Ann Arbor: Always Artful

photo 1-12_2With its mix of Midwestern casual and cosmopolitan flair, Ann Arbor has a collegial atmosphere and a reputation as a lively arts scene.

Even so, on my first visit, I was amazed by the ample opportunities and accessibility to a range of cultural attractions. Home to the University of Michigan, the city of 114,000 residents offers an abundance of high caliber museums and galleries.

Plus, two outstanding theatre companies, the Purple Rose and Performance Network Theatre, combine with a strong live music scene to ensure that there’s always something going on in the evening.

One highlight is The Ark, a historic venue celebrating its 50th year. Since starting out as a coffeehouse for local jammers, it now offers 300 performances annually with acoustic, folk, jazz and ethnic music. I attended a crowd-pleasing tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong performed by local musicians.

The following evening, I joined another engaged crowd of listeners at a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Grammy award-winning University Musical Society and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra at Hill Auditorium, known for excellent acoustics.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art is considered one of the best college art museums with its dramatic architecture and extensive collections.

Docent Gloria Nosse enlightened my group with thought provoking commentary on Chinese, Cambodian and African art exhibits, works by Picasso, Tiffany glass, and an entire room dedicated to Lego art.

The University also has an excellent Museum of Archeology and Natural History Museum, as well as installations of public art.

I took time to stroll the historic campus and visit the library to view the exhibit of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, a bound collection of prints purchased by the University in 1839.

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Photos by Ann Yungmeyer

Numerous galleries represent artists from the region, and I discovered a few favorites, including WSG and Dancing Dog and the Ann Arbor Art Center.

For a look at locally made but nationally known tilework, Motawi Tileworks is quite impressive. In addition to visiting the small gallery, visitors can tour the workspace on Thursday mornings and see the unique handmade tiles being stamped, glazed, fired and painted in Arts & Crafts and Mid-century Modern styles.

For antique aficionados, two standouts are Bowerbird Mongo in nearby Ypsilanti for very reasonably priced finds, and Materials Unlimited, a trove with three floors of architectural salvage and restoration artistry including ironworks, windows, doors, lighting and hardware.

A highlight during my visit was KindleFest, a traditional Christmas market with artisan vendors. The whimsical Santas drew me in at the booth of folk artist Victoria Fox, who shows regularly at Ann Arbor’s Artisan and Farmers’ Market.

With its pedestrian-friendly Main Street area, Ann Arbor invites browsing and discovery any time of year.

For fanciful fun, the city offers an “urban fairy trail” leading to a series of tiny doors installed in select storefronts.

Whatever they’re seeking, visitors to Ann Arbor will discover a colorful palette to explore.

 

Providence: The Dean Hotel

DSC_4684Smack dab in the middle of Providence’s bustling Downcity neighborhood, the Dean Hotel’s name is inspired by the fact that the campuses of three famous universities are located within a 30-minute walk.

As befits its collegiate setting, the 52-room hotel offers the Ivy League panache of Brown University, the imaginative dining of Johnson & Wales University and, most notably, the design pizzazz of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

The hotel strives for a party atmosphere — a painted sign on its side facade reads “For a long time, I went to bed early.” and the neon sign in my hallway proclaimed that it was “Time for another”.  But my fellow guests seemed a sedate lot and the service was consistently friendly and accommodating.

Besides its proximity to the universities, the hotel is ideally situated to local institutions like the RISD Museum and the Providence Athenaeum, theaters and live music venues, and the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhood of Federal Hill.

Visitors in town for the weekend will want to make sure to check out the popular happening, WaterFire, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Created by a Brown grad, this art installation involves the lighting — from sundown to midnight — of 80 braziers strategically placed amidst the Providence River and an accompanying street party of food trucks, bands, and the like.

Guest rooms feature narrow, dark plank floors, white beadboard, and crisp black and white bathrooms with gleaming brass hardware.

Accents like wood blinds with black slats, vintage armchairs in British tan leather, bentwood, or jute (the pairs differ by room), and a custom-designed iron bed frame and desk produced by a local metal fabricator make for a clean industrial aesthetic.

Some guests may be troubled by the lack of a closet and the fact that the bathroom shower simply occupies a corner of the room, with no real enclosure.

Also missing, though hardly missed: a phone, alarm clock, and mini-bar. (I wouldn’t have minded an empty cooler, though.) There was an iron and a hair dryer, but they were stored, disconcertingly, under the bed.

A fleet of complimentary fixed-gear bicycles stand at the ready. Breakfast and wi-free are also free.

Photos by JoAnn Greco
Photos by JoAnn Greco

At breakfast time, a mixed crowd enjoyed java from Bolt Coffee and pastries from Foremost, a local bakery. The relaxed groove and comfy atmosphere of art books, recorded jazz, fresh flowers nicely emulated time spent at the home of the eponymous (fictional) Dean.

When it came to dinner, many options awaited nearby but sticking to the confines of the hotel for one night didn’t feel like a compromise at all.

I began with dinner at Faust, a spot-on beer hall with wursts, schnitzels, and pretzels.

Then, fortified by drink, I dipped into Boombox, a karaoke bar at the back of the hotel, before slipping into a banquette at The Magdalenae Room. An intimate speakeasy with classic cocktails, it’s equally great for confessional conversations and solo musings.

 

 

Miami: Mo-ving Along

??????????During a recent visit to Miami, I drove up and down a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that features many of the original Art Deco motels. Many are closed, others have been turned into inexpensive, gritty-looking transient joints, with rooms rented by young, adventurous Europeans on a tight budget, or by local street walkers who bring johns into the dreary rooms, the windows covered by thick curtains to keep out the harsh sunlight and peering eyes of, let’s say, architecture fans.

In 2006, Miami’s Historic Preservation Board voted to create a historic district along one of the city’s most iconic thoroughfares. Twenty-seven blocks of Biscayne Boulevard, including 115 historic buildings, would become known as MiMo, aka the Miami Modern-Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. 

The MiMo Historic District runs along Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 50th Street to Northeast 77th Street. 

The two main architectural styles of the district are Mediterranean Revival, which includes most of the residences and commercial buildings between 55th and 60th Streets, in the Bayshore subdivision, and Art Deco, represented mostly by a cluster of two and three-story motels and mixed-use buildings, between NE 71st and 74th Streets.

About 16 Art Deco-style motels have survived demolition along the highly trafficked corridor of Biscayne Boulevard. Some of these structures maintain their multi-colored neon signs, on high pylons or building facades, which constitute the most memorable architectural component of early Miami tourist facilities in this part of the city. One, the 1953 Vagabond, recently re-opened after a multimillion restoration.

??????????There were hundreds of such motels built in the Miami area from the 1920s to the early 1940s.  During this period, even Miami gas stations imitated the Art Deco look of the motels, although only one, the Gulf Station at 17th Avenue and Coral Way, has survived. It’s still a working gas station!

Many of Miami’s 1920s Mediterranean-Revival buildings were swept away during the hurricane of 1926, and more were demolished by developers during post WWII-urban renewal efforts. Others succumbed to the heat, moisture, humidity and salt that has plagued Miami structures of all types since the earliest settlements in the 1800s.

Thanks to the recent historic designation of this formerly overlooked section of NE Miami, two strip mall shopping centers have opened nearby —  Antiques Plaza and 20th Century Row —  with shops specializing in Miami Modern furnishings from the 1940s, 5’s and 60s. Savvy shoppers can find authentic T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings furniture; Tommi Parzinger lacquered cabinets from the 1950s; and Milo Baughman steel-framed leather lounge chairs from the 1960’s, often at lower prices than in New York or Los Angeles.

Historic midcentury residential houses on the blocks just off Biscayne were in better shape, and many of the smaller cottage homes have been restored into lovely, bougainvillea-covered bungalows.

Certainly, MiMo is not yet South Beach, where formerly decrepit Art Deco buildings were transformed more than two decades ago into trendy and expensive hotels and restaurants. It is also far, in development terms, from the midcentury buildings of upper Collins Avenue, where the 1954 Fontainebleau Hotel, designed by Morris Lapidus, was awarded the “Best Building in Florida 2012” by the American Institute of Architects.

??????????Those areas have Atlantic Ocean beaches and cooling breezes. MiMo is landlocked, and Biscayne Boulevard is a hot and noisy commercial stretch that drivers use to get from North Miami Beach to downtown, without paying much attention to the faded pastel motels lining the road.

Miami, however, has had great success with revitalizing historic sections of the City, most recently the resurgence of the Wynwood and Design District neighborhoods. Architectural restorations and new business ventures are slowly, but steadily, giving the MiMo Historic District a chance to both preserve its history and obtain a measure of economic prosperity.

Perth: A Local’s Night Out

Perth, Australia, today is very different from when I moved here five years ago. Back then, if you were to venture into the central business district after 6 p.m., you would find a ghost town. Despite being Australia’s fourth-largest city, Perth had the reputation of being “dullsville.” However, due to a booming economy and initiatives by the state government, the night life scene is now thriving.

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Greenhouse; photo courtesy of restaurant

A wide array of venues are all in walking distance from the CBD. You won’t have to catch a taxi or public transportation to have a great night out. If you’re like me, you can stumble home in the early morning hours, drunk and happy. I consider myself fortunate to live in a city that lets me do that.

Here are some favorite spots for a big night out for this regular Perth guy.

I like to start with dinner at Greenhouse, which aims for a carbon-neutral footprint through  its use of recycled materials in its construction -– the building is covered by a living wall of greenery –– and the sourcing of its produce from a rooftop garden.

It’s best to bring along at least one friend, to fully explore the range of small plates on the menu. I particularly like the spiced cauliflower, chicken liver pate and the chorizo and emu. Or I may stop by the Indi Bar & Bistro, one of Perth’s best-known live music venues and also a spot for a burger or pizza.

After dinner, I may be tempted by the well-mixed cocktails at Ezra Pound, one of the first of a new wave of “small bars” that began opening in 2009, or a glass of wine served in a science beaker at Bar Lafayette, but I’m almost always drawn to Frisk.

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Frisk; photo courtesy of restaurant

The latter is an unassuming small bar nestled on a side street in an area just north of the CBD. Frisk is a haven for gin lovers, with purportedly the widest selection of the stuff in Australia. But a visit here is as much about the cozy atmosphere and welcoming staff as its well-stocked bar. Wednesday nights are a particular treat, because bartenders serve up the most delicious espresso martinis for $10 Australian.

If I want to round out the evening with a bit of dancing, I will hit the floor at Mint in Northbridge. Although the interior décor is loud and the dancing pole in the back room a bit trashy, I love the atmosphere on Fridays for the ’80s and ’90s-theme “Club Retro” promotions.

On those nights, anyone who grew up during the era has the opportunity to dance and sing your heart out to the songs of your childhood –– and you won’t be alone either. I clearly remember a recent time when the whole club joined in for a round of karaoke to the Australian classic, You’re the Voice, by John Farnham.

Then it was clear Perth is no longer “dullsville.”

 

Review: Spain’s “Greatest Hits” Tour

La Padrera in Barcelona; all photos by Nicole Pensiero
La Pedrera in Barcelona; all photos by Nicole Pensiero

As one who’s been to Spain multiple times, I was happy to introduce a good friend to one of my favorite countries, but also needed to be mindful of budget and time constraints.

Wanting to hit Spain’s “greatest hits” of Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada in little more than a week’s time, we opted to do an escorted tour from Gate 1 Travel, a mid-priced operator.

The package cost about $2,500 a person, including round trip flights, airport transfers, eight nights of hotel with private rooms for each of us, daily breakfast and a buffet dinner, as well as guided tours of each city, admissions to Madrid’s Prado, Granada’s Alhambra Palace and other key attractions, and guided stops in Toledo and Cordoba.

An added perk –– and break from the tour bus –– was the inclusion of a high-speed rail transfer from Madrid to Barcelona. Instead of another day on the bus, we traveled between the cities in about three hours’ time.

By my estimate, it would have cost at least $3,000 each to set up a similar itinerary on our own. Money-savings aside, here’s a look at what I liked best about the experience and a few things that could have been improved.

The Alhambra Palace in Granada
The Alhambra Palace in Granada

Travelers welcome Gate 1 arranged for our hotel rooms to be ready for our early morning arrival in Madrid, allowing for a much-needed nap and freshening up, before we set out for our explorations.

Tipping optional I was surprised at the laid-back way in which Gate 1 approached gratuities for the tour guide and bus driver. The operator didn’t provide envelopes, leaving it up to us to tip –– or not.

I was happy to provide a gratuity to our main guide, Pedro, who was laid-back yet highly organized and recommended local-favorite spots for lunch and to enjoy a glass of sangria.

Hotels not so central My only real gripe was the location of most of our hotels outside the center. That meant a bit of planning to take the metro or bus, but wasn’t a major issue, given Spain’s good public transportation system.

No hidden costs Unlike many operators, Gate 1 puts the value in the main itinerary sand doesn’t try to drive up its fees with lots of optional excursions. Of the two offered, we opted for a flamenco performance at Seville’s El Patio –– it was fairly priced and seemed like the real deal.

Long travel days Trying to cover so much ground in a country as big as Spain had its challenges, mainly during our day-long bus trip from Seville to Madrid. We did get to break up the ride by stopping at Cordoba to have lunch and see the breathtaking Mezquita, a cathedral built inside a mosque that dates from 786, but it still felt like a bit of a schlep.

Successful journey The experience proved to be the perfect choice for our circumstances, giving us a way to cover a lot of ground for an affordable price, without the hassle of setting up all the details ourselves. I would recommend Gate 1 to anyone traveling under similar circumstances.

 

 

Choco-Tourism: Five Cities to Sample

Wondering where to find the best chocolate on the planet? These cities will satisfy your sweet tooth and refine your palate.

Grand Place, Brussels by Doreen  Pendgracs
Grand Place, Brussels by Doreen Pendgracs

Brussels: The tiny country of Belgium boasts no less than 2,130 chocolate shops, with a good number of them being in Brussels—the nation’s capital and the European capital as well. My top pick for Brussels? Laurent Gerbaud. He’s young, he’s progressive in his thinking, and he’s one of the most exotic chocolatiers Brussels has to offer.

London: About a decade ago, a chocolate revolution in the UK birthed an abundance of top shelf chocolatiers. Gone are the days of the overly sweet British chocolate that your granny used to eat. Today’s chocolate offerings from England, Scotland, and Ireland, are among the best in the world. My favorite London chocolatier? Paul A. Young, who wins hands-down for his ingenuity in creating the freshest possible dairy-free chocolates on-site in his shops, along with delectable treats such as his dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan brownies—guaranteed to take you into a chocogasmic state every time!

San Francisco: Who says they only make great chocolate on the other side of the pond? Known for its amazing selection of artisanal chocolate makers, two of San Francisco’s best are located in the historic Ferry Building: Recchiuti Confections and Dandelion Chocolate. And within steps of the Ferry Building at Pier 17, you’ll find TCHO New American Chocolate, who makes single origin bars and squares, as well as some funky new flavors.

Thomas Haas, Vancouver by Doreen  Pendgracs
Thomas Haas, Vancouver by Doreen Pendgracs

Vancouver: If you’re in North Vancouver or downtown, don’t miss a visit to Thomas Haas (2 locations). A few other Vancouver area favorites include Gem Chocolates, Chocolate Art, and Levni Chocolates, which offers Koko Monk, a trendy café on West 1st Avenue.

Zurich: The Swiss are known to indulge in more chocolate per capita than just about any other country in the world. (Various charts show different countries as top consumers, but Switzerland is always in the top three.) Did you know that the average resident of Switzerland consumes 21 pounds of chocolate per year as compared to the average American’s consumption of 12 pounds? My top pick for Zurich? Confiserie Sprüngli, where you’ll find some of the finest pure chocolate truffles in the world, along with an enticing selection of mini macarons called Luxemburgerli.

Doreen Pendgracs is author of Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate. During the week of June 23-30, 2014, order Doreen’s book via her site at http://chocolatour.net/book to receive a 20% discount off the published prices when entering the code VBT20 on checkout. Rumor has it that she may even throw in a piece of chocolate with your order.

Bandar Seri Begawan: Water Village

ACsChildren playing with a kitten on the front porch of their house. A boy riding his bike on the sidewalk. Scenes of everyday life. Except when the house sits on stilts above a waterway and the sidewalk is part of a miles-long boardwalk that connects similar houses in the Kampong Ayer neighborhood of Brunei’s capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan.

Brunei was never on my husband’s and my travel radar, but it was the first port of call aboard the Diamond Princess on our cruise through the South China Sea.

Brunei, which occupies a very small part of the island of Borneo, is oil rich and the capital city, generally referred to as Bandar or BSB, shows its wealth.

The 45-minute drive from where our ship docked to Bandar presented us with views of modern suburban homes and high rises, speeding past water taxis laden with packages and modestly dressed women wearing hajibs.

Sites included magnificent mosques, a glimpse of the two-million-square-foot royal palace, and the Royal Regalia Museum, where the incredibly rich sultan keeps elaborate gifts from world leaders.

Photos by Ellen Weingart
Photos by Ellen Weingart

Standing in stark contrast to all this splendor is Kampong Ayer. With more than 30,000 residents, Kampong Ayer is the world’s largest water village.

Its homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools, fire and police stations, and hospital are built entirely on stilts and connected by wooden walkways. Really a cluster of 42 subvillages traversed by footbridges, Kampong Ayer dates back some 1,300 years.

Up close, the water village looks impoverished, but we were told that the people living here are not poor and remain in the area by choice.

All the mod cons are here — plumbing and electricity, air conditioners, telephones, satellite TV, and Internet. Still, we had to constantly watch our step so as not to be tripped up by broken boardwalk slats.

We removed our shoes to enter a school for tea and sweet cakes.

The furniture in the room looked as if it belonged to someone’s grandmother. A poster from the 2006 soccer World Cup hung in the hallway. Nearby, a chart depicted the Malay alphabet, the official language of Brunei, and posters featured a guide to shapes and a somewhat dated periodic table.

Back outside this classroom, clothes hung on lines to dry, an elderly man relaxed outside his home and children played, all reminders that as unique as Kampong Ayer is, real people live everyday lives here.

 

Note: Ellen Weingart visited Brunei before the strict implementation of Sharia law was instituted.

Nîmes: Built by the Romans

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Nimes Arena; photo courtesy of Office of Tourism

I don’t know if I would have gone for the cheap seats at the Nîmes Arena, a smaller-scale version of Rome’s Colosseum that dates to the end of the first century. The climb up the steep steps seemed downright scary, although the view of the gladiators would have been impressive.

The presence of the majestic Arena in this small city in Provence helps explain why locals have dubbed it “the Rome of France.”

Maison Carrée; photo by Nicole Pensiero
Maison Carrée; photo by Nicole Pensiero

The Arena, along with a temple in the center of Nîmes that’s even older, are part of the physical evidence remaining from ancient Rome’s conquest of what was then called Gaul. The temple –– known as the Maison Carrée, and considered a cousin of Rome’s Pantheon –– now gleams, thanks to a careful, four-year restoration to reverse decades of damage from frost and pollution.

Perhaps most impressive of these ancient remnants is the Pont du Gard aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 31-mile long structure, which was built by the Romans to carry water from a spring at Uzès to Nîmes, is the highest of such Roman bridges and one of the best-preserved.

These ruins have fared better than some of their more famous counterparts in Rome in part because they have had to adapt with the times. The Arena is used today for concerts and shows, while the Maison Carrée over its long history has been re-purposed into everything from a church to a municipal building to an archive during the French Revolution to an art gallery.

Naturally, Nîmes’ city emblem –– a crocodile tied to a palm tree –– also reflects its Roman ties. The quirky image, which can be found on a prominent fountain in the center of town and in small, bronze medallions imbedded in sidewalks, references its role as a popular retirement spot for Roman officers who conquered Egypt in 31 B.C. The crocodile represents Egypt, and the palm tree stands for victory. The modern-day version, which was re-imagined by designer Philippe Starck, now decorates many a T-shirt and tchotchke.

If all this Roman history seems too long ago to grasp, Nîmes boasts a fashion claim that seems more relevant than an ancient toga: The city in the early 19th century was the birthplace of denim –– as in “de Nîmes.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madrid: A Sunset Sanctuary

The short walk from my apartment to Madrid‘s Puerta del Sol is filled with authentic and locally-owned tapas bars, cervecerias and famous historical landmarks.

Photo by Barrie Cohen
Photo by Barrie Cohen

Here, not far from the very center of the city, a peculiar site — much different than Plaza Mayor or Palacio Real —  transports tourists to the farthest reaches of the Middle Eastern world.

Climbing the steep muddy steps to Parque del Cuartel de la Montaña, I notice the trees thinning and a wide, dusty space emerges, trampled with footprints. Just beyond the twisted tree limbs, a structure rises from the sandy gravel floor.

Temple De Debod presents itself in the form of two massive stone arches that lead to an even larger Egyptian temple.

A most unlikely piece of Spanish history, this sacred space is situated at the highest point of a city overlook surrounded by modest apartment buildings and nearby Plaza de España.

A long rectangular pool of water acts as a moat for the large structures.
Originally constructed and housed near the banks of the Nile River, this monument dates back to 2000 B.C. when the cult of Ammon and Isis ruled the Egyptian desert.

Built with the intention of god/goddess worship, Temple De Debod’s centerpiece, appropriately named the “Chapel of Reliefs,” depicts intricate ritual sketches dedicated to the Egyptian gods.

It was transferred stone by stone to Spain, and a debate still rages about whether it was gifted or stolen. The most credible explanation is that it was moved to preserve it during the building of the Aswan High Dam.

Although the structures themselves draw thousands to the site throughout the day, it is at sunset that the real fun begins. Backed by Palacio Real, electrifying bands of orange and yellow fill the sky illuminating the Madrid skyline. As the sun descends, sharp rays of red blend with the mellowed citrus hues, warming the stark white buildings in the distance.

The only way to describe it: breathtaking. I have spent many evenings pressed against the wrought-iron railings, craning my neck to get the full panoramic view of the city. And I know I’ll spend many more doing so.

New Orleans: Hooked on the Classics

Kermit Ruffins and friends at Tipitina's; photos by Robert DiGiacomo
Kermit Ruffins shares the stage at Tipitina’s;      photos by Robert DiGiacomo

New Orleans has seemingly more than its share of centuries-old restaurants and watering holes, with most aspiring to be more than tourist traps. Meanwhile, new spots keep coming, with the Crescent City boasting almost 1,400 restaurants, compared with some 800 before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, according to Tom Fitzmorris of New Orleans Menu.

During a recent visit, I wanted to find out whether it’s wise to stick to the classics and to check out newer places that might be worth talking about in 100 years.

broussard'sBoldface names For my splashiest meal, I chose the nearly century-old Broussard’s, which in the last year has changed hands and undergone a complete renovation. Executive chef Guy Reinboldt is taking a lighter approach to classic French-Creole cuisine, via dishes like sweet potato-wrapped Gulf shrimp, paired with a cucumber-raspberry salad (left), and items that reflect his Alsatian background, such as fresh sardines with arugula, Granny Smith apples and horseradish cream. But he’s also retained old favorites, like the oysters menage a trois and a rack of lamb stuffed with Louisiana crab.

muffalettaSpeaking of classics, I couldn’t leave town without having a muffaletta sandwich, so I headed to the new school Cochon Butcher, where I chowed down on a worthy version, stuffed with house-cured meats and olive salad (right). Having read raves about the classic World War II-era roadhouse, Mosca’s, from food writer and humorist Calvin Trillin, I made the drive 30 minutes away to Avondale with some locally-based friends. After so much rich food elsewhere, we enjoyed the rosemary-garlicky goodness of the chicken a la Grande and other straight-forward Italian-American dishes.

We Partyin’ I was fortunate to get tickets to see trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, a star of the HBO series, “Treme,” at the uptown institution Tipitina’s. Ruffins lived up to his “We partyin'” catch-phrase, presiding over a boisterous set that included appearances by some of his local musician friends, and a great opener in the smoky voiced, tattooed Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns. On other nights I checked out the scene at Chickie Wah Wah, a small smoke-free club with a classic trio on the stage, and also caught the midnight show at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, a happening spot tucked inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

tct-vaughn'sNew Classic? For lunch one day, I arrived famished at Muriel’s, on Jackson Square, following an entertaining three-hour Creole New Orleans bike tour of the Bywater (left) and other neighborhoods with the Confederacy of Cruisers. Muriel’s, which opened in 2001 in a carefully restored 18th century townhouse, offers a two-course lunch special for $17.50. With a potent $4 gin martini in hand, I enjoyed turtle soup, followed by mirleton, a local vegetable that’s a cross between a pepper and an artichoke, stuffed with Andouille sausage and Gulf shrimp.

tct-sazeracPour Me Another As befitting a city that’s always taken its drinking seriously, I was able to quench my thirst with some well-mixed –– and potent –– cocktails. I spent time at elegant spots like the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s (beware the cigar smoke) and the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar, where the signature drink (right) positively glowed among the beautiful Art Deco-style murals and woodwork. Meanwhile, the funky Bar Tonique, on the edge of the Quarter, and Kingfish, in the heart of it, showed that the Vieux Carre and other standbys could be poured just as well in more casual settings.

tct-hotelLocal Hospitality I looked for a hotel that would give me a glimpse of life behind the walls of a traditional French Quarter building built around a central courtyard. The locally-based New Orleans Hotel Collection offers several such properties, including the Dauphine Orleans. My guest room (detail, left) delivered with a comfortable, memory-foam-topped mattress, marble-lined bathroom and niceties like a complimentary Continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi and bottled water, although the public areas could use a little updating.

tct-elizabeth'sPraline and Bacon, Perfect Together For my final meal –– breakfast –– I headed to Elizabeth’s, which at 18 years-old would be an institution in almost any other city, but in New Orleans is practically a newcomer. This Bywater neighborhood favorite –– whose motto is “Real Food, Done Real Good” –– is famous for over-the-top dishes like a savory waffle piled high with duck hash (right). Having tried Elizabeth’s invention of praline bacon, I wondered how I had gone this long without its salty-sweet goodness.