Travel The Other New Orleans

A district called Uptown evokes the true European flavor other parts of town have lost.

BEFORE I MADE MY HOTEL RESERVATIONS OVER THE INTERNET I had never heard of New Orleans’ Uptown. All I knew was that the French Quarter was booked for the weekend, so call this an accidental discovery. Away from the tourist joints, T-shirt shops, and crowds on Bourbon Street, I found a quiet, beautiful neighborhood filled with antique stores, outdoor cafés, hotels, and restaurants. Inadvertently, I chanced upon the true New Orleans.

The Josephine Guest House is a sprawling Victorian mansion with a courtyard brimming with fuschia-colored mandevilles. As we arrive, owner Dan Fuselier rushes out to help with our bags and settles us in the parlor. We wander around the room scrutinizing the centuries-old French furniture and vaulted ceilings. Whiffs of Josephine’s special house-blend coffee and freshly-baked croissants filter in from the kitchen and through a parlor lined with bookshelves. Dan returns, carrying a carafe of coffee and a plate of fresh crescent-shaped rolls to keep us occupied while he draws a thumbnail sketch of the city. I listen distractedly, silently calculating how many steps are between me, the street car, and my first Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s. After all, this is my first trip to New Orleans and I’m ready to play the silly tourist.

Dan would rather we act like the sophisticated tourists, for whom the atmosphere of Uptown ought to be enough. He mentions making reservations for lunch and dinner. When Gary, my boyfriend, asks about the formality, Dan looks pointedly al him and admonishes, “You wouldn’t go to a friend’s house without calling, would you? It’s just not proper,” Making a reservation is not just to ensure a table, it’s a social grace.

Each suite at the Josephine has a distinct theme. Ours is Greek Revival, as evidenced by an enormous antique armoire and an amazing 12-foot crystal chandelier suspended high above the queen-sized bed.

Still determined to sample Hurricanes, we murmur something noncommittal in Dan’s direction on our way out and rush to catch the streetcar. It takes us past café patios and storefronts along St. Charles Avenue toward Canal Street.

Once we arrive in the French Quarter, we see hoards of people spilling out onto the narrow streets from clubs and novelty shops. Caught up in the jostle and tawdriness of Bourbon Street, I almost pass by Pat O’Brien’s, where the courtyard hums with animated laughter and music. Ivy vines creep along me ancient brick walls, and servers bustle around us in brightly colored jester hats, carrying trays loaded with empty glasses. After draining the one Hurricane I had promised myself, we’re out the door in search of our next adventure.

Back on Bourbon Street, signs beckon us into Madame’s House of Voodoo. We dart in for a tarot card reading. Mysterious potions and magical remedies guarantee to do anything from healing a broken heart to driving away bothersome neighbors. A door swings open, and a deep startling voice declares, “Madame will see you now.” Madame, wearing a dark turban, beseeches us to sit. and soon her bright orange lips bend into a knowing smile as she lays out our destinies. Fifteen minutes later, Madame has come uncomfortably close to describing both of us, so we decisively turn back towards Canal Street and head to the safety of Uptown.

Respecting the social graces, Gary makes our dinner reservations while I fill the antique bathtub and relax into scented bubbles. I have to force myself out. Wrapping up in a gigantic terry cloth towel, I pad to the wardrobe and prepare for the evening.

A short cab ride delivers us to Geautreau’s, a small Uptown restaurant in a building that was once a neighborhood drugstore. The restaurant is half hidden on a quiet, leafy residential street, but our cab driver assures us that we are in the right place. Rich oxblood-colored walls and starched white tablecloths create an intimate and elegant dinner setting. Along one wall extends the old pharmacy’s original polished wood cabinet, now tilled with glassware and an impressive selection of vintage wines. Squinting to read the list of entrees in the flickering candlelight, we decide to splurge on broiled duck appetizers and feast on soft-shelled crab and lobster. After a wonderfully rich meal, we have to fight the urge to return to the suite. Instead-against Dan’s advice-we return again to the Quarter, this time in search of jazz New Orleans-style.

The House of Blues, a musical Mecca that attracts international superstars to its stage, boasts the best lineup in the city. The stage bill announces that Jeff “Tain” Watts (drummer from the Tonight Show band) is performing, so we snap up tickets and head for our scats. Frantic drum solos pierce the air, and a jazzy progressive bop works the audience into a quick frenzy. Ravi Coltrane (son of John) is delivering hot sax solos when Terrance Blanchard, with trumpet in hand, springs from the audience. The crowd explodes in applause when this world-class trumpeter-who scores Spike Lee’s films-delivers a haunting performance. Headhner Roy Hargrove’s knockout blow to listeners combines strengh with delicate reflection. But when he belts out “Chicken Shacks.” the audience ignites with laughter and singing.

The next morning Dan delivers fresh orange juice and smiles approvingly when we tell him our plans for day two. We walk to Nine Muses, a little café on Magazine Street full of primitive art. Brunch-black beans and polenta cakes-is the best meal we’ve had all week. Bolstered, we return to window-shopping along Magazine Street, passing restaurants, clubs, a lingerie shop, antique shops, a flower shop, and a community garden. We catch die streetcar to the Garden District, and what seems like five miles of Swiss Avenue stretches out before us.

Generations of care have gone into maintaining the air of 19th century lavishness in the Garden District. We gaze out appreciatively at the Victorian, Italianate, and Greek Revival-style mansions that sit majestically off the oak-canopied boulevards, Queen Anne and Gothic-style homes with enormous columns and wrap-around porches are dotted with rocking chairs and porch swings. We ride beyond the former St. Elizabeth’s orphanage-now the residence of novelist Anne Rice-and watch people puttering in their gardens until we arrive at Lee Circle and stop to visit one of Dan’s favorite spots.

The Circle Bar is one of Uptown’s newest hip spots, but the building is antique. (During a recent renovation, the owner uncovered, under layers of paint and ancient wallpaper, an art deco-style mural that almost runs the length of one wall.) The furniture is a mixture of crushed velvet couches and unmatched chairs. The crowd is as mixed as the furniture-writers, artists, poets, and photographers blend with old-lime regulars. We strike up a conversation with the bartender, a transplanted Texan, and she fills us in on some local gossip while pouring herself a drink. She warns us that the members of the Methuselah Council are on their way-her name for a collection of 75+ year-olds who still continue to make nightly cocktail rounds. Soon they arrive one-by-one. and it’s not long before one member, who claims to be a very famous director, sits beside us spinning a yam about Hollywood while the others growl out their disbelief. The bartender looks on with a knowing smile. Caught up in conversation with our new friends, I notice the time, and we rush off to our last Uptown dinner.

The Upperline is set in an 1877 framed town house. Surrounded in Southern charm, we munch on fried green tomatoes and shrimp rémoulade from a menu that melds traditional Creole with contemporary preparation and spices.

Not quite ready to call it a night, we recall Dan’s words about the Red Room: “It’s a good place to have a drink and stumble home.” We climb the myriad stairs leading to the door. The club-surrounded by steel scaffolding that was left over from the Eiffel Tower, or so local legend claims-boasts a panoramic view of Uptown. We absorb the lavish setting: dark wood paneling and hunter green walls contrasted by sumptuous red couches. The martini-and-cigar set jumps to the band’s swingin’ tunes and rocks deep into the night. Gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling windows, 1 can see the Josephine in the early morning light. Leisurely sipping martinis, we relax and drink in the beauty of our surroundings. As the sky begins to brighten, we creep back to our suite, toss back the hand-crocheted bedspread, and climb into our comfortable bed.

We wile away our last day walking hand-in-hand along tree-lined streets, window shopping for collectibles, and stopping at vintage record stores to hunt for buried treasures. The French Quarter may get the notoriety-and the drunken tourists-but we’ve discovered that the heart of New Orleans is in Uptown-a place where gra-ciousness is never out-of-fash ion and diners still dress for dinner. In Uptown, people call ahead for reservations. It’s just the proper thing to do.

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