November 5, 2004
In Baton Rouge, La.
By PABLEAUX JOHNSON
OR a midsize industrial city, Baton Rouge, La., wears many hats: state capital, petrochemical hub, college town. Situated about 80 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, it is Louisiana's second-largest city and home to Louisiana State University and its fighting Tiger football team. Last year's finish as N.C.A.A. co-champions was a godsend to lifelong fans, but rabid L.S.U. boosters turn out for every home game regardless of the win-loss record; fanatical school spirit tends to run in families and to span many generations. If you travel to Baton Rouge for a home game, be prepared for a full-contact spectator experience as Tiger Town roars to life.
First, the costume. Stop by the L.S.U. campus for a leisurely stroll on the oak-shaded paths and stock up on at least one piece of school-branded purple and gold attire — the bare minimum for game day. Hit the racks at the L.S.U. Bookstore on the first floor of the Student Union building (225-578-5137).
L.S.U. comes by its party school reputation honestly, which means that Baton Rouge depends heavily on good bar food. Head out to George's Restaurant (2943 Perkins Road, 225-343-2363), a low-slung brick building in the shadow of a highway overpass, and get ready for a night of outstanding Louisiana barroom specialties. Start off with a cup of rich chicken and sausage gumbo ($3.95), chunky with smoked sausage and soothing on a brisk autumn night. Other portions are anything but controlled: a platter of thin-cut fried catfish filets ($7.75) could easily feed two; the Doug's Special ($8.95) — a hamburger steak topped with gravy, ham, cheese, grilled onions and bacon — weighs in at more than a pound and is a savory, glorious mess for the fearless carnivore.
Grab breakfast at the Red Stick Farmers' Market, which runs until noon near the Main Street Market (501 Main Street, 225-267-5060). Sweet local citrus fruits, including irresistible mandarin-like satsumas, are at their peak now and go perfectly with cinnamon rolls or rich sweet potato pies from the bakers' tables. If you're craving a warmer way to start your day, pop into the Capital Corner Market and Newsstand (504 North Fifth Street, 225-336-9730) for a crêpe stuffed with egg, ham and cheese ($4.25) or with bananas Foster ($4.95).
A short walk toward the river brings you to the Old State Capitol building, below, home to the state's Museum of Political History (100 North Boulevard, 800-488-2968). This striking, castle-like 1850 structure was the seat of state government until 1932. The museum's most popular exhibit focuses on Huey P. Long, the legendary Depression-era governor known as the Kingfish. Several rooms explore Long's storied career, his populist politics and his assassination in 1935. In one room, his words come alive, electronically speaking, as a Disney-style animatronic statue of Long lectures museumgoers on a variety of subjects, including his public works projects, presidential ambitions and, of course, his abiding love for L.S.U. football.
With lunchtime approaching, it's time to head across the river and toward the swampy wetlands west of the city. A trip across the towering Mississippi River Bridge on Interstate 10 affords you an aerial view of Baton Rouge and the three major industries that sustain it: the oddly picturesque chemical refineries that form the city's economic backbone, the towering state Capitol building and to the left, the hulking visage of Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley. About 15 miles later, Exit 139 (Grosse Tete-Rosedale) puts you on Louisiana State Highway 77. Head north on the two-lane road running beside Bayou Grosse Tete, a slow-moving tributary that cuts through sugar cane fields. With moss-draped oaks dipping into chocolate-brown water, it gives you a taste of Louisiana's verdant bayou country.
A few miles before the tiny hamlet of Livonia, you will spy a nondescript general store on the left, usually surrounded by a cluster of vehicles flying L.S.U. flags — a sure sign of fans on the move. The renovated store is actually a restaurant in disguise, Joe's Dreyfus Store Restaurant (2731 Highway 77, Livonia,; 225-637-2625). This unassuming roadhouse serves up straight-ahead Cajun specialties like crawfish étouffée ($13.50) and gelatinous hogshead cheese ($3.50) along with surprisingly sophisticated dishes including light and flavorful sautéed frog's legs in a Provençal-style wine and tomato sauce ($7.50 for an appetizer portion).
By now, you're ready to enter Death Valley, preferably by taxi. Since L.S.U. home games attract crowds of more than 90,000, it's best to leave the driving to the professionals. Yellow Cab (225-926-6400) has the largest fleet in town. Ask the driver to drop you off at the southern edge of Tiger Stadium. The area around the stadium becomes one big party zone. In "Touchdown Village," tailgating goes into the realm of performance art. Expansive parking lots are packed with colossal motor homes, each decked out with amenities like commercial deep fryers, high-wattage karaoke machines, keg-sized refrigerators and big-screen satellite TV's. Well-off L.S.U. fans seem to share a dream — to bring their living rooms within shouting distance of the stadium, whether or not they have a seat inside for the game.
As game time nears, throngs of fans move toward the gates, signaling prime time for scalpers and last-minute ticket buyers. For unranked or unpopular teams, tickets are easy to find, but for conference rivals or historic enemies (like Alabama or Ole Miss), you can either auction off your firstborn or head for a nearby sports bar. To the south, there's the multi-screen newcomer, Walk-On's Bistreaux and Bar (3838 Burbank Drive, 225-757-8010), with a wraparound bank of plasma screens and the electrifying ambience of a stock exchange trading pit. Closer to campus, the Varsity Theater (3353 Highland Road, 225-383-7018) has TigerVision projected on two large screens, comfortable balcony seating, and three bars, no waiting.
Win or lose, Louie's Cafe (209 West State Street, 225-346-8221), a greasy spoon just outside the campus gates, is the place for Sunday morning quarterbacking, wager collection or discussions on the Tigers' post-season prospects. Tuck into a plate of crunchy pecan waffles ($3.50) or a huge platter of garlic-spiked hash browns smothered in melted cheese ($3.95). Louie's is open 24 hours, but the Sunday morning crowds start gathering around 9; stragglers end up sitting on the cafe's cement stoop with nattily dressed parishioners fresh from Sunday services.
On the way out of town, stop in for a peaceful self-guided tour of the Louisiana State Capitol (North Third Street at State Capitol Drive, 225-342-7317), a monument to the vision and power of the Kingfish. In September 1935, Long, a United States senator at the time, was killed by a single bullet from an assassin's gun in a marble-lined back hallway. There is a small exhibit on the shooting and perhaps a lasting structural reminder — a mark on a marble column said to have been left by a bullet from a bodyguard's gun. Long's grave is on the Capitol grounds, topped with his likeness in bronze — bigger than life and gazing into the future.
Visiting Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge is 80 miles northwest of New Orleans on Interstate 10. Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines, American Airlines and Northwest Airlines fly into Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport from major cities in the South.
The 300-room Sheraton Baton Rouge Convention Center Hotel (102 France Street, 225-242-2600) is close to downtown sights and museums. It is attached to the Argosy, a riverboat casino. Rooms start at $99 and sell out quickly for weekends with L.S.U. home games, when a $6 round-trip shuttle runs between the hotel and Tiger Stadium.
A bit farther afield, the Stockade (8860 Highland Road, 225-769-7358), a bed-and-breakfast, offers five homey rooms from $100 to $175 a night.