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YOU'RE ON THE BIG EASY'S STREETS

New Orleans tosses around a lot of mottos: the City that Care Forgot, the Big Easy, and in both French and English, Let the good times roll. But it is really a City of Temptations.

Tourists and conventioneers by the millions are tempted to indulge, then to overindulge. Memorable restaurant meals are the standard. Bars sell three drinks for the price of one and give you cups to carry the leftovers down the street. Signs at tiny clubs entice with the promise of "French-style orgy upstairs" or "All female impersonators you must see!!".

Between the glitz and the grit is the storied French Quarter, throbbing to match the current of the neighboring Mississippi River. The Quarter's attractions range from tawdry sex shows on notorious Bourbon Street to art galleries and antiques shops on Royal Street, one block over.

Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci and Brooks Brothers dominate the Canal Place mall. Three malls over but less than a mile away, prime merchandise in a flea market is lively plastic jewelery, exotic feather masks and fresh produce.

You can turn your back to the temptations by watching the paddlewheel ships and sturdy little tugs motor along the Mississippi, which is brown and not particularly wide as it passes New Orleans. That's relaxing.

Indeed, the riverfront, with its quaint trolleys, its malls and the spectacular new Aquarium of the Americas, offers a chance to pause against the current of the city.

It's about food

"This is Louisiana law you have to gain five pounds before you go back across the border," jokes cooking instructor Kevin Belton. He provides a mammoth example: Belton stands about 6-foot-6 and weighs more than 300 pounds.

"Never go on a diet before coming to New Orleans," he advises his 60 or so students at the New Orleans School of Cooking class. "Instead, eat seven or eight meals a day, for practice."

Not a bad idea. Most everyone who's been here comes back with restaurant recommendations. For my four-day trip last month, I cross-referenced guidebooks and several articles to narrow my list to 40 places.

From elegant jazz brunches to the relaxed Old Coffee Pot _ where a plump sparrow arrives each morning at 8 for biscuit crumbs _ we had only one unsatisfying meal. Still, there is the disappointment of not having had the time, or the capacity, to further sample my list. Temptations.

Instead of The Big Easy, they ought to nickname this The Big Eating, for food here is elevated beyond necessity to cultural pastime.

In the Creole Delicacies and Cajun Cookin' School shop in Riverwalk mall, a table holds a platter of crackers, surrounded by 20 kinds of spicy sauces and mustards: Cajun Sauce, Yucatan Sunshine, XXX Pepper Sauce, Power Garlic, Bottled Hell.

"Louisiana cooking has to be flavorful," Belton tells his cooking school class, "but it doesn't have to be hot."

That's right; it can be unashamedly sweet. Hence, the beignet (bin-YAY). It is sort of a doughnut etouffee _ fluffy squares of deep-fried pastries absolutely buried in powdered sugar. Beignets, 80 cents for three, and cafe au lait (chickory coffee with hot milk) are the standard order at Cafe du Monde, an open-all-night French Quarter coffee shop. The beignet is messy but delicious.

Throughout the city you can find great Southern dishes, nouvelle American, lovingly prepared seafood and the city's own sandwich-for-two, the muffaletta, which is also messy and delicious.

And daunting.

The muffaletta is usually made on a seeded, round bun 9 or 10 inches across. But as the hand-lettered sign assures customers in the Quarter's aromatic Central Grocery Co., All Muffalettas Are Sliced.

This Italian deli, in its 86th year, is said to be the birthplace of the muffaletta. Customers sidle about sideways through the cramped aisles, past a rainbow of exotic boxes and cans of imported edibles.

The muffaletta looks like it represents a cross-section of all these items, but actually it's layers of sliced sausages and cheeses, topped by an inch-thick lid of freshly chopped olives.

If you want just a snack, consider Gator on a Stick, a chewy sausage sold at the Crescent City microbrewery. Made with alligator meat, the spicy appetizer creates a perfect excuse to sample the four beers brewed there. Temptations.

It's about drink, too

If you decide to leave the bar but haven't finished your beer, just ask for a "go cup" and join the large minority of people wandering the streets and the malls carrying alcoholic drinks in plastic cups.

Within the Quarter's 85 or so blocks, there are bars large and small _ some of them selling only go-cup drinks from stands squeezed into doorways. They typically advertise 20-ounce beers for $1.85, or some version of New Orleans' famous Hurricane. This rum-based drink originated at Pat O'Brien's _ still considered the best no-gimmicks bar in the Quarter, if not the whole city.

While Pat O's offers an optional souvenir glass in the shape of a hurricane lantern, you can stop at the Court of Two Sisters' streetside bar for a watery, 32-ounce version. It's served in a plastic mug with a handle, to help you drink while strolling.

Or you can sit in the gritty rock or jazz bars any afternoon, and pay $6.75 for a Hurricane the waiters say has 151-proof rum and tequila. The one I had tasted merely of Hawaiian Punch.

"C'mon in, happy hour's going strong! It's three-for-one drinks inside!" calls the sidewalk barker to passers-by outside one bar. He's holding a large, Day-Glo orange signboard announcing the same message.

"Is happy hour starting now?" I ask, amused because it's just 3:30.

"No, it's been going on for a while, but we opened late today," the barker answers. "We open about 1 on Mondays and Tuesdays, because people are kind of tired from the weekend. We usually open about 11."

"So when does happy hour usually start?"

"When we open."

It's about music, too

Musicians in New Orleans come in a variety of shapes, sizes and numbers. The three short blocks of the French Market are popular with solo sidewalk acts: An elderly man plays ragtime and big-band era favorites on an upright piano, saxophonists and coronet players take turns by Cafe du Monde, just across the street from the Storyville jazz club and a block away from a darkened New Wave club.

Along rowdy Bourbon Street, blocked to vehicular traffic in the evenings, every third doorway seems to be a bar with live music (most of the other doorways are T-shirt shops).

The after-work office crowd throngs into the Cat's Meow, where the karaoke performers are shown on in-house TV sets. In narrow little bars such as the Tricou House, Doc Bernard Bryan is likely to be working the upright piano, accompanying Larry Schaffer's wonderfully gravelly voice, as they roll through an astonishing repertoire of jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll.

Here, too, you can find such name entertainers as Al Hirt and the Dukes of Dixieland. But most of the players are simply good, not famous.

Or you can take a cab out to Tipitina's, and be tempted to join the swirling fray in your version of the Cajun two-step.

Tip's was featured in the popular film The Big Easy, but it must have been gussied up by the set decorator for the movie. It's a narrow, featureless barn of a place, with two-thirds of the space given over to a dance floor of linoleum. The night I was there, the customers had to take turns at a few bar stools and four small tables.

Of course, you don't go to Tipitina's to sit down. You go to listen to great music, as the ad posters stapled to the overhead beams attest: Jerry Lee Lewis. Bonnie Raitt. Dr. John. King Sunny Ade. John and Trudy's Wedding Reception _ now that must have been a party.

And on Sundays, you go to Tip's for the fais do do, four hours of Cajun music, $1.25 beers and dancing. Lots of dancing.

The remarkable thing about the dancing is that during any given song, you'll see three or four tempos being danced to.

In cowboy boots, walking shoes, flats and loafers, the dancers twirl around, bobbing, sashaying and bouncing. A couple of the more enthusiastic types flail about, and the novice dancer can get bumped, elbowed and stepped on during even a slow number.

Still, this is a place to let the good times roll. To give in to temptation.

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