New Orleans heats up in the summer. It's steamy. It's practically on fire. It's spicy hot! No, seriously. It's hot as hell there in the summer. Sweat becomes its own wardrobe. What are you thinking heading down there in July?
When I first moved to New Orleans 12 years ago from Tallahassee, Fla. (in August, mind you), I lamented to friends that I moved from the second-most humid city in the U.S. to the most humid. New Orleans seemed like the only city that could get even more humid at night, thanks to Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River on the southern fringe.
There's really no escape. So I did what any right-thinking new New Orleanian would do: I tried to chill out. But more than anything, really, I tried to drink. Now, if you want to make the seven-hour drive down to New Orleans (take I-85 south, hang a right on I-10) and you decide to drown your sweaty sorrows, you'll find that summers in New Orleans can be a very cool thing.
New Orleans features some of the most organically hip neighborhood bars of any American city – and in practically every neighborhood. They host a healthy (if gritty) mix of longtime natives, recently transplanted wannabe locals, and curious out-of-town guests (read: you). Downriver past the French Quarter in the Upper Ninth Ward's Bywater is Markey's Bar (640 Louisa St., 504-943-0785, www.markeysbar.com) run by the owner's son, Roy, who still marches with the Downtown Irish Club for St. Patrick's Day.
On the border between Bywater and Faubourg Marigny sits Mimi's in the Marigny (2601 Royal St., 504-872-9868, www.myspace.com/mimisinthemarigny), which spruced up a tired old gay bar earlier in the decade and is a favored spot for downtown hipsters. For all the talented local live acts that play there, Mimi's is best known as the home of legendary DJ Soul Sister, the purveyor of every quality deep-funk 12-inch imaginable and whose Saturday night "Hustle" set packs the upstairs.
Mid-City, arguably the most underappreciated neighborhood for visitors, also has some of the best bars, starting with Pal's Lounge (949 N. Rendon St., 504-488-7257). (Some say it's in Bayou St. John, others say Esplanade Ridge. We'll say Mid-City.) Owned by Rio Hackford, son of director Taylor Hackford, Pal's features plenty of tatted-up bartenders and a disturbing array of Vargas pinups on the wall and old Playboy centerfolds in the restroom.
Uptown features the Milan Lounge (1312 Milan St., 504-895-1836), where you never know what will happen. Just be careful around the free dart board.
For old-fashioned ambience and classy cocktails, check out some of New Orleans' historic French Quarter bars, such as the Monteleone Hotel's Carousel Bar (214 Royal St., 504-523-3341, www.hotelmonteleone.com), the Napoleon House (500 Chartres St., 504-524-9752, www.napoleonhouse.com) and Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop (941 Bourbon St., 504-593-9761), where you can sample classic cocktails like the Pimm's Cup, the Sazerac, and the Ramos Gin Fizz.
You can also get fancified inside the disturbingly masculine Bombay Club (830 Conti St., 504-586-0972) and the Windsor Court Hotel's Polo Lounge (300 Gravier St., 504-523-6000, www.windsorcourthotel.com), where top-shelf bourbon and martinis rule. (The Bombay Club has 100 different martinis alone.)
Like so many other things, wine bars came late to New Orleans (or vice versa). The best wine bar may well be tucked in the furthest corner of Bywater, a block from the now-infamous Industrial Canal. Bacchanal (600 Poland Ave., 504-948-9111, www.bacchanalwine.com) is really a wine shop that's become such a popular gathering spot with its endless tastings that you might as well call it a wine bar. Resembling an abandoned corner grocery on the outside, the shop boasts a haphazard courtyard out back which has become the Sunday afternoon place to sip glasses, listen to live music, and sample food from a variety of chefs who stop by to cook. On the other side of town, the nationally acclaimed Delachaise (3442 St. Charles Ave., 504-895-0858, www.thedelachaise.com) is housed in an old streetcar pointed right at the avenue and specializes in harder-to-find varietals and a small-plate menu (including top-flight cheeses) that's competitive with other restaurants in the city.
There will be those who believe that the New Orleans deification of the snow cone is just a way to co-opt something obvious and make it native. And, well, it's true. The snoball isn't just flavored syrup poured over ice in a cup. (It's also not a snow cone, thanks to its finely shaved ice.) It represents, like so many other things about New Orleans, a sense of community. Snoballs can be found dotted throughout the city's neighborhoods, most notably in Uptown, where the world-famous Hansen's Sno-Bliz (4801 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-891-9788, www.snobliz.com) sits just a few blocks from Tipitina's. (Hint, hint.) The original owners' granddaughter, Ashley Hansen Springgate, has retained the family tradition of continuously layering the super-shaved ice and syrup for a fuller effect. Others favor those from Plum Street Snoball (1300 Burdette St., 504-866-7996, www.plumstreetsnoball.com), which sits about six blocks from the Maple Leaf Bar. (Hint, hint.) This stand prides itself on a large range of flavors (Atlantans can take comfort in the peach snoball) as well a heavy pour from the bartender. Just be prepared for a sticky situation afterward.
Where to stay ... There have been plenty of times when customers at the funky R Bar in Faubourg Marigny across from the French Quarter have wanted to stumble to a nearby bed. How about upstairs? The Royal Street Inn (1431 Royal St., 504-948-7499, www.royalstreetinn.com) features one big suite for multiple guests and four queen-bed suites. The boutique-style Loft 523 (523 Gravier St., 504-200-6523, www.loft523.com), which sits atop the stylish Le Phare bar, offers a trendier counterpoint. New Orleanians rejoiced when the Fairmont was rightly restored to its old historic name, the Roosevelt hotel (123 Baronne St., 504-681-1200, www.therooseveltneworleans.com), with the venerable Blue Room bar still primed to churn out classic cocktails like the Pimms Cup.
Don't leave home without ... Common sense. Seriously, you wanna be a stereotypical Bourbon Street stumble-bum, demanding bare breasts and inhaling Hurricanes, knock yourself out (or someone will gladly do it for you). To quote the great NFL running back Jim Brown: Act like you've been there before. To quote me: Don't be a douche.
Don't miss ... Some of my favorite bars are within walking distance of some of my favorite hangover-curing restaurants that won't break your wallet. For Markey's, skip over to Elizabeth's (601 Gallier St., 504-944-9272, www.elizabeths-restaurant.com), where brunch is famous for its grillades and grits, and praline bacon. After any night in the French Quarter, consider either Stanley (547 St. Ann St., 504-587-0093, www.stanleyrestaurant.com), with its Breaux Bridge Benedict featuring boudin from Cajun legend Charlie T's, or Eat (900 Dumaine St., 504-522-7222, www.eatnola.com), where the Eggs Dauphine come with stacked poached eggs, country ham, fried green tomatoes and hollandaise. A breakfast after a night at the Delachaise could be had at Coulis (3625 Prytania St., 504-304-4265) in the old Bluebird Café location, with its popular steak and eggs.
Recommended song for the drive ... You could get into the drinking mood with Lil Bob & the Lollipops' "I Got Loaded" or declare independence with the Rebirth Brass Band's "Do Whatcha Wanna." Oddly, I prefer Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon," the opening song to Jim Jarmusch's New Orleans-shot Down by Law. Or just tune the car stereo to WWOZ-FM (90.7) when you're within range – and leave it there.
Souvenir ... A pie from Hubigs (2417 Dauphine St., 504-945-2181, www.hubigs.com) would be nice. If I catch you with a Hurricane glass, I'm going to come over there and punch you in the face.