New Orleans

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2001

Over the years, patrons of Galatoire's have come to expect a dining room scene worthy of Tennessee Williams, a feast of decadent Southern specialties and a waiting line of at least an hour. Recently, one of those aspects of this New Orleans institution had magically disappeared.

When I dropped in for lunch, I found two birthday celebrants wearing glittery crowns, a table of regulars quaffing Jack Daniel's and an army of waiters in black tie hoisting stuffed eggplant in one arm and crèpes maison in another. But for the first time in a dozen visits, the maitre d' swept me straight to a table without so much as a minute's wait.

That's the Big Easy these days: all the usual pizazz and pageantry, without the crowds nipping at your heels.

To be sure, the city is still drawing travelers from all over the United States and Europe. A week ago Thursday, along Bourbon Street, visitors were puffing cigars at Le Booze Bar, revelers were tossing Mardi Gras beads from balconies and a doorman was beckoning strollers into a strip joint called Big Daddy's with promises of half-priced hurricanes and the prettiest girls in the South.

"Somehow, when all else fails, we feel the party has got to go on here," said Dwight Payne, lounge manager at the popular House of Blues, which features live music and sinful eats seven nights a week. "I mean if you can't expect a good time in New Orleans, where can you turn?"

During a two-day visit, however, I found access to many of the city's celebrated haunts easier than ever. On my first morning, I strolled over to the beloved Cafe du Monde, where the lines for a table usually stretch out the door. Within minutes, I was ushered to a seat and served warm beignets and a cup of chickory coffee, which I had been savoring for months. Later I perused the wares at the usually mobbed French Market without a single other tourist traisping behind. That night I headed to Preservation Hall for a jazz concert, and before I could say "Louis Armstrong sent me," I had snagged a seat so close to the trumpeter I could swear he was playing "My Funny Valentine" just for me.

Following the events of Sept. 11, tourism to New Orleans took a sharp fall. Eleven conventions canceled, by the account of tourism officials, including one gathering of aviation specialists scheduled to bring 30,000 visitors. At the Hilton, the occupancy rate fell to about 10 percent, a spokesman said.

Although tourists and conventioneers are returning, the rate is still lower than it should be during this season, according to Beverly Gianna, spokesman for the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "This is nothin'," Lulu, a coffee-colored waitress at Mother's coffee shop, told me as she surveyed a busload of visitors from New Jersey queuing up for grits, buttery biscuits and fried eggs. "Usually we got them lined up halfway down the block."

"I should be booking $1,500 to $2,000 in tours," said Chris Tucker, a burly guide at a visitors' booth off Jackson Square. "Now I'm lucky to snag $500."

Subdued demand has also brought the cost of a New Orleans getaway to an affordable level. My plane ticket from BWI, booked at short notice, cost $191, down $100 or so from the usual rate. My double at the Marriott New Orleans, $200 in normal times, went for $60 a night through Priceline, the discount auction site. Discounts at the posh Maison Orleans and other places with rich local character are possible, too, since hotels across the city are running at occupancy rates just below 50 percent, according to Gianna.

While slightly less boisterous, the French Quarter seemed nonetheless to cling to its inimitable Big Easy attitude. Over on Chartres Street, a trio of African American teenagers were clicking up their heels like Mr. Bojangles. Just off Jackson Square, a fortuneteller eyed me as I pulled out my camera and said, "I know you not gonna try to snap this beautiful mug before handing me a dolla'."

One particularly popular attraction among visitors to New Orleans is the National D-Day museum. Opened last year, it features three floors of memorabilia from World War II, including uniforms worn by German and American soldiers and testimony on video from those who fought on the front lines. The centerpiece is an elaborate re-enactment to the Allied forces' famed June 1944 landing in Normandy. When I arrived late on a Wednesday afternoon, a museum official told me that 894 visitors -- only slightly less than the usual rate -- had already been through that day.

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