Good times roll all day and night in post-Katrina New Orleans

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

"I'm sure you've never heard this one before," I said to the waiter behind the counter at Stanley, a white-tiled diner on New Orleans's Jackson Square. "But what do you think I should get if I have a hangover?"

He smiled. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?" he asked. "With 10 being January 2."

Only here would hangovers be worse on Jan. 2 than on New Year's Day. In New Orleans, when revelers let les bons temps rouler, they roll day, night and sometimes day again. I wasn't here for New Year's, Mardi Gras, Jazzfest, Halloween or any of the other indulgent holidays, but I didn't need to be. Anytime you're in New Orleans, even if it's for a work conference, indulgence is pretty easy to come by.

Four years after Katrina, the number of restaurants has climbed back up to surpass pre-hurricane levels, making the Big Easy as delicious a weekend getaway as ever. The city's food has always been tradition-bound, and there's nothing wrong with that when the traditions consist of top-notch fried chicken, po' boys and muffulettas. But I also found refreshing blasts of modernity, especially late at night -- and then again in the morning as I sought out remedies for what was ailing me from the night before.

When I was at Stanley at about 9:30 a.m., Jackson Square (home of tarot readers, caricature artists and saints-go-marching-in musicians) was sleepy-headed and quiet. I had the diner mostly to myself, at least for an hour or so, until the bleary-eyed started wandering in. My hangover rating? A mere 4, I told the waiter, who steered me toward the pastrami and corned beef hash with a poached egg, blanketed with Creole-seasoned, silky hollandaise sauce. It was just what my body craved, especially once I dashed some Crystal Hot Sauce over it all and dived into the salty, spicy, fatty mess. With mug after mug of hot chicory coffee to wash it down, I started feeling alive enough to head back to my conference and, between sessions, make plans for another night out.

The cycle would continue.

I appreciate the city's place of honor in cocktail circles -- if it didn't invent the cocktail, New Orleans surely perfected it. But I'm also glad that it's getting easier to find creativity among the city's bartenders. Sure, the Sazerac and other classics (not to mention frozen day-glo drinks served in to-go cups) still hold sway in many places, but you can also sip on some inventive, carefully crafted concoctions that do justice to New Orleans's position as host of the prestigious annual Tales of the Cocktail gathering.

The center of the new-cocktail scene is at Cure, a nine-month-old renovated firehouse in the Uptown neighborhood, where a waitress in a little black dress, fishnet stockings and boots took our order with none of the pretense that so often passes for hipness in some bigger cities' faux speakeasies. The menu does list the bartender who invented each drink, which could certainly be taken for pretentiousness, but once some fellow conference-goers and I started tasting, we understood it as well-deserved pride. The Brown Bunny by Turk Dietrich, for instance, combined Punt e Mes, an Italian aperitivo, with applejack, dry vermouth, lemon and Peychaud's bitters to achieve something that tasted like a particularly complex handmade cola. It went down all too easy, as did a few others.

The drinks were easier to taste without smoke in the air, thanks to owner Neal Bodenheimer's voluntary ban. "If people are going to be able enjoy the aromatic flavors of our cocktails," he told me later, "you really can't have smoke taking away from the experience." Hear, hear.

Later, at d.b.a. in the Marigny, the infectious music of the Jon Cleary Band had the crowd on one side of the place worked up into a fervor, while on the other side we sipped and sampled from a menu of dozens of bourbons, rums, tequilas, whiskeys, wines and beers. This is the type of place where one member of your party can order a Chimay on tap, another can exclaim (literally -- you have to shout to be heard in this place) over the glories of a single-batch bourbon and you can horrify them all by sipping a nutmeg-scented moonshine. Best to order some water between rounds.

The next morning, the most rebellious of us skipped the earliest conference sessions to seek out more hangover tonics. We made the rookie-tourist mistake of beginning at the storied Cafe du Monde, where I'm sorry to say the beignets were a mere shadow of their former goodness and the coffee thin and bitter. Then my hopes for Huevos, a cheery Mexican joint in Mid-City, were dashed when the food was so under-salted it was positively tasteless. This might have been the first time in my life that I didn't finish a tamale, let alone the egg that came with it. I'm no bundle of joy on a regular morning, but combine foggy-headedness with lack of caffeine and two rounds of disappointingly bad food, and I turn into something out of "Where the Wild Things Are" (and I don't mean Max).

We had barely gotten out of the car down the block from Cochon Butcher, an adorable meat market and sandwich spot in the Warehouse District, when the sweet smell of carnivory brightened my mood. A spinoff by Donald Link of his pork-centric Cochon next door, the butcher sells a delectable collection of sandwiches and bar food, much of it constructed from the meats and pickles Link & Co. make in-house. Amid Miss Piggy posters and bumper stickers that ask "Got pig?", this is where you can get beef tongue tacos with pickled onions, pork belly sandwiches with pickled cucumber and mint, duck pastrami sliders and more. It's not technically breakfast food (we made it there too late for some sold-out brunch specials), but if it's your first meal of the day, it qualifies, and any of it can help you forget a pounding headache.

The place has a full complement of cocktails, beer and wine, too. The so-called "Swine Bar" has just the thing if you require a little hair o' the dog. Of all the hangover cures in the world, after all, that might be the only one that really works -- up to a point. After said point, things can start to get ugly, especially if you have a conference to return to.

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