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The City of New Orleans at its southern terminus takes on passengers.

JACK WEATHERLY: Train to New Orleans: a travelogue with a bit of news

ON THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS – This is a story of contrasts, from a very low-cost train ride to dining on the best cuisine we’ve ever tasted.

Not to mention the latest and cheapest personal city transportation mode with a funny-sounding name, Uber.

The Amtrak station’s waiting room in Jackson is a red-brick redo with ancient blond benches wearing brass boots.

It is hardly what I remember from my childhood. The cathedral-height Central Station in Memphis echoed with constant loud-speaker updates on trains arriving from and leaving for all points.

In those days, Memphis had two terminals. The other was the Union Station, a classical revival structure that has since been demolished.

Before the interstate highway system, cross-country auto travel was relatively slow. You were lucky to average 45 miles per hour. So trains had a decided advantage in that regard. Speed wins.

Central Station was the departure point for the summertime adventure that my brother and I would take to the world of green pastures, blue skies and muddy streams at our grandparents’ farm in Attala County.

My mother would pack our lunches in brown-paper bags and seek out a nice, responsible-looking lady to watch over us — and make sure we detrained at Durant, where my granddaddy would be waiting for us in his old black Ford pickup.

On this trip, the first priority for my wife and me was to get our train legs after we climbed to the upper level of the Superliner, which made its debut in 1995 with the historic Illinois Central name the City of New Orleans. Amtrak doesn’t have the best reputation for punctuality on some of its lines, but this train was on time coming and going on its 3-1/2 hour trip.

Soon we are rockin’ and rollin’ through the wooded outskirts of Jackson with glimpses of junkyards and swampy areas.

In the high-windowed lounge car, a gaggle of boisterous women had claimed two or three booths. Later, four men, old friends, played at dominoes as they made their way to their ship that would take them to Cozumel.

Beyond that was the club car, managed by a 37-year Amtrak veteran, who assured me that the ride would smooth out as we pick up speed.

I buy a small bottle of Chardonnay – a noontime celebration of our 38th anniversary trip – and learn it’s better to sip from the bottle than the cup. There’s just no way to time the erratic rise and fall of the car, though things did get smoother, even with two-minute whistle stops at small towns fighting their isolation with gentrified buildings and whatever industry they can muster, and, of course, the passenger train.

My pine-tree speedometer tells me we are cruising at about 60 mph some of the time.

Eventually, we hug the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 630-square-mile, brackish inland sea in which a manatee was spotted the day before.

We enter the fringes of New Orleans, which is undergoing another rebirth.

Two fires destroyed and reshaped the city in the late 18th century and, of course, there have been innumerable hurricanes.

We pass the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, formerly the Louisiana Superdome,  scene of Super Bowls  and NBA games, and helter shelter for so many in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when 80 percent of the city was flooded and 1,400 died.

Time, and failure to adapt to changes spell near-disaster for some institutions.

We pass the hulk of the storied Times-Picayune offices and printing plant on Howard Avenue, whose great opening had recently disgorged scrap metal where presses had spewn reams of news. The paper’s last issue printed in New Orleans was on Jan. 17, 2016. It is now published in Mobile. And the Baton Rouge-based Advocate moved into town with its New Orleans bureau and has supplanted The Times-Picayune as the largest paper in the state in terms of circulation. Yet The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer in 2006 for its coverage of Katrina.

The city is undergoing a building boom. According to The Times-Picayune, still writing the first rough draft of history, $3 billion in private capital had been invested in the central business district, in residential space, hotels and commercial development, as of August 2015, the 10th anniversary of Katrina, thanks in part to local, state and federal tax credits.

Even the especially hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward last week celebrated the opening of a CVS pharmacy, the first national chain to return since Katrina. The ward has regained only 37 percent of its pre-Katrina population, compared with the city’s 89 percent, according to the New Orleans Advocate.

An Uber (pronounced OO-ber) driver picked us up at the station a minute after we texted for a ride, saving us from a long taxi queue.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at the Maison Dupuy, our hotel. The fare, $8.13.

Our concierge, Roy Madden, helped us get a table at Galatoire’s for dinner the next night.

New Orleans can’t help but be itself.

The second night we were at the hotel, there was an out-of-town wedding party in the courtyard, complete with a jazz band (a la Paul Whiteman) making the best of it as showers came and went. We were standing on the fringes of the celebration when a loud whop of broken glass dusted us with crystalline shards and cut our newfound friend’s foot. A bare-chested man came to a second-floor window, covered his face with his hands and closed the drapes.

Walking Bourbon Street – (despite Roy’s suggestion to miss that avenue of excesses, a magnet to me in my young single years) whose crowning touch was an obscenity screamed in my ear by a woman who was aiming it at some poor soul – to Galatoire’s for us was like passing through Hell — only to enter the gates of Heaven.

Half of the pleasure of these classic restaurants is the atmosphere, including the decades-loyal waiters elegantly dressed in black and white. You can’t eat the emerald green fin de siecle wallpaper at Galatoire’s, but it sumptuously sets off the brass fixtures, white tile floors, ermine paneling, and — voila! — you are in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” at Maxim’s.

After my first-ever sazerac, (reputed to be America’s first cocktail, a mix of rye whiskey, absinthe and bitters) what I did dine on was Oysters Rockefeller, escargot (a daring personal first perhaps saved by a bubbling, garlicky liquid)  and bouillabaisse. My wife skipped the cocktail and went with her usual Chardonnay and chose shrimp au vin, wedge salad and Oysters Rockefeller.

Maybe it was the ambiance, but Antoine’s stole my heart.

The Large Annex at Antoine's is festooned with photos and notes from the famous and once famous.

The Large Annex at Antoine’s is festooned with photos and notes from the famous and once famous.

Founded in 1840, the establishment on Saint Louis Avenue is still owned by the descendants of Antoine Alciatore, who left Marseilles, France after beginning his  haute cuisine journey as a prodigious boy and whose son invented Oysters Rockefeller. Great-Great-Grandson Rick Blount is CEO. It is the oldest continuously operating, family-owned restaurant in America, says General Manager Matthew Ousset, who began his 35-year career at Antoine’s as a busboy, the starting point for all employees.

We were taken to the Large Annex, added in 1889, with dark wood paneling with gothic-arch motif and soft, reddish walls covered with photos and handwritten notes from the famous and once-famous.

The luncheon special at $20.16 – charbroiled oysters, petit tenderloin for both of us, and, for dessert, Meringe Glacee  for me and Pecan Bread Pudding for Jill — is in our Hall of Fame for meal deals.

(If all the hundreds of notable patrons included in an early-edition 100th anniversary souvenir booklet — a lagniappe from M. Ousset — were given wall space, the Large Annex would have to be much larger – or else some of the 13 other dining rooms in the 55,000-square-foot establishment would have to pull duty. A sample from the booklet: Groucho Marx, Pope John Paul II, Will Rogers, Thomas Dewey, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, Florenz Ziegfeld, Teddy Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken and on and on.)

These two meals, with tips, more than doubled our round-trip train fare of $118. Seems about right.


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