Holiday Stroll Down Magazine Street

Ralph Anderson
In New Orleans, look Uptown to find unusual gifts, gourmet seafood, and laid-back holiday spirit.

Miami has its iconic swaying palms, Northern California its towering redwoods. Look skyward during a wintertime walk in New Orleans and you'll see this city's botanical trademark―a thick canopy of live oaks.

Filtering the late-season light, the dark leaves give Uptown and the Garden District (neighborhoods upriver from the infamous French Quarter) a quiet evergreen ambience. During Louisiana's short and relatively mild winters, the oaks impart a distinctly intimate, introspective feel that suits this coastal city's unusual approach to Christmas. As most of the country bustles during the holidays, New Orleans rests up for its spring bacchanal: the monthlong Carnival season.

More than any other street in the city, St. Charles Avenue is known for its oaks (as well as its streetcars). After Jefferson's shrewd Louisiana Purchase in 1803, prosperous merchants and plantation owners settled here and built elaborate homes. Many have become upscale guesthouses, such as The Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast, a meticulously restored Queen Anne structure.

Like St. Charles, Magazine Street parallels the arc of the Mississippi River. This workaday market alternates clusters of funky businesses (coffee shops, upscale boutiques, antiques stores, and art galleries) with relaxed residential stretches. Harking back to an era before malls dominated the suburbs, the shops of Magazine provide walking-distance commerce for the city's denizens.

By the time cold winds arrive this far south, Magazine becomes a paradise for shoppers searching for the unique or offbeat―reflections of the cultures that ships have always brought to mingle here. Jeweler and sculptor Thomas Mann presents his wearable contemporary works and those of other well-known craftspeople in his gallery. A bit farther uptown, artisan Shaun Wilkerson showcases furniture handmade from ative cypress and reclaimed wood. Area galleries run the gamut from Lionel Milton's colorful graffiti-inspired jazz paintings to the outsider art of Nilo Lanzas.

In a city that eats with the seasons, winter is a feast for the senses. Neighborhood restaurants provide cold-weather travelers with both refuge and sustenance. Local chefs work with savory wild game and the fattest, saltiest oysters of the year. Such classic oyster bars as Casamento's let shellfish fanatics slurp the delicacies straight from the shell. And menus everywhere feature steaming bowls of thick, rich gumbo to chase away the chill.

Uptown also contains many of the renovated "house restaurants" largely responsible for updating the city's distinctive Creole cuisine over the past 20 years. Such chefs as local native Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen's Restaurant and Ken Smith of Upperline reinterpret standard seafood dishes while staying true to the spirit of New Orleans dining.

There's perhaps no better way to fend off the cold than with Upperline's creamy oyster stew lightened with crunchy watercress and a hint of anise-flavored Herbsaint liqueur. Brigtsen's makes magic with game, serving pan-roasted venison medallions over a crunchy potato pancake and topped with velvety gravy spiked with apple cider and demi-glace.

After a hearty and soul-warming meal, visitors bundle up and hit the streets for an evening stroll, even if it's only to find a cozy barroom for an equally cozy nightcap. During winter's early sunsets, the oaks create a scene that would make Magritte proud―dark branches lit by dim streetlights below and colorful cloudscapes above. Always dependable, they spread their arms, oblivious to the art of it.

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