If, by chance, you find yourself in New Orleans during the July 4th weekend, there are certain things you simply must do: check out the Essence Festival, catch the fireworks display over the Mississippi River, stumble upon a second line and/or live jazz in the French Quarter while sipping a “go cup,” and eat.
On the Glow Up’s second day of our already epic trip to NOLA for the 25th annual Essence Fest, we have already accomplished all but one of the above. This year’s festival officially starts today, July 5th, but with a little (okay, a lot) of help from our always entertaining entertainment writer, Tonja Stidhum, I’m proud to say our pregame did one of the country’s best food cities proud.
Real talk: I’ve never been one for guided tours. I like to explore a city on my own terms and pace, blend in with the locals (if possible), and welcome inspiration, adventure and deliciousness as they inevitably arrive. But with one day to decompress and explore New Orleans before fully committing our bodies and souls to the three-day marathon that is Essence Fest, Tonja and I opted for a new adventure—an Urban Adventure, as it turned out. Because we’re women with our priorities in order, we started our second day in town with a French Quarter food tour.
If you’re a native, local or lover of New Orleans suddenly envisioning us standing in a two-block line for beignets and coffee at Café du Monde, think again (though I highly recommend the 24-hour New Orleans institution for a midnight snack, to soak up the alcohol—or so I’ve been told). Instead, our incredible guide Laila (more on her later) walked us down a few blocks to the French Market’s Farmer’s Market, where Tonja and I ordered up mimosas as we waited for our first taste of the day: Praline beignets from the renowned, black female-owned Loretta’s Pralines.
Whew, chile! If you think two of NOLA’s most famous foods are incredible on their own, having them together is pure bliss. The light, almost croissant-like texture of Miss Loretta’s beignet recipe wrapped around the gooey, caramel-and-pecan decadence of the praline is, in a word, beyond.
If you’re wondering why we started our day with what sounds like dessert, consider America’s well-known love for donuts. Besides, the sticky sweetness was the perfect setup for our next dish: Grilled oysters from J’s Seafood Dock. If you’re one of those old-school foodies who believe cheese and seafood don’t belong together, get your mind right; the garlicky cheese crust atop these delectable grilled oysters on the half shell was to die for. And with a little bread to sop up the remaining broth, we were in heaven.
Walking to the next destination on our mile-long trek through the French Quarter, the intoxicating smell of more garlicky goodness drew us to the French Market Restaurant, where we watched a crawfish boil in progress, using their special blend of spices. As it’s just about the end of crawfish season, we didn’t stop for a sample on our tour, but Tonja and I have pledged to get some crawfish in before we leave town—right after we return to try the savory crabmeat beignets at Miss Loretta’s nearby brick and mortar location.
Where to next? As we walked to our next stop, Laila indulged us with a little New Orleans history, including a stop by the Homer A. Plessy Community School, named for that Plessy, of the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the “separate but equal” segregation doctrine of 1896. If you didn’t know, that’s one of the many bits of history based in New Orleans, and the school boasts an incredible mural to commemorate the ruling and the man brave enough to inspire it.
We were also lucky enough to stumble upon a street performance by famed New Orleans clarinetist, vocalist and bandleader Doreen Ketchens—or “Miss Doreen,” as Laila called her. With a tuba and drums backing her up, Miss Doreen swung us through Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” later bodying a cover of Portugal’s hit “Feel It Still (Rebel Just for Kicks).”
On to the next: Not many sports bars can boast a chandelier worth millions, but the first thing I noticed upon entering 801 Royal was the incredible Chihuly chandelier over its bar. Frankly, it kind of epitomized the high-low, anything-can-happen vibe of New Orleans, which Laila described as a “come as you are” city.
In this case, that happening was a round of crawfish fritters with remoulade and shrimp po’boys served on New Orleans signature French bread. Eating family style, our small but incredibly diverse group of nine international travelers bonded over the delicious food and cocktails—which we then took to go.
Last stop? The award-winning, locals-approved Gumbo Shop, where our waiter Jamal assured us that even the okra-averse among us would detect no slime in their famed recipe—and was proven right we somehow managed to fit a cup of their chicken and sausage variation (which Jamal said was the best) into our nearly stuffed frames.
Our tour technically ended there but the camaraderie was so strong that Laila, now off the clock and also a guide on Urban Adventures’ cocktail tours, joined Tonja, a fellow traveler from Finland and me for happy hour, which we started at the legendary Lafitte’s, the dive bar based in the nearly 300-year-old blacksmith shop of a long-gone pirate named, well, Lafitte. Best known for its seriously potent “purple drink” (official name: Voodoo Daiquiri), we instead opted for Hurricanes made with fresh fruit juice and tucked ourselves into a dark corner of the venue’s piano bar, where we had a surprisingly frank conversation about travel, politics, feminism and race.
Suffice it to say, aside from being a culinary expert and experienced guide, Laila is woke, y’all—we found a new friend.
In fact, we were having so much fun that after our Finnish friend departed, we switched gears and migrated to the beautiful and impossibly elegant Roost Bar inside the pink facade of Brennan’s Restaurant, a celebrity and wedding favorite, where we not only found a ridiculously reasonable bubbles-based happy hour (and duck poutine!), but I was taken on an impromptu tour through the landmark’s many rooms, each one more gorgeous than the next.
Laila, unfortunately, had to leave us at this stop but followed up with even more recommendations via email after we parted, which means Tonja and I don’t expect to have a bad meal for the rest of our stay. As for us, we walked off some of our decadence by continuing to explore through the French Quarter, where we encountered a second line dancing their way down Bourbon Street. Eventually, we found our way to the Essence Festival kickoff in Louis Armstrong Park, where Common, MC Lyte and more gave free concerts at Essence in the Park to thank the residents of New Orleans and welcome festival-goers.
But of course, while neither Tonja nor I celebrate the holiday, it was the Fourth of July and, without even intending to, we somehow migrated to NOLA’s Riverwalk, where we scored front row seats to a gorgeous fireworks show over the Mississippi River. Stuffed, buzzed, and utterly spent, it was the perfect ending to an unbelievably perfect day in New Orleans...and the perfect start to our Essence Fest weekend.