Spending time admiring Esplanade Avenue is one of the many pleasures to be found in New Orleans. Majestic live oak trees line the Avenue, providing ample shade and casting a gorgeous pattern of light and shadow onto the many elegant and historic Creole mansions that line the edge of this street that runs on the edge of the French Quarter, Marigny, Treme and Seventh Wards, all the way to City Park. Although the street is mostly residential, there’s more than a little sightseeing to do, with plenty of diversions along the way.
The hottest spots for activity along Esplanade Avenue can be found in Faubourg St. John just past Broad Street. A neat row of restaurants and local retail help give this stretch of street its quaint village-like feel. As a resident, I liken living in this neighborhood to life in the West Village of New York City. It, of course, has a uniquely New Orleanian feel and sightseeing is a joy: two blocks one way and you’re at Bayou Saint John, two blocks the other way and you’re on a street next to the historic Fairgrounds Race Track looking at a row of charming and impossibly small shotgun single homes.
Across from the micro Alcee Fortier Park, which is filled with sculptures and places to sit (great for people watching), is Café Degas, a traditional French bistro that’s been around since the 1980s. The restaurant is just down the street from the New Orleans home where artist Edgar Degas stayed in 1872. Café Degas has ample atmosphere and offers classic staples: mussels, escargots, a hearty French Onion Soup that will trigger vivid sense memories, and terrific seared hanger steak frites, plus delicious fried softshell crabs (when in season). My favorite: they still serve Floating Island, fluffy meringue in Crème Anglaise, usually with tart cherries and gooey caramel. It’s open for lunch and just a couple blocks from historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
St. Louis No. 3 is one of my favorite cemeteries to meander in, because of its wide aisles and numerous angelic and religious statuary, particularly near the gates at Esplanade. You’ll find the grave of famous Storyville photographer E.J. Bellocq just a short walk back into the cemetery.
Spurring off Esplanade is a one-block stretch of shops on Ponce de Leon Street. Swirl is the neighborhood spot to pick up the perfect bottle of wine from knowledgeable and attentive staff, plus a snack of some charcuterie and cheese. Enjoy it in the shop, where they also serve wines by the glass and are a popular after-work spot for locals. A food truck often pops up in front, and they have a weekly free-for-all tasting that makes this lively spot so much fun.
Just a couple of doors down from Swirl is Fair Grinds Coffee House. If you need a spot to recharge, enjoy some wifi, fair trade coffee, pastries and modestly priced made-to-order sandwiches. It’s a lovely place to linger.
At the end of Esplanade Avenue at the statue of Beauregard sits the entrance to City Park. There’s so much to do in City Park: from the New Orleans Museum of Art and its always free outdoor Sculpture Garden, to running and bike trails along Big Lake and throughout the lagoons. There’s the Botanical Garden, City Putt mini-golf, the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park & Storyland, 24 hour coffee and beignets at Morning Call in the Oaks, and more picturesque wildlife and nature (including the geographic high point of the city) in the Couterie forest. Leaving ample time during your day to time at City Park is something you’ll definitely want to consider.
A fitting end to your day along Esplanade has to be a dinner at Lola’s, a traditional Spanish restaurant along the Avenue. Known for their paellas and fideuas, Lola’s is a no-reservations casual spot that locals and tourists (and garlic lovers) have long adored. While you wait for your table, enjoy folk-art inspired walls filled with paintings from local artist Simon and others along with a pitcher of sangria. Once seated, be sure to order pieces of hot, fluffy-as-air bread (sold by the piece) to go with their addictive whipped garlic spread. Some of my favorite dishes at Lola’s are the grilled Squid with Romesco sauce, the seafood fideuas, and the Caldereta – Andalusian slow-cooked Lamb Stew. And seriously, you’re gonna want to order more bread!
All photos by Paul Broussard