Southern Decadence is almost here, but even closer than the Big Easy is the Shreve
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
It was five years ago this month that Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately ravaging New Orleans just before Southern Decadence, the gay end-of-summer bacchanal in America’s favorite municipal speakeasy, got underway.
Now, half a decade (and one more SoDec evac) later, the city welcomes its gay patrons openly. It might not be right to say it’s back — in some ways, it never went away, and in others, it’s more low-key — but the Crescent City remains a great draw for gay travelers.
But not the only one in the state. Even closer — about two hours by car — is Shreveport, a smaller town, more family-oriented burg best known now for its casinos. And while the gays in “the Shreve” make treks to NOLA for the big gay scene fun, there’s a lot to do here that’s cheaper and easier to get to.
So which is it: Extravagance or convenience? How about a little bit of both?
Now in its 39th year, Southern Decadence is a Labor Day weekend tradition that attracts countless gay men, a decent number of gay women and a surprisingly large contingent of straight people who come to revel in the exuberance. You can’t live in — or really even visit — New Orleans without being a little open-minded about sex and alcohol. But that’s not all there is to do.
New Orleans boasts two W Hotels, as different from each other as they can be. They do have one thing in common, though: An enthusiasm for gay clientele. (Last year at SoDec, one of the hotels hosted an Andrew Christian underwear fashion show and party that was as sexy and raucous as you’re probably imagining.)
The W Hotel New Orleans is a high-end high-rise with the W’s signature mod look (plums and scarlets with rich velvets and busy prints set the tone), including hipster-style lounge areas. (Whiskey Blue, the bar, exudes flashy urban cool.)
The “Wet” pool, lined with private cabanas equipped with TVs and room service, is as social as the pub and affords good views of downtown, as well as Harrah’s Casino, if you want a quick walk to empty your pockets. Zoe, the restaurant, is a multipurpose eatery open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving contemporary American cuisine in a relaxed setting. (A new chef was hired since last year’s SoDec.)
Just a few blocks but a universe away, the W French Quarter, nestled in the heart of party activity and historic sites, is a boutique property with small but charming rooms and a courtyard that looks like something from a Roman garden. A dramatic staircase overlooks a small shaded pool area with a dramatic fountain. Best of all, it’s shielded from the hubbub of the Quarter, but also in the thick of it, so you can go native or relax in a luxury cocoon.
The luxury element extends to Bacco, the onsite eatery from famed New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan. In a town known for great food, Bacco is a standout for brunch or dinner, with the filet Oscar with a vegetable medley a heavenly bit of surf-and-turf, while the house shrimp entrée — whole prawns in a beer broth with rosemary and Creole spices — breath authentic Bayou cuisine.
The Ritz-Carlton splits the difference between the two Ws. Located on the corner of the French Quarter but with full-service amenities, it’s gorgeously ornate property constructed hacienda-style around a central court. The interior spaces are lush, and the amenities (an umbrella in the room in case you forget yours) justify the legend. (Rates at the Ritz are surprisingly affordable, especially in the summer off-season.) The Melange restaurant was relaunched as M Bistro, but the essence of the place — locally-sourced and organic foods predominate — remains.
The 41-story Marriott, also in the French Quarter, recently underwent a massive renovation and defies the old-school “Marriott-style” expectations. Its casual but tasty 5 Fifty 5 restaurant offers a marvelous takes on mac and cheese and oysters Rockefeller, and the bread pudding is more like pound cake doused in caramel and ice cream. Then again, you don’t come to NOLA to lose weight; you come to lose inhibitions.
The famous Brennan’s is unmissable for brunch, renowned for its alcoholic milk punch and of course its flaming bananas foster (which they invented). It’s an institution for a good reason.
Perhaps even more revered in the FQ is Arnaud’s. In a city that has taken casual exuberance to near pornographic extremes (flashing in the streets is not uncommon during Southern Decadence), Arnaud’s remains a bastion of erudition and dignity: The main dining room still requires gentlemen to conform to a dress code. We were fine leaving the coat and tie at home and holing up in the jazz bistro, where live music isn’t the only art: The food is (the menus are identical). Classic dishes, like the oysters Bienville and the house crab cakes, need to be tried. For dessert, treat yourself to the café brulot, a coffee drink with flames and booze and fruit prepared tableside. The show alone is worth it.
The building that houses it is a massive structure that extends far beyond the well-appointed but gracefully ageing dining rooms; that’s true of a lot of New Orleans. Architecturally, it’s a monument to sturdy, bold structures that have weathered more than a few storms.
Galleries welcome browsers (and you can find some fabulous, often affordable art), and the street vendors are worth a look, too: From tarot card readers along Jackson Square to a permanent flea market along the waterfront, it’s a walking city meant to be enjoyed. (Dress comfortably, though — it’s a swamp in the summer, and it smells like it.)
You can enjoy most of the delights of New Orleans almost anytime during the year, but there are some definite key times to visit. The gay clubs book some racy headliners during Southern Decadence, but the entire city goes pretty gay during that time: There’s a street parade and the entire French Quarter becomes almost inaccessible to vehicles. Mardi Gras, of course, is also a draw, but also Halloween and even late spring, when the arts community comes out for the Saints & Sinners festival. That’s part of the charm of the city — the party never stops.
Those in Shreveport-Bossier City like to call their corner of the state “Louisiana’s Other Side,” but there’s much more to it than just NOLA’s poor relation. True, it does not celebrate SoDec in quite the same way, but be in town on Super Bowl Sunday with the Saints playing and you don’t doubt the city knows how to party.
A complete profile of the city will appear in two weeks in Dallas Voice.
New Orleans Marriott, 555 Canal St. 504-581-1000. Ritz-Carlton, 921 Canal St., 504-524-1331. W Hotel French Quarter, 316 Chartres St. WHotelsNewOrleans.com. W Hotel New
Orleans, 333 Poydras St. WHotelsNewOrleans.com.
Food & Drink
Arnaud’s, 813 Rue Bienville. Arnauds Restaurant.com. Bacco inside the W Hotel French Quarter, 316 Chartres St. Bacco.com.
Brennan’s, 417 Royal St.
BrennansNewOrleans.com. 5 Fifty 5 inside the Marriott, 555 Canal St. Whiskey Blue inside the W Hotel New Orleans, 333 Poydras St.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.