People think they know New Orleans. Whether they’ve been to the city or not, they have definite ideas about what the city is or isn’t. And if they have been there, the city is fixed in their minds as the way they experienced it: the parties at Mardi Gras, the hookups at Southern Decadence, the bucolic families at Papa Noel, the students flooding Uptown. But if the city of New Orleans had a gender, it’d be genderqueer. It’s a languid metropolis that’s always in flux, always in some state of transition.
I’ve been there nearly 60 times now, beginning with the 1984 World’s Fair, when I was 16 — a heady time for a girl coming into her own sexuality. There were also four stints living there, first in college (at Tulane, then later at Xavier), then after I was married. I returned out of love (for the city and the people) and left each time because a job opportunity called.
I haven’t lived there for 22 years now. But the city still courses through my veins. It calls to me in my dreams, my mind in that twilight between sleep and waking, sometimes racing down the potholed streets from Tchoupitoulas to Rampart, Carrollton to Elysian.
So, I jumped when I had the chance to fly in for two weeks last year — first to attend the U.S. Conference on AIDS and later for the LGBT Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. Like the majority of the other 9.28 million visitors in 2013, I went for a business-related function. The city boasts one of the busiest convention centers in the country, partly because even meeting planners and CEOs want to visit New Orleans.
I went with no expectations. I’m happily married, so there was no pressure to hook up; no kids meant no kid-centric stops needed; no NOLA virgin friends in tow needing to hit every museum, gallery, cemetery, and historical tourist spot (though I made it a point to visit the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which sadly lost most of its 10,000 fish in Hurricane Katrina but has rebounded well).
I did pack a secret with me: I hadn’t had sex in six months. Call it a dry spell, a slump, an embarrassment — but between the pressures of work, caring for an aging mom, finishing a memoir, and all the usual life stuff, the co-pilot and I hadn’t found time to knock boots in nearly half a year. Once you skip sex for more than 30 days, sexlessness becomes rote, a way of life, and your relationship to your body detaches. And as a woman entering middle age, body dysmorphia can easily settle in, too. After all that, a woman needs inspiration to kick the motorboat back in drive.
I couldn’t find that at home, but when I went to New Orleans, this time with little pressure, I ate and drank and cruised ghostly abodes, and suddenly I was Jenna Jamison in the sack.
Here’s what I did.
I ate, a lot. GW Fins, Oceana Grill, the super gay-friendly Mother’s Restaurant, Deanie’s Seafood, Antoine’s Restaurant (where I had my first baked Alaska and felt like a wealthy 1900s patron), Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House, Atchafalaya (the city’s only 5-star restaurant), Café du Monde (at least once daily for beignets and café au lait).
I drank daily. But never to Mardi Gras-style excess. The city is one of the few in the U.S. that has no open container laws, so I walked around with a takeout cup of strawberry-peach daiquiri every day.
I slept well. I visited several hotels — including the Bourbon Orleans (the city’s haunted hotel), W New Orleans in the French Quarter, and the Hyatt Regency, an amazing all-in-one complex where you barely need to leave to experience the city. Regardless of whether my night started at 10 p.m. or 4 a.m., I could count on being able to return to each hotel for 10 hours of comfortable rest. I walked through the city and rode the streetcars, drenched and frizzy-haired (damn the humidity!), open to all the sex and sin and love and history and beauty, from the strip club barkers on Bourbon Street to the lazy brown tide of the Mississippi River.
And I was open and inspired by the out sexuality all around me, not just when you cross the so-called Lavender Line at St. Ann Street. That leads to the more LGBT-centric part of the French Quarter (where you’ll find Bourbon Pub and Parade, Oz, and Café Lafitte in Exile, billed as the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the U.S.), but nowadays the whole Quarter feels queer– and trans-friendly.
I noticed more same-sex couples kissing than ever before. Several of them told me they were honeymooners. I watched lesbian and gay couples, obviously blended families, polyamorous sorts, and mixed transgender-cisgender couples all holding hands, canoodling (and sometimes more) out in the open.
As I walked Bourbon Street, the apex of sex trade in the city, I really watched for the first time the men and women outside the adult venues and strip clubs meant to entice you in. And I saw myself. Rather, I saw middle-aged women like myself, tarted up, yes, but au naturale as well. In Los Angeles, it’s hard to find ladies exposing real unaltered bodies: cellulite, dimples, wrinkles, sagging boobs, pale skin, visible cesarean section scars. But in New Orleans, realistic women were outside and inside the clubs, dancing along the requisite flawless 19-year-olds, garnering as much attention and adulation working acrobatics on the pole (routines so perfected over two decades that young men and women sat mesmerized), or twerking on the sidewalk with customers following them inside as though they were the Pied Piper of ass.
Some people see a middle-aged woman working a stripper pole and think it’s sad. I see something else: an empowered woman making choices to do sex work and a society that values and desires real women, real bodies without the airbrushing, Photoshopping, and pinkening you find in porn. I see myself, desirable with my flaws born from four decades of living, a sexual creature who can have even more orgasms than I did, with less baggage, at 20 or 30, as long as I slow down long enough for them to, um, come.
On that visit to New Orleans, I discovered a city that continues to transition, evolve, and reinvent — one eye on history, the other on the future. And that reminded me of my own transitions, my own past and future, and that like the city and its sex workers, aging doesn’t have to mean your glory is fading. And all that, or at least seeing myself reflected in the women of New Orleans, got me in the sack. A lot. By the end of the visit, my sex drought was over. The city, it seemed, worked way better than therapy.
Check our guide to where to eat, stay, and play in New Orleans>>>
So You Want to Go to New Orleans Here are the top tips to making your trip to the Big Easy fun, affordable, romantic, and effortless.
WHEN TO GO The biggest mistake first time New Orleans travelers make is going during Mardi Gras. No argument that it’s not the best party on earth (I wouldn’t trade my party gras experiences for the world) but it’s also the most crowded, hardest to get hotel rooms and restaurant reservations, and there are so many outside visitors (I mean millions) that you get a very different, less N’awlins experience than you would much of the rest of the year.
Valentine's Day does happen to fall during the Mardi Gras season, if you want to celebrate in one of the most romantic cities around (Mardi Gras is February 17, but parades and balls lead up to that date). Just be warned hotel rooms may be pricier (for example: a room at Bourbon Orleans, smack in the middle of the French Quarter, from February 13-18 is $439 a night as of this writing, versus $139 at other times of year; a room at the Grand Hyatt for the same dates is $319, although you have to take the trolley to the Quarter).
Holidays with Papa Noel bonfires across the Mississippi are amazing, both Jazzfest and the Essence Festival are blasts, and there’s literally a festival or gathering of some sort in New Orleans nearly every weekend. So pick a time that works for you. There’s a list of events at New Orleans visitor’s bureau page, and a great run down of festivals (including LGBT-specific ones like the not-to-be-missed Southern Decadence, as well as festivals celebrating food, music, theater, literature, African-American and Creole history, and more).
WHERE TO EAT
SoBou SoBou was so hot when it opened in 2012 that Esquire called it the best new restaurant in the country. Located in the W French Quarter, SoBou’s got the credentials: it’s from the famed Commander’s Palace family, and that restaurant’s Tory McPhail is a consulting chef. But “cocktail chick” Ti Adelaide Martin, executive chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez, and bar chef Abigail Gullo deserve the credit for their delicious high-end, small plate Creole-Cajun-Southern street food take. The foie gras burgers and alligator corn dogs are a must, the yellowfin tuna cone with avocado ice cream is amazing, and the unique dining experience includes self-serve wine machines, a hidden courtyard, and a beer garden.
For me though, it’s all about cocktail chef Abigail and her amazing state-of-the-art cocktail program that treats alcohol and fresh ingredients with the care of a master mixologist. Bar-goers can enjoy inspired drinks, from the whimsical King Cake Old Fashioned, to sophisticated concoctions like the Georgia O’Keeffe, made with Cathead honeysuckle vodka, elderflower, hibiscus, citrus, and cava. It's the preferred drink of out actor and SoBou regular Bryan Batt, from 12 Years a Slave and Mad Men, who also co-owns of a local boutique, Hazelnut, which is definitely worth visiting while you're in town.
Mother’s Restaurant Offering New Orleans home-cooking since 1938, Mother’s still makes the best po-boy in the state of Louisiana. The Ferdi Special combines the house-made caramelized baked ham, roast beef, gravy, and debris (which is the roast beef that falls into the gravy while it’s being cooked) all into a sandwich. Mother's excels at other Southern dishes, from shrimp etoufe and red beans to bread pudding, but it’s not just the food that makes this place great. It’s the people too, who operate a lot like a family — from their wonderfully effervescent gay manager to the chefs and servers.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, the restaurant’s owners and manager came back to the city, and helped find their employees, many of whom lost their homes. The restaurant kept nine FEMA trailers in its parking lot for their homeless employees and for nearly a year after, forming their own neighborhood of sorts. That loyalty is a two-way street. More than 17 of the current employees have been there over 20 years. The day we visited, our cook had been there for more than 30 years, and was the niece of the original 1938 cook (for whom Mae’s File Gumbo is named); our waitress had been there for 22 years.
The thing is, this kind of camaraderie isn’t just heartwarming, it shows in the food and the service. Every single meal at Mother's is consistent. Even when there’s a line around the block to get in, I know that the food will taste the same each time I visit, and since I’ve now been going there since 1986, it’s like a taste of home — New Orleans comfort food at its finest. In addition to Central Grocery (the city’s best muffaletta maker), Mother’s is hands-down the one eatery we go to in New Orleans on every trip. It’s fast, it’s delicious, LGBT-friendly, good for families, and it’s inexpensive.
Arnaud Dinner One of the first restaurants to reopen after Katrina, 97-year-old Arnaud’s is one of the city’s biggest institutions, a fine dining experience from the largest restaurant in the city — there are more than a dozen private dining rooms. The maître d's are in tuxedos, the tables surrounded by chandeliers and drapes, and after you break some of the house-made bread, someone scoops away the crumbs that you’re supposed to make (it’s lucky). And while you wouldn’t know it, Arnaud’s is also one of the few eateries there that serves classic Creole cuisine (no hybrids here, just the food native to New Orleans), which means lots of butter and spices and flour and deliciousness.
There’s a Dixieland dinner each night, a Sunday jazz brunch, and more. Top menu choices include Shrimp Arnaud — Gulf shrimp marinated in a tangy Creole Remoulade sauce; Oysters Arnaud (one each of the eatery's signature baked oysters); Crawfish O’Connor, which is baked in a Brandy-infused classic Creole tomato-based sauce; and the Soufflé Potatoes, considered one of the city’s most iconic dishes by locals.
Legend has it that the chef for French King Louis Phillipe (circa early 1800s) unintentionally created soufflé potatoes by plunging already fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the King arrived late for dinner one night. The potatoes puffed up like little balloons, the king loved them, and Arnaud's now serves a ton of them, with béarnaise sauce, of course. We also were thrilled with our after-dinner treats, including the Café Brûlot, a concoction of coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and Orange Curacao that’s flamed with brandy. The drink's preparation is a theatrical show, which reportedly began with pirate Jean Lafitte, who would make the drink to enrapture people, so his crew of thieves could pick their pockets.
While you’re there, take a gander upstairs at the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, named for the daughter of Count Arnaud, who took over the restaurant after his death. She was a legendary local — loud, brash, sexy, hard-drinking, and a powerful boss — who ruled over 22 Mardi Gras balls and started her own Easter parade to show off her latest hats, a pageant that still happens every year.
Feelings Café This LGBT-owned Creole restaurant is set in an historic building from the late 1700s in the Faubourg-Marigny, an area just outside the Quarter that’s as close to a little “gayborhood” in the city as you’ll get. Feelings is housed in a former plantation building, with a fantastic patio bar and courtyard where you can enjoy a wonderfully romantic feel, a famous peanut butter pie, and a piano player every weekend.
Cochon Butcher If you go before Lent begins (the day after Fat Tuesday), stop at Cochon Butcher for dessert: pastry chef Maggie Scales has created an amazing new version of the traditional Mardi Gras pastry known as the king cake, dubbed the Elvis because it’s filled with peanut butter, banana, and house-cured bacon topped with marshmallow and traditional Mardi Gras decoration. They do some fine house-cured meats, too.
GW Fins It doesn’t have the dress code of some of the other high-end eateries in the French Quarter — no sleeveless shirts, cut-off or athletic shorts, but dress shorts and polos are fine. But what GW Fins does have is some of the best seafood. In a city where seafood often means crab, crawfish, redfish, and shrimp in heavy sauces or deep friend, GW Fins stands out for serving a premium variety of superb fish and shellfish from the Gulf and beyond without all that dressing or frying. The lobster dumplings are like butter, and the wood-grilled local Barracuda (with Thai-style mirliton slaw, blue crab fritters, and pepper jelly) is an exciting surprise, but I’ll never go back without ordering our table’s hands-down favorite: wood-grilled New Bedford sea scallops with mushroom risotto and wild mushroom butter.
Antoine's The oldest French-Creole restaurant in the city, Antoine’s is 175 years old and still operated by fifth-generation relatives of the original founder, Antoine Alciatore, and dare I say it’s as special now as it was then. It’s romantic, delicious, incomparable, and a bit of a time-capsule. Our meal was topped off with a very special Omelette Alaska Antoine, a dish made for lovers if ever there was one. The restaurant’s version of Baked Alaska, has to be ordered in advance. If, like me, you had no idea that included ice cream, let me describe the dish: this dessert is filled with vanilla ice cream with pound cake on the bottom and egg white meringue on top flambayed on the outside to crusty perfection.
Brennan’s I was devastated when this restaurant, my favorite place on Earth to have breakfast and Brandy Punch, closed in 2013 amid financial turmoil after it took a heavy hit in Katrina. The Irish-American Brennan family is a restaurant dynasty, though infighting and competition have led to many different Brennan-owned restaurants that don’t necessarily have any connection to each other. Brennan’s, the eatery that originated the Bananas Foster, among other dishes, was revived by Ralph Brennan (a cousin of the former owners) and Terry White, and many of the iconic dishes are back. Don’t miss breakfast here — it’s a sheer experience and will take you literally hours. I haven’t been since it was retooled but I’m thinking the artisanal eggs benedict is still the best bet.
Atchafalaya You’ll have to go Uptown for New Orleans’ only five “A” restaurant, but Atchafalaya is worth it. A fun spot for the weekend brunches, with live music and a Bloody Mary bar, this joint boasts contemporary Creole cuisine and craft cocktails — but I am in love with their breakfast. Try the Eggs Atchafalaya (poached eggs, fried green tomatoes, jumbo lump crab, hollandaise sauce) or the Cochon Du L'Eggs (sunny-side up eggs, pulled pork, cornbread pudding, creole coleslaw, blackberry-cane syrup). Yum.
The Rest Sage advice for New Orleans’ visitors: you cannot go wrong with a Brennan-owned restaurant. The family has tentacles all over the city’s cuisine trade, and many of them are very good, including Red Fish Grill (start with the seafood sampler), Dickie Brennan’s Steak House (try the house filet with flash-fried oysters), and Bourbon House Seafood (which has a massive selection of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons and the city’s best Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch).
Where To Stay And Where To Play >>>
WHERE TO SHOW OFF YOUR INNER TOURIST
Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar My friends laugh at me for being such a tourist but even after 30 years of visits to this city, but I will never miss a chance to spend a night at Pat O’Brien’s. The day Brennan’s closed, I joked on Twitter that I’d jump off a (tiny) bridge if Pat O’Brien’s ever closed. I heard from O'Brien's almost immediately, happily reassuring me there was no danger of that. And why? Because that place is a blast! It’s actually three bars in one: a traditional bar, ala Cheers on one side, a courtyard patio bar (which I loved when I was still dating) in the back, and my favorite, the dueling piano bar on the other side. There you’ll find the Pat O’s classic cocktail, the Hurricane, in giant hurricane glasses, being served in droves to dozens of people crammed into family-style tables drinking, laughing, and singing along with the piano players.
The pianists' repertiore includes regional fun: any Southern school’s fight-song will get a crowd going, but so will my favorite, “New Orleans Ladies,” sexy tongue twisters (“Sarah, Swinging on the Shed House Door” becomes hilarious the drunker you are and the faster you sing), and all the classic piano songs, right down to Billy Joel's "Piano Man," which makes me think of Pat O'Brien's every time I hear it. And they have a staff photographer who walks around shooting your picture so that everyone doesn’t have to pull out their camera phone every 30 seconds, which I love. I turn the phone off, get my drink on, get sexy, meet strangers from all over the globe, or focus on my co-pilot to their exclusion depending on my moods, and forget all about the rest of the world for a while.
WHERE TO STAY
The Bourbon Orleans Fresh off a multi-million dollar renovation, the iconic French Quarter hotel is now as upscale as its competitors, including refurbished bathrooms, new beds, free wi-fi, ergonomic Herman Miller-designed desk chairs, and 42-inch flat screen TVs that the original visitors of the hotel could never have imagined. Walkable from any spot in the Quarter, The Bourbon is sitated next to a couple of New Orleans landmarks — the St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square — a very short walk to Café Du Monde, which is the only proper place to get beignets and café au lait in the city, (and you’ll find yourself craving them more than once during any length of visit).
During major events, it’s a great locale because hotels on Bourbon Street (and even Royal Street) can be a crush of noise and people that you can’t escape, even when it’s time to sleep. But The Bourbon Orleans is far enough removed from the noise that you’ll get some shut-eye before the next day’s adventures. But what's an old hotel without some ghost lore? Once the historic Orleans Ballroom and Theater and later, in the 1880s, a Catholic convent, today the hotel welcomes ghost hunters in a new annual paranormal Ghost Camp, tours by Grayline, and visits from TV’s Ghost Hunters and A&E’s Psychic Kids. The host of the latter show, acclaimed psychic Chip Coffey, did a reading at the current Orleans ballroom as part of his Coffey Talk Tour, and reportedly detected and communicated with several spirits. Don’t believe in ghosts? There’s a fantastic Drag Queen Brunch during Southern Decadence that’ll have you talking to different kinds of spirits.
Grand Hyatt The Grand Hyatt New Orleans is seriously one of the reasons every convention comes to New Orleans. I stayed there for a personal stay and spent half my time in bed, the rest in the hotel. Another time, I stayed there for a conference where I never had time to leave the hotel. Yet in both situations, I felt like I got a great New Orleans experience. That’s because the hotel is a giant one-stop-shop of goodness, packed with entertainment and daily life requirements. There’s a FedEx Office and a full-service Starbucks in the hotel, not to mention super fast wi-fi everywhere. A pizza concierge will deliver directly to your room if you don’t want the usual room service, but each of the eateries will also bend over backwards to get you what you need.
The hotel has a social mission as well, and has supported the LGBT community and other local activists on rebuilding and restoring the city, helping the disenfranchised and more. In 2012, the hotel partnered with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right organization to develop a night of giving to support rebuilding efforts in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which raised more than $4 million to construct 20 homes. With funding from Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bloch, a founding partner of H&R Block, the hotel workers helped turn the area around the hotel, once trashed lands with drug waste, into a little garden oasis called the Bloch Cancer Survivor Plaza. In 2014 alone, Hyatt Regency New Orleans donated 8,576 pounds of recyclable soaps, shampoos, and other amenities to impoverished people in the United States and abroad through a partnership with Clean the World.
W French Quarter This place brings the signature W style and meshes it with N’awlins, with tarot-inspired rooms and depictions of New Orleans’s voodoo queen Marie Laveau throughout the property. “Our new design definitely has a little fun with the city’s spiritual side,” W French Quarter general manager James Wroblewski explains. “You may see Marie’s eyes following you on the guest room number placard, or you may recognize her headdress on a directional sign. If you look up while you’re standing in the welcome area, you’ll notice tiny, pin-like lights, playing off voodoo pins.” Bonus: Studio suites include private courtyard entrances, balconies, and private Jacuzzis on the back patio.
The Maison Dupuy This charming little hotel in the Quarter’s residential section is still steps from everything, but also gives you a chance to see the pretty wrought iron fences and colorful homes that line the city streets here — in fact, it was created by joining five of those townhomes in the 1970s. It’s wonderfully eclectic with lush gardens and that Vieux Carré feel. Best yet: one of my best girlfriends uses a wheelchair and the Dupuy has great disability access throughout the hotel, which is difficult for many small hotels to offer.
Dauphine Orleans This lovely little boutique hotel in the French Quarter dates back to the early 19th century, and has a breakfast room where John James Audubon painted his Birds of America series while living at the nearby Audubon Cottages. I like that staff welcomes you with a cocktail from the bar, May Baily’s Place, a former brothel in the heady days up to and including Storyville. It’s said May’s sister Millie never left the place, becoming the “Lost Bride” ghost of the Dauphine Orleans Hotel sometime in the last days of the 19th century. The bar’s “Bordello Suite” is said to be haunted by her and other May’s girls. It also boasts a wonderfully relaxing palm tree-filled courtyard around a saltwater pool. And if you insist on renting a car and staying in the Quarter — usually not recommended — the hotel has one of the few private on-site parking garages in the area.
The Rest You can’t go wrong with the recently upgraded Hotel Monteleone. It's always been luxurious: in the 1920s it was among the first hotel to have air conditioning — something half the city’s homes still don’t have. A modern equivalent: each of its guest rooms is it’s own wi-fi hotspot. The Audubon Cottages are a historic collection of seven one- and two-bedroom suites that offer private, guest-only access with a shared saltwater pool, said to be the oldest in New Orleans, and set in original brick. It’s pricier, but these are secluded hideaways with luxury amenities, your own butler, and still steps from everything in the Quarter.