Like most people, I feel like I could stay in New Orleans forever.
Each time I hear the music emanating from the performers at Jackson Square, spy the verdant hanging vines snaking down French Quarter facades, catch a whiff of the freshly powdered beignets at Café Du Monde or take a bite into a crispy boudin ball from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, I consider an immediate relocation to the Big Easy.
Unfortunately, work schedules, kid activities and the general hectic nature of daily life keep me from visiting as much as I’d like. So earlier this month, I stole away with my two oldest daughters, ages 13 and 10, for a 36-hour getaway to enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of New Orleans.
5 p.m. The Pool Club at Virgin Hotels New Orleans
Our home base for our New Orleans visit was Virgin Hotels New Orleans, the newest property in the Virgin Hotels family, having opened in August 2021. This was my first time at a Virgin property, and I was immediately blown away by the hotel’s hip, quirky vibe. After we checked in, we bee-lined it to the 13th floor Pool Club, where a DJ was spinning, the drinks were flowing and the views of the city below were breathtaking.
7 p.m. Dinner at the Commons Club
Famished after the long drive and sundrenched hours by the pool, we eagerly tucked into dinner at the Commons Club, which offers a “social club” dining experience with cuisine that melds seasonal Southern dishes with Mediterranean influences. Menu favorites at the restaurant, which is headed by Chef Alex Harrell and incorporates European-style porch seating, included the Bayou Cora Cornbread, which was surprising gluten-free and served with spiced apple preserves and whipped butter; the Pan-Roasted Sea Scallops with celery-root risotto; and the Wagyu Smash Burger with freezer pickles. The Commons Club is also open for lunch and frequently hosts special events including a Britney Spears-inspired Burlesque Brunch because, well, it’s Britney, brunchers.
9 a.m. Coffee in the Funny Library
Mismatched, chic and delightful, the Funny Library at Virgin Hotels New Orleans is a sight to behold and an instant indicator that this is no ordinary chain-hotel property. It’s also an excellent place to grab your morning cup of java as well as a pastry or some gluten-free churros.
11 a.m. Hands-on Creole Cooking Class & Lunch at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum
The tomatoes were “hulking out.” That’s what Chef Dee Lavigne calls the point at which her closely watched boiling tomatoes begin to bust out of their skin and must be immediately plucked from the pot, dropped into an ice bath and peeled. We learned the term after spending the late morning and early afternoon with Lavigne as part of the hands-on Creole Cooking Class at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, where she delegated tasks to our group of a dozen aspiring cooks that would eventually result in a meal of jambalaya, stewed okra and flaming bananas foster. Lavigne, the museum’s director of culinary programming, was a talented and convivial leader for our group, which consisted of visitors from as far away as Australia. After the cooking was done, we all sat down to enjoy the meal, which was as delicious as anything you’d find in the city. Even better, each participant leaves with recipe cards for the dishes they made that day, allowing you to bring a little bit of New Orleans back home. Southernfood.org
2 p.m. New Orleans City Park
If you have a few hours to spare, you have to spend them discovering the multiple family-friendly delights that reside inside of New Orleans City Park. Sprawling, lush and filled with surprises, the park is home to attractions that include the New Orleans Botanical Garden, Carousel Gardens, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, to name a few. neworleanscitypark.com
5 p.m. Toups’ Meatery
In a food city like New Orleans, you have to earn your place in the city’s upper echelon of restaurants. If anyone has done that, it’s Chef Isaac Toups, four-time finalist for James Beard “Best Chef: South” and fan favorite on Bravo’s 13th season of “Top Chef.” At his Toups’ Meatery, expect the Cajun rustic cookery he grew up with combined with his sophisticated chef’s hand. Don’t miss signature dishes such as slow-cooked Lamb Neck with black-eyed-pea ragout and fennel; Confit Chicken Thighs; and the photogenic Meatery Board, which includes a selection of house-cured meats and accompaniments. toupsmeatery.com
7 p.m. Pandora’s Snowballs
Before you leave New Orleans, you can’t overlook another sweet staple that’s famous in the city: the snowball. For the uninitiated, a snowball is a customizable sweet treat akin to a snow cone that consists of a mound of fluffy shaved ice topped with sweet syrups and sometimes stuffed or topped with mix-ins and add-ons. The snowball has been in New Orleans since the 1930s and the tastes of the city are frequently reflected in syrup flavors, which may include king cake, bananas foster and praline pecan. Pandora’s Snowballs, which is conveniently located across the street from Toup’s Meatery, is among the city’s favorite shops and has been serving up snowballs to families for more than 40 years. https://www.facebook.com/PandorasSnowballs
8 a.m. Birdie’s Behind the Bower
Even if you have to hit the road back to Austin early like we did, make time to grab breakfast at Birdie’s Behind the Bower, a highly Instagrammable all-day breakfast and brunch hotspot that features Southern-inspired, locally sourced American cuisine. The restaurant partners with local farm Sugar Roots, so you know that ingredients will be fresh and local. Menu highlights include the Fried Chicken Biscuit with crispy chicken thigh, chicken sausage, jalapeno and can-syrup country gravy; the Smoked Salmon toast with sweet English cucumbers, whipped cream cheese, hot mustard, caper and dill oil, served with a farm salad; and the Funfetti Bubble Waffle with Louisiana strawberries, Chantilly cream and granola. Oh, and if you’re not driving, don’t miss the $20 bottomless mimosas. birdysnola.com