Frugal Traveler: Seeing the World on a Budget
By Seth Kugel | The New York Times
It promised to be my easiest frugal assignment yet: five days in a paradise of cheap eating, cheaper drinking and free music in the walking- and biking-friendly city – New Orleans. A self-imposed prohibition on dropping money in the touristy French Quarter would make things easier, even during the ramp-up to the Super Bowl, which the city is hosting Feb. 3, and to Mardi Gras Day, on Feb. 12.
But, as I soon learned, there was a catch. Seven years-plus after Hurricane Katrina, the city is full of vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own set of budget-friendly activities. I was set up at the Lookout Inn, a nice little hotel in the Bywater area, a quick bike ride east of the French Quarter. Using a bike and then a car (it rained much of the time I was there), I found getting around town easy. The challenge was going to be fitting in all of those activities. My days took on an exhilarating but frantic pace – powdering a $2 plate of beignets in City Park before rushing off to slurp a 25-cent martini during lunch in the Garden District not long before listening to free and mesmerizing music played by a star trombonist in the Marigny neighborhood a bit later.
So perhaps it is best to confine my favorites to three categories. New Orleans excels in all of them: music, food and local culture.
I hardly imagined that in this city of legendary musicians, the protagonist of my trip would be a local radio station, the ubiquitous WWOZ. It was recommended to me on my first day in town, and I soon noticed it everywhere. Any business with a radio seemed to have it tuned to that frequency, and it was the favorite local station of everyone I asked. Soon it became mine, too.
I could have planned my nightly itinerary based on WWOZ’s regular listings (which are read on-air and are available online) but I had already enlisted the help of Jay Mazza, a music writer who covers New Orleans for the blog thevinyldistrict.com.
His first piece of advice proved invaluable: paying a cover charge often pays off (literally) in New Orleans. There was a $10 cover for the concert I went to my first night, a benefit in a crumbling former Catholic Church in the Irish Channel neighborhood. The money went toward renovating the place; it also allowed me three drink tickets good for beer, wine or rum cocktails. Onstage, a silver fox of a singer and ukulele player named Philip Melancon performed funny twists on classic local tunes with what I can describe only as a New Orleans Catholic version of borscht belt gestalt. (“He counts the gray hairs around the room and plays songs they’ll know,” said a woman I sat near.)
But the best concert I saw cost nothing, at what has to be the best free venue in New Orleans, Three Muses on Frenchmen Street, in the Seventh Ward, just outside the French Quarter. Why? It’s intimate but not crowded. (While the staff members at the door don’t collect covers, they do count bodies, making sure there is always breathing space.) The performer was Glen David Andrews, a trombonist familiar to most locals, and fans of the HBO series “Treme,” but not to me. Dressed immaculately in a three-button beige suit, he played the crowd with as much finesse as he did his instrument. At one point he said, deadpan, “My name is Wynton Marsalis,” evoking chuckles. I turned to the guy next to me and asked, “Who is this guy?”
“The best performer in New Orleans,” he replied.
“Then why is it free?”
“Because this is New Orleans.”
Actually, by the end of the gig, I had spent a worthwhile $22: $5.50 ($1.50 tip) for an I.P.A. from NOLA Brewing Company and $15 for Mr. Andrews’s CD, “Live at Three Muses.”
And then came Sunday, my last night in town. I started at a spare bar called the Basin Street Lounge, where a bearer of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition known as Big Chief Darryl Montana was leading the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in a tambourine and chanting frenzy at one of the Sunday night rehearsals that lead up to Carnival. These rehearsals, like most things involving Mardi Gras Indians, are hard to track down. Jay had tipped me off; his advice to others is to ask in local clubs in the Treme or check in with Sylvester Francis, curator and all-out boss at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, also in the Treme (more on that terrific spot later).
From the Basin Street Lounge, I headed back to Frenchmen Street, where the Palmetto Bug Stompers were playing at a bar called d.b.a. at 8. There had been a private party immediately before, so not only was there no cover, but the buffet of pork tamales, stewed chicken and chocolate chip cookies was also open. Free dinner!
The final stop involved a trip Uptown to the Maple Leaf, where Sunday nights mean a set from the Joe Krown Trio, featuring R&B and funk guitarist Walter (Wolfman) Washington, the 69-year-old “last of a generation” according to Jay.
Pableaux Johnson, a local food writer, described the New Orleans eating scene to me: “We’ve got transcendent food at $3 or $300 a plate.”
At the Maple Leaf, the music ended up being the secondary attraction, as I had stumbled on a classic of the cheap end of Pableaux’s spectrum. A bit past 10, after paying my $8 cover, I found dozens of diners hunched around a long row of tables, intensely peeling and eating free crawfish. It was a debauched free-for-all – without napkins – and I joined in.
I did so even though it was my second crawfish meal. The first came from Big Fisherman Seafood, a fish shop that also sells boiled crawfish at $6 a pound and delicious crawfish pies, $3 apiece. I had plunked down $9, and, since there was no seating at the shop, I asked for advice. “Just behind the Breaux Mart, there’s a little dog run,” said a worker, pointing past the supermarket across the street. “I saw today they put two chairs over there.” A picnic lunch.
Big Fisherman Seafood.Seth Kugel for The New York Times Big Fisherman Seafood.
Not all my bargain meals were quite so informal. I had to have beignets, those fried-but-fluffy sugar-topped fritters, but not at Café du Monde, a French Quarter institution. Instead, I biked up to City Park, in the north part of town near Lake Pontchartrain, home to a new branch of Morning Call, an institution in neighboring Metairie. Three grease-free beignets were just $2; the café au lait was $2.
Even classier was lunch at Commander’s Palace, an elegant, old-school dining room in a Garden District mansion. It’s normally the kind of place I would shun: it’s in every guidebook, and looks pricey. But it isn’t, and I can prove that in one phrase: “25-cent martini.”
I was joined by Pableaux, who had assured me Commander’s was as much a place for locals to get sloshed at birthday lunches as it was for tourists to gawk at them. And the $16 prix fixe meal was a steal and included two New Orleans staples: sherry-spiked turtle soup, and Cajun cochon de lait, or tender smoked pork. Pableaux upgraded to the $22 option that added shrimp and grits. He also out-martinied me, by 50 cents. In New Orleans, that passes for a big spender.
New Orleans streets are the best art gallery in town: I was particularly intrigued by hand-painted signs I found everywhere, as well as folk art featuring cheeky messages (“Be Nice or Leave”) by the famed Dr. Bob and the fine work on display at Mystic Blue Signs.
The historic houses that pepper the city are another type of free art – from the brightly colored, largely fixed-up, gorgeously detailed shotgun-style homes in the Bywater to Creole houses in the Treme to the elegant balconies of the French Quarter. (I said I wouldn’t spend money, not that I wouldn’t visit.)
Those seeking fine art should head to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which I visited on Thursday at 6 p.m. when the regular $10 admission fee also means access to a weekly concert. And I found the perfect post-beignet fix at New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden, not particularly Southern in theme but free.
And everyone should certainly visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where $8 gains you entry to an astonishing collection of hand-sewn, beaded outfits worn by the Mardi Gras Indians over the years, as well as answers to all your questions, either from displays on the wall or direct from Sylvester Francis, the proprietor. During my visit, a boom box on the porch played Celia Cruz singing “Guantanamera.” It was WWOZ, breaking from jazz for its Saturday afternoon Latin show. “That ain’t my thing,” Mr. Francis said, “but another D.J. is coming on in two hours, so no point in changing it.”
IF YOU GO
The Lookout Inn (833 Poland Avenue; lookoutneworleans.com) is a quirky place in the far reaches of the Bywater, where, sticking to my plan to avoid spending money in the French Quarter, I spent five nights, which cost me $370, taxes included. Though the online rate for three weeknights and two weekend nights was just over $500, a message left on the inn’s answering machine pleading for mercy paid off. I should note that the Lookout Inn is only a semi-inn – there’s no sign, and I did not see a single staff member. I picked up my keys at the poolside cabana and my Bollywood Suite, decorated with a leopard skin rug and Chinese dragon (and serviced just once during my stay as advertised), was perfectly fine with me.