Big easy, small price

Updated: 2013-09-01 08:13

By Seth Kugel (The New York Times)

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 Big easy, small price

The historic houses that pepper the streets of New Orleans turn the city into a living art gallery with their brightly colored walls, intricate detail and elegant balconies. Photos provided to China Daily

You could have a great stay in New Orleans by chasing the fanciest food, drink and entertainment. Or you could follow Seth Kugel to divine bargains.

It promised to be my easiest frugal assignment yet: five days in a paradise of cheap eating, cheaper drinking and free music in the walking- and biking-friendly city - New Orleans. The city is full of vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own set of budget-friendly activities. I was set up at the Lookout Inn, a nice little hotel in the Bywater area, a quick bike ride east of the French Quarter.

Using a bike and then a car, I found getting around town easy. The challenge was going to be fitting in all of those activities. My days took on an exhilarating but frantic pace - powdering a $2 plate of beignets in City Park before rushing off to slurp a 25-cent martini during lunch in the Garden District not long before listening to free and mesmerizing music played by a star trombonist in the Marigny neighborhood a bit later.

So perhaps it is best to confine my favorites to three categories. New Orleans excels in all of them: music, food and local culture.

Music: I hardly imagined that in this city of legendary musicians, the protagonist of my trip would be a local radio station, the ubiquitous WWOZ. It was recommended to me on my first day in town, and I soon noticed it everywhere. Any business with a radio seemed to have it tuned to that frequency, and it was the favorite local station of everyone I asked. Soon it became mine, too.

I could have planned my nightly itinerary based on WWOZ's regular listings but I had already enlisted the help of Jay Mazza, a music writer who covers New Orleans for the blog

His first piece of advice proved invaluable: paying a cover charge often pays off (literally) in New Orleans. There was a $10 cover for the concert I went to my first night, a benefit in a crumbling former Catholic Church in the Irish Channel neighborhood.

The money went toward renovating the place; it also allowed me three drink tickets good for beer, wine or rum cocktails. Onstage, a silver fox of a singer and ukulele player named Philip Melancon performed funny twists on classic local tunes with what I can describe only as a New Orleans Catholic version of borscht-belt gestalt.

But the best concert I saw cost nothing, at what has to be the best free venue in New Orleans, Three Muses on Frenchmen Street, in the Seventh Ward, just outside the French Quarter.

The performer was Glen David Andrews, a trombonist familiar to most locals and fans of the HBO series Treme, but not to me. Dressed immaculately in a three-button beige suit, he played the crowd with as much finesse as he did his instrument.

From the Basin Street Lounge, I headed back to Frenchmen Street, where the Palmetto Bug Stompers were playing at a bar called d.b.a. at 8 pm. There had been a private party immediately before, so not only was there no cover, but the buffet of pork tamales, stewed chicken and chocolate chip cookies was also open. Free dinner!

Food: Pableaux Johnson, a local food writer, described the New Orleans eating scene to me: "We've got transcendent food at $3 or $300 a plate."

At the Maple Leaf, the music ended up being the secondary attraction, as I had stumbled on a classic of the cheap end of Johnson's spectrum. A bit past 10 am, after paying my $8 cover, I found dozens of diners hunched around a long row of tables, intensely peeling and eating free crawfish. It was a debauched free-for-all without napkins - and I joined in.

I did so even though it was my second crawfish meal. The first came from Big Fisherman Seafood, a fish shop that also sells boiled crawfish at $6 a pound and delicious crawfish pies, $3 apiece.

Not all my bargain meals were quite so informal. I had to have beignets, those fried-but-fluffy sugar-topped fritters, but not at Cafe du Monde, a French Quarter institution. Instead, I biked up to City Park, in the north part of town near Lake Pontchartrain, home to a new branch of Morning Call, an institution in neighboring Metairie. Three grease-free beignets were just $2; the cafe au lait was $2.

Even classier was lunch at Commander's Palace, an elegant, old-school dining room in a Garden District mansion. It's normally the kind of place I would shun: It's in every guidebook, and looks pricey. But it isn't, and I can prove that in one phrase: "25-cent martini."

I was joined by Johnson, who had assured me Commander's was as much a place for locals to get sloshed at birthday lunches as it was for tourists to gawk at them.

And the $16 prix fixe meal was a steal and included two New Orleans staples: sherry-spiked turtle soup and Cajun cochon de lait, or tender smoked pork. Johnson upgraded to the $22 option that added shrimp and grits. He also out-martinied me, by 50 cents. In New Orleans, that passes for a big spender.

Culture: New Orleans streets are the best art gallery in town: I was particularly intrigued by hand-painted signs I found everywhere, as well as folk art featuring cheeky messages by the famed Boband the fine work on display at Mystic Blue Signs.

The historic houses that pepper the city are another type of free art - from the brightly colored, largely fixed-up, gorgeously detailed shotgun-style homes in the Bywater to Creole houses in the Treme to the elegant balconies of the French Quarter.

Those seeking fine art should head to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which I visited on Thursday at 6 pm when the regular $10 admission fee also means access to a weekly concert. And I found the perfect post-beignet fix at New Orleans Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden, not particularly Southern in theme but free.

And everyone should certainly visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where $8 gains you entry to an astonishing collection of hand-sewn, beaded outfits worn by the Mardi Gras Indians over the years.

During my visit, a boombox on the porch played Celia Cruz singing Guantanamera. It was WWOZ, breaking from jazz for its Saturday afternoon Latin show. "That ain't my thing," Francis said, "but another DJ is coming on in two hours, so no point in changing it."

The New York Times

Big easy, small price

Big easy, small price