Every town has a Main Street – a bustling thoroughfare with sidewalks wide enough to meet, greet and pass by neighbors or strangers or café-goers enjoying that second cup of coffee, with cute old buildings bursting with life. New Orleans has several such streets, and I’m focusing today on one of the most charming main streets in all of New Orleans: Oak Street.
Oak Street has long been an active commercial street, dating back to the 1800s when it was part of the suburban New Orleans city of Carrollton. Fast forward to today, and it’s never been busier, yet it still retains the turn-of-the-last-century feel of an old town that gives this street so much character. It pops up all the time in movies and tv shows filmed in New Orleans, and just a couple hours strolling down this eight-block stretch and you’ll understand why it’s picturesque facades draw people in. Step inside the shops, restaurants and bars and you’ll know why they keep coming back to Oak Street. My recent Tuesday night out on Oak Street begins appropriately enough in the afternoon!
Oak Street is accessible by car or cab, or by taking the St. Charles Streetcar Uptown past the Riverbend onto Carrollton Avenue. I started out early because there’s a lot of shopping on Oak Street — from antiques and jewelry to new goods for the home, as well as fine art, vintage and new clothing and shoes, and comic books.
Coffee and Snacks
While you’re shopping, it’s smart to fuel up with some coffee or snacks; I like to stop at Rue de la Course on the corner of Oak and Carrollton Avenue for an iced coffee, and for a quintessential New Orleans sweet treat, a couple blocks away from Oak Street is Plum Street Snoballs, where you can keep your stroll cool in the most delicious of ways. Also try world-class baked goods at Breads on Oak or grab a latte at Z’otz Cafe.
After a nice afternoon walk, I’ve worked up a decent appetite, and at the far end of Oak Street, close to the Mississippi River, is Cowbell, a casual restaurant in an old service station that’s open all day (closed Sundays and Mondays) serving up refined versions of comfort food from Chef/Owner Brack May: thick, hand-formed craft burgers (including a stellar house-made veggie burger), tacos, and simple grilled fish, plus homestyle desserts. And you won’t want to skip their mouthwatering mac and cheese, with spiral pasta, a rich béchamel and stringy melted cheese, and topped with crispy bread crumbs.
Another must-try Oak Street Restaurant is Jacques-Imo’s. It’s still a happening place, years after opening, and their Shrimp and Alligator Sausage Cheesecake, which is one of those “Only in New Orleans” dishes that helped make them famous, is to die for. Their entrees are all huge – each comes with two sides, and you’ll find usually five different types of fish on the menu every night, plus the soul food and bistro classics with New Orleans flair that can please anyone: incredible fried chicken, duck, rabbit and even a fried roast beef po-boy with debris.
Before heading over to Maple Leaf Bar for some dancing, a stop at nearby Oak Wine Bar is in order. They have an interesting and large wine list, with about 30 wines by the glass, plus craft cocktails and fancy and crave-able bar snacks. Thursdays through Saturday nights at 9 p.m. there’s live music, too. I opt for a rose wine by the glass and a “Last Tin Roof,” a Sazerac cocktail with ginger liqueur and agave nectar, and enjoy people watching from a sidewalk table.
After enjoying the scenery, I’m ready to dance at The Maple Leaf. If you end up here on a Tuesday night, which you’ll want to try to do, you’ll catch the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, because that’s where they play on Tuesdays at 11 p.m. when they’re not touring. They are a New Orleans institution, much like the Maple Leaf Bar itself, which has been open continuously with live music nightly since 1976.
Once Rebirth takes the stage, the crowd gets going, and it’s easy to find a kind stranger to dance with and enjoy those New Orleans beats and horn riffs; there’s room to move and the crowd is always friendly. After a few songs, a trip to the back bar and back patio where there’s ample room to relax and sit and listen to the band makes for the perfect break. Stick around, because the magic usually happens during the late, second sets at The Leaf. As I wrap up my night of shopping, dining, and dancing, it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this wonderful, colorful street that could only exist in New Orleans. And that’s just a Tuesday night on Oak Street!
All photos by Paul Broussard