French Quarter Welcomes Visitors Back

By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser

Ignatius is back. The statue of Ignatius J. Reilly, embattled hero of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, is back at the Canal Street entrance of the Chateau Sonesta (which in its previous life as the DH Holmes Department Store figured prominently in the book). Just before Hurricane Katrina struck, staff removed the statue and the old DH Holmes clock and sequestered them both in the depths of the building. Today, the undaunted Ignatius presides over a refurbished hotel. Chateau Sonesta is still not quite on a pre-storm footing—there’s no valet parking and the Clock Bar has yet to reopen—but the elegant lobby sparkles and the rooms, all of which have 12-foot ceilings, have been freshly redecorated.

The location—the corner of Iberville and Bourbon Street—remains a prime one for exploring a French Quarter which is open for business if a trifle subdued.

Most of the restaurants are open, though they may have abbreviated hours. And Bourbon Street is still bumping and grinding, though it’s a little quiet (Jack, out for a late-evening stroll, came back reporting that a drag queen had said “hi” to him, but otherwise there was nothing going on). The French Quarter didn’t flood; like the Garden District, it was built before the ill-fated levees went up. The quiet that seems to have settled over the Quarter is due to the absence of the large conventions that formerly pumped massive amounts of cash into the local economy. As the big hotels in the Central Business District re-open, the conventions will be back; meantime, a little peace is not a bad thing.

For example, at the popular bar Molly’s on the Market, it is now possible to walk between the tables. The plaza in front of St. Louis Cathedral is no longer filled to the brim with tarot readers. And beignet fanciers may emerge from Café du Monde uncovered by other diners’ powdered sugar.

The old reliable restaurants are open—Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s—along with most of the Brennan group, including the excellent Red Fish Grill and Palace Café.

The upscale antique shops on Royal Street have suffered from the lack of customers, but just down the street, Royal Blend Coffee and Tea House is doing a brisk business and its courtyard remains a peaceful spot for a café au lait.

“Quarter Crawl,” a free French Quarter pocket guide published every two weeks, provides an updated list of what’s open and is available at most hotels and at the Visitor and Information Center off Jackson Square.

The Aquarium, the Zoo, and the riverboats are all open. The free pedestrian ferry which crosses to Algiers from the foot of Canal Street remains the best way to get a breezy view of the city skyline. From a distance, New Orleans looks the same. But drive a couple of blocks out of the Quarter in any direction and you start seeing the high-water lines on the sides of buildings. The farther you drive, the worse it gets. Eventually you hit the uninhabited–and uninhabitable—suburbs, where we drove through 51 square miles of abandoned houses.

The disaster’s Ground Zero, however, lies closer to downtown. The Ninth Ward was hit by a wall of water from a sudden levee break. Near the levee, there are no houses left, just concrete foundations where they stood, and a few battered cars dropped where the water left them.

The inhabited areas outside the French Quarter are slowly recovering. Restaurants are open and doing a good business catering to residents longing for a touch of normalcy.

At Elizabeth’s Restaurant on Gallier Street in the Bywater district, the downhome Louisiana cooking may come with a side order of free advice. New owner Jim Harp first encountered the neighborhood restaurant in 2000 when he visited in his official capacity of insurance adjustor. He returned from his home in Dallas after Katrina to work on insurance claims, but found himself overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster and the oafishness of the insurance companies. Though he had been an insurance adjustor for years, “…this was the first time that the companies were doing things to the policy holders that I strongly disagreed with. It was time to go,” he says. He went to Elizabeth’s and became its third owner in 13 months. Today patrons visiting the restaurant and its new upstairs bar sometimes bring Harp their insurance papers, though they are more likely to focus exclusively on the praline bacon ( a breakfast item which takes the concept of sugar curing to an almost Biblical level), the softshell crab or the homemade desserts.

The uncertain future of neighborhood New Orleans depends upon businesses like Elizabeth’s risking the odds to stay open. Meantime, for the French Quarter at any rate, the good times are cautiously resuming their roll.

For more information on visiting New Orleans, contact the Metropolitan New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.neworleanscvb.com or 504-566-5011.

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