The first thing that hit me when I walked into the bar was about a hundred brassieres dangling from the ceiling. Must have been one dandy of a Mardi Gras. I figured. Then a barmaid in short shorts leaped up on the bar and started dancing. Really shaking it.

Instead of a halter top, another barmaid was wearing a neckerchief of some kind. Wherever we were, bras were obviously outre.

The music was ear-splitting. About 50 gleaming motorcycles were parked at the curb. In search of the quaint Cajun dance place Tipitina’s, I wondered, had Sue and I blundered into the wrong New Orleans bar?

We had. We found ourselves in Coyote Ugly, of 90s movie infamy. It was late afternoon. What it would be like at after midnight-there’s no official closing hour in this town-I can’t even imagine. We downed a local Abita’s Amber Ale and caught a cab over to Tipitina’s, where locals were dancing to graceful Cajun music and hot Zydeco.

The Big Easy is not the place to go to relax by the pool. That day we’d had breakfast at the famous Antoine’s restaurant in the French Quarter-dating back to 1840-then caught a Grey Line bus out to tour the Oak Valley Plantation. Then it was off to meet local beauty Grace Wilson at Tipitina’s, then dinner at swank Emeril’s. Different crowd at all these places, naturally. When they say the good times roll in New Orleans, they mean it.

But folks here can’t understand why so many in the rest of the country thinks the town is in ruins. Actually, the French Quarter was up and running soon after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina-“that bitch,” snipes the T-shirts sold in the area. All the good restaurants are back and hotels are open. Streetcars are running again.

But out in the suburbs, countless homes await renovation or replacement. Habitat for Humanity is doing a good job. Practically everyone has a sad story of friends and family. The city’s population has dropped from around 450,000 to below 200,000 by most estimates.

After our pre-Mardi Gras visit, we couldn’t resist returning for last weekend’s French Quarter Festival. At the opening bash-held at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville-we stuffed ourselves with spicy rice, andouille sausage, and peeled fresh shrimp, and chatted up locals in the soft, balmy evening.

We fell in with one of the Crescent City’s best-known women, Bonnie Warren, who knew so many Santa Barbarans it seemed as though we were sister cities. Bonnie invited us to breakfast the next day at Brennan’s, a very stylish spot owned by the Brennan family. It’s a de rigueur must-spot for breakfast; kind of dressy, with 35,000 bottles of wine in the cellar. I recommend trying to reserve a spot in the beautiful main room.

IMAX was showing “Hurricane on the Bayou,” a shocking display of the storm’s destructive power and an urgent warning of the need to take better care of the wetlands that help protect population areas.

Outside, the Treme neighborhood brass band was playing on the grassy meadow above the broad, silently flowing Mississippi. Up on the stage with the musicians was a bouncy girl of about ten, wiggling, prancing, and singing with such infectious charm that she had the crowd dancing. “Smile,” she sang, and we did.

Over at Harrah’s giant casino, Besh Steakhouse’s energetic sous chef Phillip Lopez was serving 30-day aged prime New York slabs of beef, blue cheese butter, mounds of onion rings, and Louisiana shrimp with New Orleans’ ever-present andouille sausage. Famed Louisiana artist George Rodrigue’s blue dog murals gazed down on diners.

Over at Cochon, the young crowd was feasting on chef Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski’s Cajun-southern cuisine: fried boudin sausage with pickled peppers, juicy patties of pulled pork, catfish courtbouillon, rabbit and dumplings, and oyster and bacon sandwiches (a local favorite). Dessert: bread pudding with bourbon sauce, washed down with Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine.

At 24-hour Cafe Du Monde-a fixture since 1862-you sit at open-air tables and munch square, sweet French-style donuts called beignets and sip chicory-flavored coffee. As we snacked, a sidewalk musician played “Amazing Grace” one-handed on the trumpet, waving to friends with the other hand.

After Katrina, the French promised to assist the New Orleans Museum of Art and the result was the current “Femme, Femme, Femme” exhibit of paintings, which celebrates the emergence of modern women as seen through art. The sculpture garden swarmed with well-mannered school children.

The bar star of the Ritz-Carlton-which reopened in December after a $100 million renovation-is master mixologist Chris McMillian. Chris is a man of a thousand stories who loves to give seminars on how to prepare drinks and the history of the cocktail.

The Ritz’ signature restaurant, Melange, is giving the posh Windsor Court a run for its money as the town’s most elegant dining room. So far, the Court’s New Orleans Grill gets my nod, but Melange is challenging, especially menu-wise, where it takes the unusual step of offering specialties of other restaurants around town.

Chris traces the history of cocktails back to about 1820 in the U.S., no less. Nowadays, Chris says, London is the “creative epicenter” of mixology.

But New Orleans has gets my vote as epicenter of fun.


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