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Is New Orleans Ready for Tourists?
And More Important, Are They Ready For New Orleans?

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

On a recent January Thursday night at the Gumbo Shop, a stalwart dispenser of Creole comfort food in the French Quarter, the line for a table crossed an important threshold: It went out the front door.

"I haven't seen that before," said Jennifer, a harried waitress eyeing a queue that spilled onto the sidewalk of St. Peter Street for one of the first times since the restaurant reopened in early December. Some of those waiting were obviously college students. (Tulane and Loyola universities had just resumed classes, and the restaurant's $6.95 bowl of gumbo has long drawn the kind of hungry twentysomethings who were noisily getting reacquainted by the hostess stand.) Others seemed like local people or relief workers, and a few -- including one couple flipping through a Zagat guide -- were obviously tourists. "Everyone's talking about how busy it's been getting," Jennifer said.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Iberville Street, another Vieux Carre fixture, the Acme Oyster House, remained empty behind darkened windows and a temporary stretch of chain-link fence. Antoine's, the legendary eatery on Rue Saint Louis, was open, but patrons had to step around a stretch of broken sidewalk and piles of construction material. Taped prominently by the door was a health department certificate: "Approved for Re-opening Following Hurricane Katrina."

By 10 p.m. on Bourbon Street proper, the crowd, many with bottles of beer or souvenir cocktail cups, had overflowed the sidewalk and filled the center of the sticky street. Strip club barkers tirelessly cajoled patrons -- from bachelor party louts to suburban couples -- into showrooms where dancers who may or may not have been actual females showed off assets that may or may not have been the ones they were born with. Walk-up margarita bars and open-walled rock clubs lobbed competing bass lines and disco lights at each other across streets filled with go-cup gawkers.

"I'd say it's about 75 percent," said Ricky Craig, surveying the scrum of partyers gathered in front of Razzoo's. A group of bead throwers teased them from a balcony above. A National Guard Hummer, painted in desert camo, was parked at the curb. Craig is an engineer from outside of Houston and a French Quarter veteran. This was his first visit since Katrina. "It's not nearly as crazy as it can be, but it's better than I expected."

Five months after Katrina and four weeks before Mardi Gras -- just as many potential visitors are looking for the right time to come pump some sympathy dollars into a beleaguered economy -- tourism in New Orleans is as mixed as a pot of gumbo: In the French Quarter, where even an off-speed party is more Bacchanalia than most cities pull off on a good New Year's Eve, it's almost possible to believe that little has changed. Along St. Charles and around the Garden District, many a house is alive with lighted porches and clean cars in the driveway. On Magazine Street, most of the boutiques are open, and at such venerable music clubs as Tipitina's and Snug Harbor the stages are filled nightly. And all over the tourist districts, a growing list of restaurants and bars are back to slinging etouffee and Sazeracs.

In short, if you're a New Orleans veteran, you'll find many of your old haunts up and running. If you're a first-timer who's been kicking yourself for never making the scene before everything changed last August, you can come now for a pretty good idea of what all the fun was about.

But wander more than a few blocks from the high ground, and the good timing can look like a Mardi Gras mask, a fixed reveler's grin over a bleak and broken soul.

Business as Usual?

As more flights bring more visitors, finding a room can be challenge, particularly on weekends. Hotels are opening every week, but most places are understaffed and others remain booked with relief workers or employees with nowhere else to live. All are struggling with the challenge of doing business in a warped economy. (The International House, a trendy and popular boutique hotel in the central business district, was blocked from opening 40 additional rooms for two weeks because the cleaners misplaced the drapes.)

To help, the city's tourism Web site maintains an updated list of functioning hotels (see Details below). Among them is the Royal Sonesta, a 500-room behemoth in the heart of Bourbon Street's naughty stretch. The hotel is busy and back to normal, except for the task force of police and state patrol officers using the ballroom as a headquarters and the frozen-in-time August 2005 issue of Where magazine on a bedside table.

"I'm definitely seeing more pure tourists now," said Mike Howells, a tarot card reader set up across the street from the hotel. Up the block, a group of Baptist missionaries handed out religious fliers under a sign reading "Free Coffee." Next to them, a woman in a bikini top in the door of Larry Flynt's Barely Legal club held a sign reading "Free Porn." Howells has worked the fortune-telling trade around the Quarter for more than 40 years. He never evacuated from Katrina and has been watching the slow return of life since the waters began to recede.

"I watched this city die," he said. "Before it was all New Orleans police, National Guard and insurance adjusters. Now there are more tourists and more young people. It's much closer to normal."

The insurance adjusters, Howells said, were good customers for him.

For many a repeat visitor, normal in New Orleans starts with breakfast at the Cafe du Monde, the iconic beignet palace on a corner of Jackson Square. The freshly fried square doughnuts, dusted in powdered sugar and washed down with chicory coffee, are as much a part of New Orleans as the wide Mississippi that bends away from the French Quarter a few yards away.

The capacious indoor and outdoor seating areas of the cafe were about half-filled on a Saturday morning earlier this month, with a small line at the to-go window. This normally high-volume operation seemed to be running at about half speed. Several tables near the kitchen were filled with idle waitresses, mostly matronly Vietnamese women chatting to each other in their native language.

Cafe du Monde seems to be doing well in the chase for scarce hospitality workers that is keeping many restaurants from running a full schedule, or even opening at all. "Help Wanted. All Positions" is a placard plea common in many windows, and several places are seating shorter hours or partial weeks. And it takes staff heroics to do even that.

"Let me tell you everything that's going wrong today," Adam Hawkins said with a laugh at the Clover Grill, the kind of dive hamburger joint where you can count on a fine salutary cheeseburger at 3 a.m. (From the menu: "No talking to yourself. Keep both hands on table.") Hawkins's cook didn't show up, so the dishwasher was at the grill. She could fry eggs, but not flip them, leaving sunny side up as the only option. And the Quarter's sketchy electricity had temporarily fried the ice cream machine. "We're coping," he said.

Some of the city's billboard tourist restaurants are still shuttered. Brennan's, for example, hopes to open before Mardi Gras and Commander's Palace in late spring or summer. But slowly, the culinary core reactor of one of America's great restaurant cities is beginning to burn. Bayona, Peristyle, Restaurant August and Upperline are among the top-drawer dining rooms back at work. In lower tiers, Arnaud's, an old-guard Quarter favorite, reports filled tables on weekend nights. Around the corner at the popular oyster bar called Remoulade -- a louder, hipper spinoff of Arnaud's -- the Saturday night wait for dinner was 30 minutes.

The front bar was filled with those watching the raucous pageant of Bourbon Street as they listened for their names to be called. The strolling couples and the howling fraternity types, framed by the backward neon script around the windows, could have been a pre-Katrina Saturday night crowd -- until a platoon of military police suddenly passed by, uniformed and packing sidearms, bringing things back up to date.

After supper is club time in New Orleans, and the Times-Picayune's weekend music calendar was filled with live acts, more than 70 of them over a three-day weekend. One functioning favorite is the Rock n' Bowl at Mid City Lanes, a bowling alley cum dance hall. The drive out, well away from the high ground of the French Quarter, is through a dark wasteland of empty houses and busted traffic lights. The club itself survived only because of its second-story location in a strip mall that was otherwise bombed out, surrounded by flood debris and chain-link barriers.

But inside, it was a familiar NOLA vibe, with the clattering of pins sharing the air with the seasoned licks of veteran New Orleans blues guitarist Snooks Eaglin. The stage was surrounded by dancers, and the crowd of beer buyers at the bar was two deep.

"We're packed every night," shouted assistant manager Adele Dauphin over the rocking and the bowling. "For a long time we were the only thing in Mid-City with power."

It was even more crowded back in Uptown at Tipitina's, one of the city's most popular live clubs. Under the red glare of the stage lights was Rebirth Brass Band, the one-time street ensemble that became a 20-year local institution with an international rep. Their booming, tuba-driven horn sound filled the club and shook a neighborhood long used to noisy nights. Cars filled the grassy median along Napoleon Avenue and the line to get in was down the block.

"Honestly, it feels pretty much the same these days," said Gabriel Market, a 25-year-old New Orleans resident who returned soon after the flood. "We'll see what happens in the long run, but around here they're making it happen."

Krewes News

The daytime tourist offerings are similarly mixed. The aquarium was still closed, but the National D-Day Museum was open, as were most of the antiques shops of Royal and Magazine streets and the many tchotchke shops around the French Market. At the Audubon Zoo, which is open weekends only until March, all seemed as it should be in one of the most pleasantly organized zoos in the country. The wildlife glockenspiel at the entrance still burps out the Neville Brothers/Meters' homage to the Audubon, "They All Asked for You," every few minutes. The elegant, languid live oaks still stand sentry over the grassy fields and the alligators live in the mock bayou. Only the sea lion pool looks deserted; a red tetherball hangs unmoving over leaf-covered water. "Our sea lions evacuated to Moody Gardens in Texas," a small sign says. "We miss them and look forward to their return."

A short drive across the Mississippi at Mardi Gras World, the wondrous float-building workshop and tourist stop, the neighborhood was filled with shotgun houses, many sporting blue-tarped roofs and FEMA trailers in the yard. But inside the warehouses themselves, where outrageous parade floats are born, the tours go on as usual and it's always Fat Tuesday. That's especially true now that the big day itself is only a month away.

Several of the Mardi Club krewes, the private clubs that run the parades and hold the balls, moved their floats here for safekeeping before Katrina. Endymion's giant riverboat, 80 yards long and led by a massive alligator, blinked in fiber-optic glory in a hangarlike space. In an adjacent workshop, new floats were taking shape. A massive foam head of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin loomed over the huge Cleopatra of a previous year. (The reputations of Nagin, President Bush and former FEMA director Michael Brown will not fare well in the coming parade season, judging by the blueprints lying around this cluttered workshop. Likewise, the sentiment on T-shirts for sale in the French Quarter run decidedly, and obscenely, against them. Who knew the letters FEMA could be made to stand for so many coarse activities?)

"I love how feisty these people are. They seem to be in surprisingly good moods, in spite of everything," said Carla Scott, a tourist from Sydney. "We were expecting much worse."

Hurricane Bus Tour

Well, there was much worse to be seen. Most of the city, of course, is a mind-blowing wreck. Any tourist with a car can drive around the ruined neighborhoods, either from morbid curiosity or to understand firsthand just how injured this city is, in spite of the functioning life of the tourist zones. Mid-City, Lakeview, the Upper Ninth Ward -- all can be entered by anyone willing to risk a flat on the dirty, deserted streets.

But the post-Katrina disaster tour has become another part of New Orleans tourism, and on Sunday morning, a couple of dozen outsiders who wanted a closer, narrated look boarded a Gray Line bus.

"There is no way I can adequately prepare you for what you're about to see," said Julie Gorney, New Orleans native, returned evacuee and now Gray Line tour guide.

Hers was not a happy-talk spiel. As the bus rolled up Canal Street on its way past the Superdome and the Convention Center, she pointed out the water line still visible on shop walls. She noted the businesses, electronics stores and shoe shops, that still wore plywood shields and hazarded to explain the difference between looting food for survival and a DVD player for fun. Block by block, she unreeled the events leading up to Katrina's landfall and the chaos that followed. She debunked many of the reports of lawlessness, even as she pressed her silent passengers to comprehend the horror of families trapped in their houses or stranded within the mobs.

"The water is coming in, people," she said as the bus passed the jail. "There are people behind bars."

In the Lakeview district, the bus cruised along one shattered block after another, house after house with the vacant eyes of blown-out windows, cars askew and sheathed in grime, trees inverted over rooftops. Each house bore a sort of creepy spray-painted pentagram, the marks of rescue and recovery squads who came through looking for victims and stranded animals. Gorney explained how to interpret them to determine what National Guard units left it and what they found.

"Three killed there," she said quietly as the bus passed a filthy yellow bungalow close to one of the levee breaks. "It's all so sad."

The tour took a break at Russell's Marina Grill, a surprisingly lively restaurant near Lake Pontchartrain. Visitors stretched their legs or looked over the paperwork of this unusual tour: Each customer selects one of five Katrina recovery charities to which Gray Line will donate a portion of its $35 fee, and each is asked to review -- and hopefully sign -- a petition calling for a more robust government rebuilding effort. Most quietly contemplated the surrounding moonscape.

"I'm just thinking how I'm going to explain this when I get home," said Janet Lee, a visitor from Denver. She marveled at the existential whiplash she'd been feeling as she moved from the normalcy of the French Quarter and the other tourist areas to the still-obliterated parts of a city on the edge of collapse.

"It doesn't even feel like the same world."

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat at www.washington post.com.

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