The holidays can be hard for people. I’d always heard it, but I never really knew it. My family is small and tight, and for decades we had avoided any misplaced tension or untimely and disorienting tragedies. Neither the turmoil of dysfunction or the weight of grief had ever complicated the holiday season for us. But life changed this year. And so did Christmas.
My wife and I knew by summer that Christmas 2019 would be the hardest we’d ever faced as a couple or as individuals. We lost her dear mother, Betsy, suddenly in May. Trauma had thrown us into a blindingly dark abyss of grief. But we could already see that the distant holiday season, with its almost genetically implanted rituals of family meals, gift giving, carols and tree decorations, would amplify the echoing hole in our lives.
Christmas has always been my wife and her mother’s favorite holiday. My mother-in-law’s absence would loom over the holiday with a unique heaviness, and feigning attempts at celebration with other family felt unbearable. My wife wanted to escape the traditions of our larger families and create holiday memories for our relatively new family of two, and maybe distract ourselves ever so slightly from the pain that has shrouded our lives for seven months.
One destination immediately sprung to mind: New Orleans. I’ve loved the city for decades. I knew we’d be embraced by warm hospitality and bounced around by bonhomie. We’d eat well, drink more than we probably should, take in some music and not see one flake of the snow that occasionally dusts my wife’s native North Carolina at Christmas.
The city feels plucked out of time, a construct from which we’ve retreated and one that has served as our rare point of hope. And, with its jazz funerals, second lines, above-ground tombs and history of natural disasters, the city cultivates as honest, and at times celebratory, a relationship with death as any place I know.
RELATED: 2019’s best restaurants in Austin
Another great thing about New Orleans: Even though I’ve visited about 10 times before, out of the list of a dozen restaurants and bars we hit, it was my first time to visit almost all of them. You can always find a new favorite in New Orleans and start a new tradition. My itinerary below has some Christmas-week specific information if you want to head to the Crescent City during the holidays, but all of the places are worth a visit anytime.
Want to find a slow time at the airport around the holidays? Try an afternoon flight on Christmas Eve. The regular security line at Austin Bergstrom-International airport at 2 p.m. was as short as the TSA Precheck line. A 75-minute direct Southwest Airlines flight into the recently opened new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport preceded a 20-minute car ride that delivered us to our downtown destination for less than $40.
Housed in a former warehouse, the Old No. 77 sits at an ideal location for my kind of visit to New Orleans. You can walk to the French Quarter and the music-filled Marigny from the hotel situated at the edge of the Central Business District, and you’re just a few blocks from jumping on a bus or streetcar to head to the Garden District and Uptown.
The hotel features the hip amenities of a modern boutique hotel, from the gift shop full of locally made products celebrating New Orleans to the vending machine selling small pieces of art, and the Old No. 77 buzzes with energy without jangling your nerves with the rapid pulse of the Hurricane-slamming party crowd. The brick-walled rooms are appointed with midcentury modern furniture mixed with elements of iron and leather to complete the warehouse vibe, and sound bleed between rooms was never an issue.
One of the hotel’s greatest attractions? Compère Lapin, a Caribbean-Creole restaurant from St. Lucia native chef Nina Compton. More on the restaurant in a minute, but its bar is an inviting and sophisticated post-up for a classic cocktail and some local knowledge before hitting the town.
New Orleans always holds a revelation. On this night, there were two. Somehow, despite half a dozen trips in the 10 years since it opened, I had never visited Cure. The Uptown cocktail bar won the 2018 James Beard Award for best cocktail program in America, and on Christmas Eve it was hushed but in full glow. The menu features a 20 Cocktails We Love section, from which I took a spin on a Vieux Carré with the Cock N’ Bull Special, a bourbon-based drink with French brandy, Benedictine, Curacao and angostura bitters. The kitchen was closed, but that didn’t keep us from snacking.
The couple to our left, former residents of New Orleans, were visiting from their new home in Switzerland, and they shared some Swiss chocolates with the few of us at the bar. This prompted Greg Sorensen of local Baker Maid Products, seated on our other side, to share some of his Love, Cookies with us. That in turn led a friendly regular, the only other person in the bar, to pop the lid on her homemade chocolate chip cookies. In the words spotted at our hotel and attributed to Austin-New Orleans sports legend Drew Brees, "If you love New Orleans, she’ll love you back."
GQ’s New Orleans-based restaurant writer Brett Martin told me months earlier that Clancy’s is the place you want to be on Christmas Eve. Dining at the restaurant sandwiched between Creole cottages near Audubon Park has become such a tradition for locals that you have to call the hour the reservations open. This year, that meant 1 p.m. on Dec. 2.
The upstairs and downstairs dining rooms at the restaurant that was once a residence were packed with guests, including one member of NFL royalty. Clancy’s is the kind of restaurant with a wine list that can keep you busy for hours and tuxedoed waitstaff that can fill you with historical facts and anecdotes about the restaurant, the neighborhood and the city.
Clancy’s serves its regular dinner menu on Christmas Eve, not a pricey prix fixe, which I appreciated. The menu, printed in handwritten cursive, features classic and modernized versions of French-Creole staples. I’d never seen oysters smothered with melted brie before, but the salinity, funk and crunch were a perfect mixture. A crab salad was a study of simplicity and knowing: greens, tomatoes, shredded carrots and lump crab meat tossed in a creamy pepper-flecked sauce with just the right amount of horseradish. And the entrees were as good as any I can remember at this style of restaurant: crab scattered atop crunchy fried redfish awash in a pert meunière sauce and lamb chops drizzled with horseradish butter and served with crunchy and creamy cubes of fried potatoes.
Longtime New Orleans food writer and food correspondent for The New York Times Brett Anderson once wrote that Clancy’s was his "platonic ideal of a New Orleans restaurant." Yeah, you right.
If you’re dining out in New Orleans on Christmas Day, you’ll be choosing from a list of hotel restaurants, chains and New Orleans classics. Tujague’s (pronounced by locals as "Two Jags"), where we made a reservation online four weeks in advance, falls in the last group. The restaurant opened in 1856, relocated to its current spot across from the French Market more than 100 years ago and bills itself as the inventor of brunch (a word apparently born from the hybridization of "butchers" and "breakfast").
You may have popped in before for a classic cocktail at its long wooden bar up front, the oldest stand-up bar in America, or dined in its tile-floored, white-tableclothed first-floor dining room. We made our way up the steepest flight of stairs I’ve ever climbed in a restaurant for a fixed three-course noontime meal overlooking the French Market. By the time my boozy milk punch arrived, so had a plate of smoky and tingly barbecue shrimp on a mound of firm grits, as had my wife’s rich short ribs astride a cloud of whipped potatoes. The aging building obviously needed a little love, which won’t be a problem when the restaurant moves a few blocks up Decatur Street later this year, but the service was warm and ever present.
We made our way around Jackson Square, stopping to enjoy a brass band’s rendition of Donny Hathaway’s soul hit "This Christmas," and joined a cast of locals enjoying complimentary mulled wine from longtime New Orleans barman Chris Hannah, who was stationed at a folding table on the southwest side of the square. The longtime veteran of Arnaud’s French 75 Bar left the French Quarter classic last year to open Jewel of the South on St. Louis Street, and his Christmas Day look of a plaid jacket and bow tie fit the part. We’d pop into the cocktail master’s Cuban-themed Manolito a couple of blocks away the next day for a perfect daiquiri on our slow walk to dinner.
I had spotted chef Compton through the window to the open kitchen on Christmas Eve hustling with her staff and was happy to spot the former Food & Wine best new chef and James Beard Award winner of best chef in the South back on the line for an early Christmas dinner. Something tells me not every celebrity chef was working both days, even if their staff was.
Some have called New Orleans the northernmost Caribbean island, a fact that has made the St. Lucia native Compton a beautiful fit in the city, as she synthesizes flavors of the Caribbean with Creole cuisine. Her three-course $85 fixed menu on Christmas included crisp and tender spice-rubbed pork belly served alongside rice and beans and collard greens braised with coconut milk. Compton’s creativity was on full display with a unique Louisiana stuffing that wed the vegetal creaminess of locally grown mirliton squash with oysters, while dessert bridged New Orleans and the islands with a delicate milk punch panna cotta and mildly boozy Caribbean black cake. If you’re looking to upend your Christmas dining traditions, Compton’s buzzy dining room should be on your list.
Mason Hereford captured the nation’s attention when Bon Appetit magazine named his funky sandwich shop Turkey & the Wolf the best new restaurant in America in 2017. He opened Molly’s Rise and Shine a few blocks away on Magazine Street in late 2018, and the cute breakfast-and-lunch-only cafe is fueled by the same comfort, creativity and nostalgia at its big brother.
Marvel at the explosion of ’70s and ’80s trinkets and design details provided by an original Mr. Potato Head and an Ernest P. Worrell figurine as you wait for an American-flag-stabbed Grand Slam McMuffin — a sage-perfumed pork patty stacked on crunchy hash browns and draped with griddled onions, American cheese and ketchup, all sandwiched between a tawny and sturdy housemade English muffin.
The ketchup is Heinz, and if you want mayonnaise, it’ll be Duke’s, because native Virginian Hereford knows you don’t mess with some American classics. If you want a sandwich that might appeal less to Hulk Hogan and more to a deli aficionado, order the Dan Stein breakfast, a crisp bagel served with a setup of soppressata, mortadella, vibrant cream cheese, red onions and banana peppers that arrive on a school cafeteria tray, allowing you to make your own sandwich. Get a side of the smoked tomato cream cheese; you can taste the massive amount of time (and garlic) that went into the seemingly simple endeavor.
By the time Longway Tavern opens at 4 p.m. (earlier on weekends), you’re just warming up to the idea of a pre-dinner snack. Though the building served as a gelato parlor before New Orleans hospitality company LeBlanc + Smith took it over in 2018, Longway Tavern looks like a classic New Orleans cocktail bar, complete with an interior courtyard for dining and drinking, or howling at the moon if you want to conjure the spirit of the "Easy Rider" rapscallions memorialized in photographs inside.
The bar blends sophisticated warmth and dive bar casualness — you’ll feel just as at home with a Pappy Van Winkle 15-year as a Miller High Life —making it one of the most attractive spots for a cocktail or bite in the French Quarter. The night after Christmas, design remnants of the bar’s Miracle Pop-Up lingered; thankfully, so did the special cocktail menu that included the Gingerbread Flip, a rye-based cocktail with gingerbread syrup, Tiki bitters, whole egg and gingersnap cookie crumbs. It went perfectly with the fried catfish rangoon shaped like starfish and the bar’s take on steak frites, a fat rectangle of fried potato topped with pink jewels of beef tartare tossed in tarragon aioli.
With ancient wooden floors, a comforting dinner menu served until midnight on weekends and the same inviting hospitality that fills Longway Tavern, LeBlanc + Smith’s Meauxbar is a quintessential modern New Orleans neighborhood bistro. It’s located just at the edge of the French Quarter and Treme neighborhoods but has none of the former’s stumbly obnoxiousness.
A smart dinner might start with grilled octopus, lush smoked fish rillettes and escargots served with a sun-dried tomato beurre blanc before moving onto seared duck breast glistening with sherry orange gastrique and a crackling, brown buttery trout almondine that is the best version I’ve ever had of the form. The entire experience is wrapped in the welcoming conviviality you’d expect from a hospitality group run by a man whose family has been in New Orleans since the 1700s.
Speaking of the 1700s, after dinner, saunter back down St. Philip Street a few blocks to Bourbon Street, where you’ll find Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, a rickety wooden dive, maybe the best in the Quarter, that proclaims itself the oldest continually operating bar in America, with the first drink poured around 1772. Grab a whiskey; head to the piano in the back; plop down on a stool if Lucky Lee is banging out tunes; drop a five in the jar; and next thing you know you might be leading the back of the bar in a rousing rendition of "The Weight" by the Band.
If your inner glutton returns after you deplete your Venmo account feeding Lucky Lee’s virtual tip jar, walk a few blocks to the nautically themed dive Port of Call for a fat cheeseburger encased in chargrilled crust, topped with shredded cheddar and served with a loaded baked potato. Whether you decide to walk out with a syrupy and electric red Tiki cocktail in a to-go cup to take along your merry way is entirely up to you.
Confession: Although I had recommended Port of Call to a dozen people over the years, it was my first visit to the New Orleans great. I felt vindicated. Ditto with Killer PoBoys. The sandwich shop originally opened in the back of the Erin Rose bar in the French Quarter and a few years ago expanded to its own brick-and-mortar a couple of blocks away. There’s a Sriracha-spiked shrimp po’boy and a beef debris, but Killer made its name with unexpected takes on the form. I went with a spin on the kind of sandwich your granny might make, ham crisped and curled by the flat top, sandwiched between a flaky baguette loaded with caramelized onions and peppers and slathered with pimento cheese.
We reserved a New Orleans institution for our final dinner in the city. Ralph Brennan, whose late uncle Owen E. Brennan founded Brennan’s in 1946, bought the legendary Royal Street restaurant at auction several years ago. He and his partner, Terry White, invested tens of millions of dollars in it, closed it for 18 months and reopened the absolute stunner in 2014.
I haven’t seen a more beautiful restaurant in the city, and the service, from the bartender to the bussers, is as charming and professional as you will find. The pink chairs and green buttoned booths in the Chanteclair Room that looks out over a refreshed courtyard echo the restaurant’s trademark colors, and the chandelier hanging in the aquamarine Queen’s Room sparkles.
Chef Ryan Hacker’s menu features Creole classics such as the cloudlike shrimp quenelles alive with barbecue sauce and lemon confit and caramelized sweetbreads in sauce vin jaune, along with updated touches such as the satsuma and green peppercorn vinaigrette brightening crispy duck and firm tortellini in an umami-packed Parmesan broth dotted with basil oil that would make any Modenese proud. If you want to dine at Brennan’s Christmas week, make a reservation two months in advance.
It felt fitting to conclude our four-day escape and follow up dinner at a New Orleans legend with music from another legend. Ellis Marsalis is one of the last remaining jazz greats of his generation. He taught music to modern greats like Terence Blanchard and Harry Connick Jr. and raised a house full of brilliant musicians, including one considered one of the greatest composers of modern American music (Wynton) and another (Branford) who led the Tonight Show Band and played with the Grateful Dead.
On this night Ellis’ talented son Jason kept the rhythm on drums, backing his piano-playing father in the cozy confines of Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street. Despite his advanced age, Ellis Marsalis was in complete control of his band and his sound, swinging through originals like "Magnolia Triangle" and bouncing lithely but with authority around Thelonious Monk’s "Crepuscule With Nellie."
Watching the jazz great from our perch in the reverent listening room’s balcony, I felt as if I was witnessing the history of American music synthesized through one towering but humble individual. And I wept. I cried with gratitude for the love of family and the transportive power of music; I cried for the strength of my wife, for the beauty and ache of the world. And I cried for Betsy.