Ralph's on the Park News


Romantic New Orleans: The Big Easy casts its spell

Posted on February 3, 2012
By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

NEW ORLEANS – My husband and I have been in town only a few hours, but the Big Easy already is casting a spell.

Fresh from a 30-minute "relationship reading" by an ordained voodoo priestess (not cheap at $75, but a bargain compared with a full-blown Voodoo Love Ceremony), we wander from her potion-filled Island of Salvation Botanica in the bohemian Bywater neighborhood to Frenchmen Street. Just across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter, it's a stretch of jazz clubs, bars and restaurants insiders call the Bourbon Street of 20 years ago.

For the price of a few Louisiana-brewed Abita Restoration Pale Ales, we commandeer front-row seats at The Spotted Cat music club and settle in to hear local blues band Ken Swartz and The Palace of Sin belt out Drop Down Mama— raising our $4.50 bottles to crystal-ball predictions of a bright future, and to a decidedly promising present.

Voodoo works its magic
Though the frat-boy ambience of the French Quarter's iconic Bourbon Street may not scream romance, the City That Care Forgot offers a wealth of valentine-worthy experiences that don't involve strip joints or neon-hued daiquiris — and that won't bust a modest budget.

Our home base is a $159-a-night room at International House, a former Beaux Arts bank that marries urban chic (monochromatic interiors, black-and-white photos of local jazz greats) with such passion-inspiring elements as Loa, a candle-strewn cocktail lounge named for the benevolent spirits of voodoo.
Two blocks off Canal Street in the Central Business District, the hotel is close to the action — a 10-minute walk to the heart of the Quarter — but far enough away to provide a respite from the beads-and-beer crowd that has flocked back to Bourbon Street since Hurricane Katrina quashed tourism in 2005.

After fueling up at the French Market's Café Du Monde with an obligatory dose of chicory-laced café au lait and pillowy, powder-sugar-doused doughnuts, or beignets, we head back to Canal Street and clamber aboard one of the city's historic streetcars. Though Tennessee Williams' eponymous Desire line was discontinued in 1948, streetcars trundle down the "neutral ground" (median strip) on three other lines for just $1.25 a ride or $3 for a day pass.

Our destination is City Park, one of the nation's largest urban parks and home to the biggest collection of mature live oaks on the planet. In the 19th century, these trees were a favored location for duels among the Creole elite over amorous insults real and imagined. Today, their expansive, moss-drizzled branches are a popular setting for wedding photos — and, in the free Besthoff Sculpture Garden next to the New Orleans Museum of Art, they form a backdrop for more than 50 works by such artists as Henry Moore and Fernando Botero.

January temperatures in the mid-70s notwithstanding, it's too early in the season for catching a free jazz concert or sharing an oar, Little Women-like, in a rented rowboat. No matter: It gives us an excuse to decamp across the street to Ralph's On the Park, where scrumptious brunch specials ($28 for three courses) include turtle soup with sherry and lamb ragout with cream cheese grits, fried egg and red-eye gravy.

The people-watching is great (local movers and shakers garbed in St. John knits and navy blazers), and pianist Joe Krown is happy to share sightseeing recommendations when he's not tickling the ivories on classics like Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. But what endears us most is our waiter's solicitous offer of a plastic "go cup" for my $12 order of all-you-can-drink bubbly.


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