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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Change of scenery, the Big Easy way

by Richard Mason | April 25, 2021 at 8:50 a.m.

Recently we broke out from a year of almost hibernation and headed for New Orleans.

The six-hour drive from El Dorado went without a hitch, but instead of cutting across through Farmerville, La., to Monroe, La., we drove straight to Ruston on a four-lane highway.

The greatly improved route is a joint undertaking by Arkansas and Louisiana to make 167 South four lanes from Little Rock to Interstate 20. Louisiana has finished its part and Arkansas is not far behind. It took 15 minutes longer, but the easy driving made up for the lost time.

We checked into the Windsor Court Hotel at 1:30 p.m. and walked down a very quiet Canal Street to Bourbon Street. I remarked to Vertis that New Orleans seemed different, with noticeably fewer people. Bourbon Street was still loud, but certainly not as lively as pre-pandemic Bourbon Street. Most of the bars and restaurants were open, but with very few customers.

Our standard pick for the top restaurant in the city is on the second block off Canal on Bourbon Street; in five minutes, we walked Bourbon and stepped into the foyer of Galatoire's.

The restaurant was almost empty. Normally, most of the lunch hour diners would still be there, but as we waited to be seated, it was obvious the restaurant was still suffering from covid-19 restrictions.

But after we were seated and the waiter put a short loaf of warm French bread and soft butter on the table, it felt as if we had broken out of our isolation. It had been a year since we had been to New Orleans, and that loaf of bread was an exclamation mark that made us know we were back.

We split an Oysters Rockefeller, wishing we both had one, then we both had fresh-caught pompano sautéed with crab meat on top. After being cooped up for so long, we were in the best mood since the pandemic hit.

Late that afternoon we went downstairs to the Windsor Court Hotel's Polo Club Lounge on the third floor to have a cheese tray and something to drink. It was almost empty.

It was easy to see that New Orleans hadn't loosened up covid-19 restrictions. Some stores and restaurants were still closed. The hotel required masks in every part other than its rooms, and was short-handed in service personnel. "We can't find anyone to hire," the concierge said. It seems jobs are waiting for people who want to work in New Orleans, but there are few takers. I told him we're seeing the same thing in Arkansas.

The next morning we decided to get a little exercise by walking to the National World War II Museum, a half dozen blocks down Magazine Street. We had been there before, but not to some of the newer additions. We ended the museum tour with a walk through the Road to Tokyo exhibit.

The setting is as if you are walking through bombed-out villages in a jungle setting, and with the constant video and sound it makes for a breathtaking experience. We were both emotionally drained. I still can't believe how realistic the setting was, including last letters from men who died fighting on the beaches.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a typical New Orleans restaurant called Peche Seafood Grill, and had a super lunch including fried oyster salad and soft-shell crab. That night we went to August, considered one of the top restaurants in the city, and were disappointed. Wasn't bad; the others were just better.

The next day was our last day in New Orleans, and after an early lunch of shrimp, oysters, and gumbo at Palace Cafe on Canal Street, we visited the Riverwalk area, with its great view of the busy boat and barge traffic on the Mississippi River, to do a little shopping in the shops and restaurants in them adjacent outlet mall.

I like to pick up discounted Tommy Bahama shirts from Nordstrom Rack, and Vertis heads for Neiman Marcus. Turns out that Neiman's was closed, as were around 30 percent of the other shops. Foot traffic was low. It was depressing to walk by store after store without a single shopper inside. I decided there were enough Tommy Bahama shirts in my closet at home.

Next came the movie "French Exit," which I was anxious to see after this newspaper's critic Phillip Martin gave it an 87. If you like Michelle Pfeiffer, you will give the flick at least a 95. She plays a gorgeous red-haired chain-smoking former socialite who moves gracefully through the surreal film. After her husband dies and she is without income, she ends up selling what's left and moving into her friend's apartment in Paris, where strange things happen. This is not a movie for 13-year olds, but a stunning presentation crafted to intrigue.

After the movie, we walked a few blocks to the Warehouse District to Grand Isle, another one of our favorite restaurants, heavy on Louisiana seafood as you can get.

Now we're ready to ride out the rest of the pandemic.

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