Driving to the best breakfast spot in New Orleans, a somewhat dingy beignet shop in suburban Metairie called Morning Call, where cops and bounty hunters converse at the corner table, I turned on the local radio. The set picked up AM 690, and a program called Inside New Orleans. The host, Eric Asher, started talking about Tales of the Cocktail, an annual drinking convention for bartenders and liquor brands that’s quickly becoming one of the city’s banner festivals.
He loves the event, he tells his guest “Mr. Cocktail,” because it brings people to the city to see it’s not still underwater. Turns out, there are still people, six years after Katrina and the levee failure, who think New Orleans is flooded. On the contrary! The city is building, with an ever-expanding museum, local entrepreneurs starting businesses and, yes, an absolutely unparalleled drinking scene.
The most notable development for tourists since the storm in 2005–besides of course the clean up–is The National WWII Museum, a stunning collection of buildings housing artifacts large and small, cataloging the history of the war. Set on the western edge of the Central Business District, the latest addition is a 4-D movie, complete with lighting effects and rumble seats, that tells the story of the war’s multiple theaters.
Tom Hanks narrates the 45-minute production that doesn’t shy away from the difficult history of the period. Similarly, the museum galleries are brutally honest about the horrors of total war, from photos of the dead and dying, archival footage from concentration camps or frank discussion of the civilian casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sober displays of the weapons of the war used at the infantryman level–grenades, flamethrowers, squad machine guns–frame them as viciously effective tools of death, not the glamorous props from war movies.
The museum also recognizes the sacrifices of those who endured the war, through exhibits and an honest recounting of history on the home front, from rationing to racist propaganda posters.
A newly opened Restoration Pavilion displays PT-305, a patrol boat originally crafted in New Orleans at Higgins Industries, currently being rebuilt for the permanent collection. Future additions to the museum will house even more artifacts, including two B-17s recently donated by Boeing.
The city’s recovery is visible elsewhere, including on Magazine Street, now a must-visit shopping destination west of the French Quarter. I stopped at Dirty Coast, a t-shirt boutique that spins out New Orleans-insider themed shirts, with designs that creative director Blake Haney describes as “Levels deep.” The screens look cool, sure, but to insiders, the jokes and puns run levels deeper, like on the Acadiana Self-reliance T. Haney, a New Orleans native, describes the design, which celebrates the region’s power, access to the sea and culture, as the national flag of the city–if it ever got organized enough to secede from the Union.
Haney has also launched a local news site, Humid Beings, that follows stories that wouldn’t be out of place on HBO’s Treme. (When locals watch, Haney says, there’s little surprise in the magically realist story lines since “We live this every day.”) He’s also plugged in to local music–rappers Ballzack and Odoms are favorites–and the still-nascent co-working scene, with Icehouse in Mid-City and Launchpad near Lafayette Square pioneering the way. Co-housing is starting to develop too.
Of course, New Orleans is still a drinking town, particularly when Tales of the Cocktail descends on its bars. In a nod to the event’s influence, the Times-Picayune insert, Lagniappe, published its 2011 Bar Guide on July 22, at the height of “Tales.” Most notable is the list of 11 new bars, spanning the city and filling niches still untapped. Descriptions range from “pulses with Top 40 hits” to “comfort food, rock ‘n’ roll and whiskey” to “only spot in town where you can enjoy a cocktail and a gourmet snack in a luxury movie house.” Unparalleled drinking scene indeed.