Our newfound NOLA friend Pableaux Johnson waxes nostalgic on the special kind of hospitality you encounter in New Orleans.
Over the years, you start to recognize the signs.
Friends who came to New Orleans for a professional conference a few years back (“Grab a drink between panels? I’m at the Hilton…”) return to the Crescent City for a vacation weekend during Jazzfest. (“Getting in Thursday night. Got time for a meal?”). A few months later, they’re back for half a week in November (“Loving your city. Just want to explore a bit…”), and the hook is set.
Fast forward a year or so and some of the friends move here, some pull a large annual pilgrimage for a festival or mid-winter respite What started out as a check mark on a vacation bucket list turns into a low-grade obsession that’s got to be fed. It’s like a subliminal love affair that people don’t quite understand, yet can’t control.
Once you live in New Orleans, you understand the dynamic because more likely than not, it’s happened to you. You remember your first truly great day-drinking spot, the street parade when you really understood the power and groove of a funky sousaphone. But most of all, you honor the people that first showed you around the city and uncovered New Orleans’ deep bench of hidden treasures. You remember the time that you discovered the city, felt that resonance and considered it (in some ways) your own.
For most folks, that complex personal connection starts with a core New Orleans value — an expression of hospitality. It’s a sense of true welcome that can turn visitors into lifelong fans, dedicated advocates, and oftentimes residents.
As one of New Orleans’ defining traits, the true welcome forms the cornerstone of our international reputation (it’s no coincidence that our biggest economic force is travel and tourism). But the bustling “hospitality industry” — hotels, restaurants, clubs, and bars — grows naturally from this quality of human connection.
In New Orleans, many of the best conversations seem to happen by accident. They spring up at a bus stop, the next table at dinner (“I couldn’t help but hear…”) or on any sidewalk-turned-dancefloor in the city (which happens more often than you’d imagine).
Those conversations that you have with the bartender about where THEY drink on days off. The offhanded greetings-turned-chats that just couldn’t happen on a crowded subway or suburban commute. The sweet, near-flirtatious greetings at the grocery store lines (“Hey baaaby. How’s you doing today?”) from clerks and customers alike.
New Orleans has its own countless layers of charisma that can be blatant, historic, subtle — whichever one is your pleasure— from everyday architectural jewels to seemingly anarchic approaches to liquor and nightlife. Fraternity boys of all ages grab high-octane frozen daiquiris and swagger through the neon-lit Bourbon Street. Locals mix a nice cocktail for a stroll down to dinner or the late piano set at Snug Harbor. Winter folks fleeing a long snowy season bask in the January sunshine and swoon at whiffs of sweet olive trees in the spring wind. Music aficionados can catch their favorite brass band at a second-line parade on Sunday afternoon, then groove with them at the Frenchman Street clubs after midnight.
And while you might find some of these everyday treasures on your own, just as often a friendly local will have sent you — just as an ambient public service to make sure visitors don’t get a bad meal, a watered-down drink, or a boring night of bad karaoke when a fantastic soul gig is just a short cab ride away.
Though it casts a long cultural shadow when it comes to history, music and cuisine, New Orleans remains a small city with an open heart and open mind. If you want to be here, we’re genuinely happy to have you. And while you’re with us, you really should know about the things that make the city special.
Ask just about anybody, they’re usually more than glad to point you to something you won’t want to miss…
Pableaux Johnson is a New Orleans-based photographer and writer. His writing and photographic work appears regularly in the New York Times and Garden & Gun. He has pronounced weaknesses for fine bourbon whiskey, funky sousaphones, raw oysters, coconut cream pie, and talking dog jokes. Photos by Adam Ewing