No one ever left New Orleans hungry. Since the dawn of the Delta, food has been more a part of local culture here than any other cosmopolitan city in America, and woe to the chef who lets his group gourmands down it’s not so much a matter of competition among the almost 1,100 restaurants. It’s a matter of respect, because whatever comes out of the kitchen in New Orleans will be discussed from now until church on Sunday. You can have four cracked plates and mismatched cutlery, but the crawfish étouffée better not be clumpy or you’ll be collecting quarters with the jazz tuba player down on Jackson Square.
Our group of about 40 is dining with representatives from the New Orleans CVB at a little place in Uptown called Brigtsen’s, inside a historic home tucked in a leafy neighborhood near Tulane. The shrimp remoulade with mirliton relish followed by a blackened tuna with roasted red pepper sour cream are a home run. But you come to expect that from chef/owner Frank Brigtsen who spent seven years down the street under the tutelage of the man who invented blackened cooking, Paul Prudhomme. This night epitomizes why the Crescent City is the best experience this side of the White House for bringing groups together around a dinner table. First, we’re eating some of the tastiest fine dining in The South, but we feel like we’re having supper over at a friend’s house. There’s lace on the windows, armoires against the walls, and Frank’s wife Marna drops by every table making sure our glasses of homemade tea are full. We’re also joined by a few leaders from the voluntourism sector, like Liz McCartney who runs the St. Bernard Project rebuilding homes downriver in Chalmette. I’d spent the day volunteering with her staff, and it’s a privilege discussing old wine and new windows with one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year. Lastly, you’re in and out of there well under $75 a head for a 3-course haute Creole meal with good bordeaux. No pricey shuttles either, because the restored St. Charles streetcars ramble straight into the French Quarter and Central Biz District (CBD). Try to find that level of ROI anywhere else in the country. “We’re the best deal going, you do not have to spend a fortune to have a spectacular meal in New Orleans,” says Nikki Nicholson, vp of sales for the CVB. “That way, you get to try a variety of different places, especially smaller family restaurants where you can dine like a local and have that authentic neighborhood experience. You know, we have a saying in New Orleans: ‘At breakfast, we talk about where we’re going for lunch, and at lunch we’re already making plans for dinner.’ Nobody can compare with us when it comes to dinearounds.” The Ultimate Dinearound The major group hotels are located in the Quarter and CBD, surrounded by a mouthwatering coterie of fancy tables within a short walking distance. For citywides, USA Hosts New Orleans will break up groups in one of the ballrooms during a cocktail reception, often with mixology lessons revolving around Sazeracs, Pimm’s Cups, Ramos Gin Fizzes, Mint Juleps and other classic Prohibition-era drinks. Escorts from each restaurant will then walk with their group to their respective restaurants to get everyone settled and acquainted. The Marriott New Orleans and The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans in the Quarter, for example, are a quick skip to two Dickie Brennan restaurants well-designed for large groups. Anchored by a large overflowing raw bar, Bourbon House celebrates fresh seafood with Cajun influences, and no trip here is complete without an Oyster Trio bubbling with melted Rockefeller, Bienville and Fonseca toppings. Private dinners are no sweat for 200 pax on the upper level in an elegant space overlooking the nightly parade down Bourbon Street. And our group almost didn’t make it through the apps after rounds of crab fingers bordelaise, alligator with bleu cheese, and shrimp glazed in bourbon. You know how you spot visitors in New Orleans? They’re the ones having fun trying to pronounce the exotic Creole dishes. Seating 500 max, Palace Café specializes in outrageously good comfort Creole, such as andouille-crusted grouper in buerre blanc andshrimp tchefuncte in a lively meuniére. We gathered here for a live jazz brunch in the towering well-lit space that lasted well into the afternoon. Try the crabmeat quiche prepared with gruyere and a wicked little white chocolate bread pudding with warm ganache. “Usually there’ll be a planned menu at each of the restaurants but all of the same calibre,” says Mandy Schwalb, national sales administrator for USA Hosts. But planners might want to schedule dinner a little earlier than they do elsewhere. “We don’t do anything fast in New Orleans. We’ll sit down for four to five courses for four to five hours any day of the week.” And that’s one of the reasons why New Orleans has such unbelievable community spirit for a large metropolis, which rubs off on visiting groups. You spend a little time with every bite. You reach over and sample what’s on your neighbor’s plate, and then discuss the more esoteric flavors. “Hmmm,” you’ll say to your colleague. “What’s that crispy fois gras bonaparte with snail butter all about? Mind if I try some?” When you’re faced with such varied and layered cuisine that shuns over-complexity, you might as well draw it out and make a proper event out of it. “We were brought up that way, it’s part of our culture,” says Schwalb. “We’re very family-centric and there’s so much different food to choose from. So if you’re boiling crawfish, you’re having 20 people coming over, no doubt about it…. It’s very rare for us to hang out with friends and not have dinner.” If you’re having 150 people coming over, buy out the second floor at Muriel’s Jackson Square facing St. Louis Cathedral. Originally a vast private residence in the 1800s before it was a bordello, Muriel’s has maintained the Parisian boudoir vibe with deeply colored drapes against blood red brick walls, decorative heirlooms and gold framed mirrors reflecting dancing candlelight. You’ll also have use of the big wrought iron balcony, which are not all that easy to come by for large groups. And there’s the outré Seance Lounge with its Aladdin’s harem décor. “The room is a tribute to Storyville (New Orleans’s old red light district) with its red button-tufted round settee,” says Diane S. Hillis, CMP, director of sales. Definitely give Muriel’s a look.