Audubon’s massive, moss-draped oaks; and birdwatchers flock to Ochsner Island, a rookery that draws egrets, herons, and cormorants in a twilight airborne parade of its own. The park’s two-mile walking loop is a perfect taste, and a fine way to either begin a day in Uptown or conclude it. (Lucky residents whose homes back right onto the park often take this stroll with their evening’s bottle of wine and glasses in tow.)
From the natural to the architectural, the wandering in Uptown is rich and seemingly endless. Close to St. Charles, narrow streets are resplendent with elegant, looming homes even grander than the Park View, pristinely kept behind wrought-iron fences and tropical plantings. Closer to the Mississippi, the neighborhood scale reduces, and the city’s vernacular shotgun homes built in the early twentieth century as worker housing are every bit as beautiful, particularly when brightly painted and decked out by owners with typical New Orleans verve. Uptown is a walking feast, and most residents, if out trimming a bush or passing time on a small porch, honor the local custom of chatting with passers-by. How else to learn that a Confederate general lived right there, discover a best-selling author just around the corner, and, more often than you’d imagine, get an invitation to come on in and take a look at the renovations done last year?
A happy Uptown meander can only go so long without refreshment. Remember, this is the city that sells daiquiris from walk-up windows. On the sober side, Uptown has several fine coffeehouses to break up the day. Rue de la Course, my favorite, occupies a high-ceilinged former bank up the road from where St. Charles dead-ends at the Mississippi River (and officially in the Carrollton neighborhood). The daily brew is the best you’ll find, and the place hums with locals reading, writing, and chatting. A perfect blend.
Once in that neck of the woods, there’s a day’s worth of eating, shopping, and partying to be had. Browse the titles at the venerable Maple Street Book Shop, and don’t miss a small shrine devoted to Louisiana author Walker Percy. Revive in French form at Maple Street Patisserie, where during Mardi Gras season (which kicked off with Twelfth Night on January 6), the award-winning king cakes are a must, as are king cake cookies, which get their purple from fresh blueberries and their green from pistachio nuts.
For dinner, it’s a four-way tie in Carrollton: the brilliance at Boucherie of Nathaniel Zimet’s modern Southern cuisine (his shrimp and grits outshine many higher-priced competitors), the low-key, elevated flavors at the hip and cozy Mat and Naddie’s, the convivial clatter over an Abita and étouffée at Jacque-Imo’s for New Orleans’ landmark bragging rights, and Liz Creel’s all-time favorite, the idiosyncratic Brigtsen’s, where you’ll feel like you’re at your crazy New Orleans aunt’s house for Creole dinner—if your crazy New Orleans aunt was a James Beard-honored chef. (Don’t miss the pecan pie.)
And while many sirens of jazz, funk, hip-hop, bounce, and blues may call to you from the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street across town, you can happily stay put right in the neighborhood at the Maple Leaf Bar. Not only do some of the best acts in town take the small stage under Maple Leaf’s pressed tin ceiling, but Rebirth Brass Band makes the bar its home every Tuesday night, and you shouldn’t miss a set. It’s loud, it’s wild, and you’ll never consider brass bands the same way again.
But you’re not done eating. The later it gets, the more hypnotic the Camellia Grill becomes, its neon sign turning the diner’s stately white columns a lurid, alluring pink. Whether it’s your last bite of the night or your first taste of the new day, the Camellia will set you up along its curved counters to swap news and jests with some of the finest conversationalists in the city—especially the waiters. Listen for the way they call out the orders to the cooks who work along the back wall, and admire this century-old dance that keeps the place jumping. If you merit a fist-bump from the staff, you’ve arrived.
And know, as you climb into a late-night streetcar to take the easy way back to the gracious embrace of Park View—which I did gratefully—that Liz and Terry have left snacks out for night owls. And if you time it right, that security guard might just catch you for a chat. Or a gang of ladies enjoying their reunion weekend might happily pour you another glass of the Creels’ ample wine on hand and invite you to join their high-spirited takeover of the parlor. Or you might have those ornate rooms all to yourself and let the history of a place that was built to welcome work its quiet magic on you.
Then, it’s time to mount the Park View’s broad stairs and disappear into the fresh sheets and mahogany embrace of William McCracken’s somnolent masterpiece. And dream of what will roll by tomorrow. Because that’s how you do it Uptown.
Tracey Minkin is an award-winning writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Her work appears regularly in national magazines and online.
Details. Details. Details.
Park View Guest House
7004 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, La.
Rue de la Course
Maple Street Book Shop
Maple Street Patisserie
Mat and Naddie’s
Maple Leaf Bar