But a great culinary experience is to be savored. If I only live once, I'm determined to order almost everything on life's menu at least one time (sans Merlot). Indeed, every conscious waking nonworking moment is potentially "happy hour."
For restaurant lovers, no American city beats New Orleans. I have family roots in the Crescent City, so I'm biased.
I must admit - the weather is awful. The place smells bad. The streets are filthy. The Saints are going to miss the playoffs (again). And now it's become the nation's crime capital.
But New Orleans' poker action is out of this world, and the food is often even better.
I'm lucky. I get to visit lots of cool places. When I'm covering a poker tournament, I work hard and usually put in long hours. But I also play hard.
At home and on the road, when it comes to eating and drinking, I always treat myself to the best. If I'm going to put in a 14-hour day, it's a sure bet that my dinner break is going to last 90 minutes, consist of five courses, and include several cocktails.
Lancey Howard, the movie character, had his priorities straight. He played "The Man" in The Cincinnati Kid. New Orleans was the scene of the big poker game. Howard, played effortlessly by Edward G. Robinson, had poker prowess that was garnished by exquisite meals and fine wine. Eating fast food in a city like New Orleans should be against the law.
Over the next two weeks, I'm going to be in New Orleans. I'll be attending the 2008 Winter Bayou Poker Challenge. It's the eighth time I've visited New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
For those who are joining me at Harrah's New Orleans to play poker, I strongly advise you to get out a little. Enjoy the city. Eat, drink and be merry. Visit a few restaurants.
Here are my top New Orleans restaurant choices, (most of them) within walking distance of the Harrah's Casino:
Tommy's Cuisine (746 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-581-1103). A local barber told me about this magnificent place. With lots of small tables often packed to full capacity, owner Tommy Andrade's warehouse district gem combines Italian and Creole cooking. Phenomenal seafood is offered.
I've dined at Tommy's three times. It's one of the few places I've eaten at multiple times where every meal was memorable. One time it was so crowded that my wife and I were invited to join another couple, and we enjoyed our meal with complete strangers. Tommy's is that kind of place.
Antoine's Restaurant (713 Rue Saint Louis, in the French Quarter, 504-581-4422). This is one of my top five restaurants of all time. This French-Creole institution and time capsule has been around for 160 years. Impeccable service and atmosphere. The inside resembles a museum more than a restaurant. Everyone should try this place at least once in their lifetime. For dessert, the Baked Alaska is not to be missed.
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen (416 Chartres St., 504-524-7394). I have to give props to owner Paul Prudhomme, the world-famous chef who is also a regular in the Harrah's New Orleans poker room. He's been the honorary host of the Bayou Poker Challenge a few times and has his own line of cooking products. K-Paul's is known for its blackened redfish. But everything on the menu that I've tasted is fabulous.
Bon Ton Cafe (401 Magazine St., 504 524-3386). This is a great lunch place where you can get in and out in 45 minutes. Lots of simple fare. Reasonable prices. It's just a three-minute walk from Harrah's. The red-brick freestanding building bills itself as the oldest authentic Creole restaurant in the city. Very much a local's hangout.
The Creole Skillet (200 Julia St., 504-304-6318). A new restaurant located about a five-minute walk from the Harrah's Casino, straight down Fulton St. toward the Warehouse District. Very creative menu complete with menu items you won't find anywhere else. Remarkable attention to detail for a restaurant so modestly priced.
Morton's of Chicago (365 Canal Street, 504-566-0221). Although this is an outpost of a popular chain, the New Orleans location is truly special. It has to be in a city with so much competition. Morton's is located directly across the street from Harrah's, up an elevator adjacent to a shopping mall.
There's also a Ruth's Chris on the opposite end of the casino. But I give the nod to the undisputed king of power dinners, where I've shared great meals with Robert Williamson III, Chad Brown, Eric Harkins, Ken Lambert and other poker pals.
Galatoire's (209 Bourbon St., in the French Quarter, 504-525-2021). A smaller version of my favorite Antoine's, with world-class cuisine that's just about as good (Gourmet actually ranks Galatoire's higher). Traditional atmosphere - like dining back in time. Few concessions seem to have been made here in the last 75 years, although the dress code was finally relaxed which means a coat is no longer required (so most poker players will now fit right in). This usually packed restaurant does not accept reservations. It's so good that it doesn't have to. Best trout almandine I've ever tasted.
Palace Cafe (605 Canal St., 504-523-1661). Despite the fact that it's part of the famed Dickie Brennen restaurant family, I wouldn't place this in the top 10. But for a great meal that is sure convenient, affordable and certain to please just about anyone, the Palace Cafe is a perfect stop. It's just a five-minute walk north of Harrah's on Canal St., en route to Bourbon St. and the French Quarter. Large open seating area in an urbanized streetfront atmosphere. Try the pecan-crusted trout - it's fabulous.
Grand Isle Seafood (575 Convention Center Blvd., 504-520-8530). Like my previous recommendation, this is not really a top-tier restaurant. But it's only about three minutes away from the poker tournament room by foot and gets high marks for convenience, affordability and consistency. I've dined here at least a dozen times - always leaving satisfied. Fresh appetizers, salads and seafood. Good bar that serves local brew Abita on tap. I dare you to drink just one.
Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St.). This place is world-famous for two things - deep-fried beignets and chicory coffee. Not really a restaurant so much as a cafe and great street theater to people-watch. Tiger, my poker comrade, once remarked about Cafe du Monde: "If you were to sit here for the next 50 years, everyone who is anyone is eventually going to come through and visit this place at least once." He's right.
It's a 15-minute walk down the riverfront. However, there is now a much closer location to the Harrah's Casino, located inside the Riverwalk Marketplace (no atmosphere). Try it for breakfast or a snack. Warning: You will end up with powdered sugar all over your clothes.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Try any of these recommended restaurants and it won't matter what happens at the poker table. You're sure to be a winner.
Note: In upcoming blogs, I'll be giving more restaurant and show reviews from various cities with major poker events.