"Growing up, we would all pile in the car and drive from Meridian to New Orleans for the weekend. Meridian was a quiet, provincial, Bible-Belt town. Then, three hours away was Sodom and Gomorrah. I think the strangest part of it was Bourbon Street. I remember that pair of legs always swinging out of the topless bar. New Orleans is such an anomaly. It's not your daily bread. We would visit relatives and then do all the old standbys like Commander's Palace and Brennan's and walk around the Quarter. I remember eating in the restaurants with the flaming desserts and then, later, in high school, going down there for a friend's birthday party at Antoine's or Arnaud's and having lobster for the first time and baked Alaska for dessert. I had all of these culinary discoveries and also discovered the sort of dark side of life, given Bourbon Street. It was a gritty kind of a place and people were drunk everywhere and there was always a celebration. As a kid, I was just sort of wide-eyed. New Orleans teaches you early on the reality of life. You see people that are really down and out, and learn that it's not all sunshine. But it's also a lot of fun and is intriguing. Very seductive, that city."

SELA WARD'S NEW ORLEAN'S ESSENTIALS


LODGIN
Hotel Maison de Ville
$235-$250
(504) 561-5858

Soniat House
$195-$600
(504) 522-0570

Windsor Court Hotel
$300-$1,100
(504) 523-6000

DINING
Acme Oyster House
seafood; $7-$14
(504) 522-5973

Antoine's
French/Creole; $13-$50
(504) 581-4422

Arnaud's
Creole; $39-$50
(504) 523-5433

Bayona
French/Mediterranean; $15-$26
(504) 525-4455

Café Du Monde
coffee/beignets; $2 and up
(504) 525-4544

Camellia Grill American; $5-$7
(504) 866-9573