The cheerful music, the unexpected parades, the rich culture, the decadent food—it’s Nola, baby, and everything there has more flavor, even the race track, so there’s no surprise that the Louisiana Derby is full of life, great people, a ton of food, and a bunch of fun. When the amazing people at America’s Best Racing invited me down to the Derby, I was pretty excited. I knew that my first time at the races would be awesome, but I had no idea just how much fun I’d actually have.
From the moment our gracious ABR host, Jim Mulvihll, picked us up from the airport, it was on—the best weekend ever was underway. The first stop was at our magnificent hotel, Hotel Maison de Ville. As soon as we stepped out the car, there was a friendly face there waiting for us…and who even knew our names. This was just the beginning of the southern hospitality that we’d receive in every single spot. Being from Chicago, where the cold sometimes extends to more than just the weather, it was an exciting sign. The structure which dates back to 1783 coupled with its old-school grandeur was astounding. I’m a self-proclaimed history buff whose family stems from the Mississippi Delta where hoodoo was first conjured up and when I was five-years-old, I was pretty sure that I was a witch after watching one too many Halloween movies on Disney, so imagine how excited I was to stay in such a historic place with old wooden floors, antique fixtures, and a voodoo doll greeting me when I entered my room.
After quickly getting settled, I met my weekend crew—our host Jim Mulvihill and super writers Jason Diamond, Alex Scordelis, and Jami Attenberg—for drinks at French 75. The atmosphere was definitely conducive for the start of a good time and upstairs, just beyond the hustle and bustle of Friday night fun, was Arnaud’s Mardi Gras Museum, containing beautiful costume pieces collected by the family of Germaine Cazenave Wells, successor and daughter of Count Arnaud who reigned as queen of over twenty-two Mardi Gras balls from 1937 to 1968. Talk about royalty!
We then headed to dinner at Tujaque’s where the our waiter Victor “refused” us menus, bringing the table incredible creations with each plate more decadent than the last: sesame crusted tuna, seared jumbo lump crab cake, fried green tomatoes with crab meat ravigote, Louisiana lump crab meat and wild mushroom gnocchi, brisket with Creole horseradish, as well as an array of desserts with cheesecake, pecan pie, and grasshopper pie. Jealous? You should be!
We finished Friday night at Cane & Table with drinks so strong and delicious that it almost takes you away. Well, we mostly finished it out. We still hit Bourbon Street for one last drink on our way back to the hotel.
What’s the best part of being in Nola? Doing touristy things and getting lost. I walked to the Mississippi River, grabbed a shrimp po’ boy (Ah! The blessing of carbohydrates), and bought a vintage hat for the Derby from a 40s and 50s-inspired boutique on Royal named Trashy Diva (recommended to me by Jami). Sweeping back down Royal later, I saw the cutest thing at Fleur de Paris—bubbles coming from outside of the hat shop. Being a tourist and randomly wandering the French Quarter was just so relaxing, perfect to get ready and be rejuvenated for the day. Being lost never felt so good.
Around 1 pm, we headed to the New Orleans Fairgrounds Race Course for the 101st Louisiana Derby. I could not have asked for a better first time at the races. We sat at a VIP table, watching the horses race around the beautiful spring greenery and sipping midday drinks before heading down to the paddock to watch the horses get saddled and then the apron (or rail) to catch all of the action. Jim and our new friend Abram Himmelstein taught us how to read the information listed by each horse and we all started to place a few bets. The horses were even more astonishing up close. Tall and strong, the horses’ every move is evident in their large muscles and their beauty was undeniable. After losing a lot of single dollar-bill bets (well, really just about two), I finally struck gold in the Derby race! I had a good feeling about Vicar’s in Trouble and I bet two dollars on the horse, resulting in a big money win of eight dollars total. If you know me, that’s big! Honestly, I enjoyed the act of picking winners more than I enjoyed actually betting; looking at the options and putting my trust into one is what really brought me joy. I didn’t even really need to bet. The ambiance and the sport of it all was more than enough for me.
Once we returned to the French Quarter, we stopped at Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone for pre-dinner drinks. It’s a swanky, upscale spot with a 25-seat carousel bar that actually moves, turning one full revolution every 15 minutes.
Next, we met up with Miranda Lash, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and artist Mel Chin. We had a great dinner at Lüke and I knew it was my last shot at getting more traditional Creole cuisine in my system so after a table full of delectable appetizers from the kitchen, I ordered the Shrimp and Grits.
Where does a group of creatives end their Saturday night? At a museum, of course! After talking with Mel about his remarkable work, we just had to see it for ourselves and Miranda who curated Mel’s newest exhibit Rematch, was kind enough to let us take an after-hours tour. Rematch includes about 70 of Mel’s work in a variety of different medium including drawings, paintings, sculptures, major installations, video, and documentation of collective interventions and public works.
After turning in for the night, I knew that I really wasn’t ready to leave New Orleans. As I sat on my balcony and watched the comings and goings in a city that truly never sleeps, I felt blessed to be there. Maybe it was the amazing tall and comfortable bed that I needed a step to get into at night, or the fact that it felt that I was somewhere that had made a huge dent in history, or maybe just the drinks catching up with me, but the only emotion I was feeling at that point was happiness.