A handful of cities are blessed with bars of character and of characters. And there are cities where the bars are actually the storehouses of culture. New Orleans is both of those kinds of town.
Our bars are not the same as bars every place else. They are not even the same as each other. New Orleans bars are reflections of their surroundings. They are destinations within neighborhoods, filled with neighbors and dialects, artwork and furniture, glassware and plastic ware, neon signage and underwear. New Orleans’ neighborhood bars are repositories of our culture.
Every neighborhood in this town (which is filled with neighborhoods) boasts at least several bars where, if you live within a few blocks, everyone truly does know your name, your mama’s name, where you went to school, who you work for, why you don’t go to church any more and what your costumes were for Mardi Gras over the last 10 years.
Here, in our humble opinion, are bars in neighborhoods that define the neighborhood because they’re important social gathering spots for residents and visitors alike.
There may be better bars than the ones we have listed, but there may not be better neighborhood bars. Then again, maybe we could have this discussion over a few drinks at your favorite neighborhood watering hole.
All phone numbers have a 504 area code.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Supposedly the “business” front for infamous picaroon Jean Lafitte, and also rumored to be the oldest bar in America. Neither is probably true. Here you are as likely to find a friend from Burgundy, France, as you are a neighbor who lives on Burgundy Street. 941 Bourbon St., 593-9761, LafittesBlacksmithShop.com
Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill. Rusticity done to a turn but with honest drinks, cold beer and some mighty fine burgers. 727 St. Peter St., 522-1125, YoMamasBarandGrill.com
Johnny White’s. Our grandchildren will tell the tales of this bar remaining open throughout the terrible days after Hurricane Katrina. It was already a truly local hangout spot. Now it’s in the hall of fame. Dog-friendly and how! 720 Bourbon St., 524-4909, JohnnyWhitesNeverClosed.com
Pirate’s Alley Café. No end to pirate places in the French Quarter, but this bar, at the side door of the Cathedral, really did have a ringside view of our early seagoing residents delivering “borrowed” English goods to the priests. Located next to the Faulkner House, where the great writer lived. 622 Pirate’s Alley, 524-9332, PiratesAlleyCafe.com
Cosimo’s. The ultimate Lower French Quarter social club. Second-floor pool tables, darts and dog-friendly. If the Saints are your passion, this is your place, along with some of the best bar food in the French Quarter. 1201 Burgundy St., 522-9715
Three Muses. The newcomer that looks and feels like it’s been here since the ’50s – the 1850s. Always-packed bar, few tables and a handkerchief-sized stage. Drinks, fine food, entertainment. Smoke-free. 536 Frenchmen St., 298-8746, TheThreeMuses.com
d.b.a. The building has been here since the war – the one between the states. Menu boards, broad drink selection, cramped seating. If you can’t find a seat, no worries; the music will have you on your feet the whole time. 618 Frenchmen St., 942-3731, dbaBars.com
Checkpoint Charlie’s. Completely schizoid. They aren’t certain if they’re near a college campus or a really rough neighborhood (neither). Energy and music of all kinds abound. Pool tables, food, drinks, coin laundry. That sounds about right. 501 Esplanade Ave., 281-4847
Buffa’s. Please don’t spread the word that they have the best burgers in New Orleans; let’s just keep it our little secret. Smoke-free back room. Never-closed hours of operation. A reflection of the 1930s in a neighborhood that pre-dates them by about 100 years. 1001 Esplanade Ave., 949-0038, BuffasBar.com
Mimi’s in the Marigny. Eclectic. A repository for characters, mostly from here, a few from out of town who have found their way here. There is the pool table and an unexpected tapas menu, which would shine in many fine-dining establishments. It is your turn to break. Pass the escargot. 2601 Royal St., 872-9868, MimisInTheMarigny.net
Saturn Bar. Defies categorization. Neon lights the place like noontime. Obviously a really kitschy garage sale exploded in the area and the stuff landed here. Giant drawing of Saturn on the ceiling. Amazing jukebox. 3067 St. Claude Ave., 949-7532
Bud Rip’s Old 9th Ward Bar. Throwback to the days when workers drank before, during and after the job. Pressed-tin ceilings and cigar humidor in the back. Old photos of boxers. Faded American flag. Cheap drinks. 900 Piety St., 945-5762
BJ’s Lounge. Real Old New Orleans – neighborhood gentrification is happening someplace else. The jukebox is crammed with Crescent City artists. (It isn’t on when bluesman Little Freddie King is performing.) The regulars are up-to-date on all the political news and happenings in town. Just ask them. Cheap drinks. Beer is in the fridge. 4301 Burgundy St., 945-9256
Vaughn’s Lounge. On Thursday, late, Kermit Ruffins is barbecuing and/or playing. Can get crowded even with the long bar up against the “stage” and all. Enter through the side door. They will buzz you in. The building isn’t going to fall down … probably. 800 Lesseps St., 947-5562
Fat Harry’s. Wings, burgers and beer – the basic food groups of college students. They are here. Easy streetcar ride from Uptown or downtown. Sports on the TVs, and pool tables are always occupied. Sit outside on a pretty evening. 4330 St. Charles Ave., 895-9582, FatHarrysNewOrleans.com
The Columns. Nineteenth-century Old South in New Orleans. Legendary late-night respite on the front gallery under the moss-draped oaks of St. Charles Avenue. Or slow it all down in the aptly named Victorian Lounge, with scads of mahogany and a cozy fire. Many nights feature live music. 3811 St. Charles Ave., 899-9308, TheColumns.com
Delachaise. The oddest-shaped building on St. Charles Avenue. On the avenue side is a large area for al fresco drinking and dining. Inside are long seating spaces where shoulder-to-shoulder is the way it goes. Great wines and beers. The kitchen is often off the chart in creating interesting dishes. Smoke-free inside. 3442 St. Charles Ave., 895-0858, TheDelachaise.com
Bouligny Tavern. Tres chic and yet so comfortable. Even the driveway is in play here, with tables and chairs where the Packard used to be parked off-street. An excellent drink list alongside gourmet bar bites of Chef John Harris’ creation and design. 3641 Magazine St., 891-1810, BoulignyTavern.com
Avenue Pub. Beer lovers, unite! Here! Draft beers and countless numbers of labels in a we-never-close, hops-driven atmosphere. Munich and Milwaukee have nothing on this place. 1732 St. Charles Ave., 586-9243, TheAvenuePub.com
Maple Leaf. Music, music, music, beer, poetry readings, students, alums and wannabes. Living proof that growing up is highly overrated. The Leaf soldiers on. 8316 Oak St., 866-9359, MapleLeafBar.com
Cooter Brown’s Tavern and Oyster Bar. Original whimsical art of famous people and their favorite beers, sandwiches of every description and a funky atmosphere, all within view of a huge levee holding back the Mississippi, make Cooter Brown’s special and appealing. 504 S. Carrollton Ave., 866-9104, CooterBrowns.com
Robert’s Bar and Liquor Store. Earthy, not a pretentious bone in its body. Cheap drinks. Smoky. Good jukebox. Nice folks behind the bar. Ping-pong. Dog-friendly. Walking distance to Turchin, Tulane’s baseball stadium. 3125 Calhoun St., 866-9121
Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. The lighted wreath on the door of this shed is a giveaway that the place ain’t quite right. But it is, and it’s a dive. A real, self-professed, self-evident, proud-to-proclaim-itself dive. Open every night, including Christmas. 7612 Oak St., 861-2802, SnakeandJakes.com
Bruno’s Tavern. The new digs are nice, but maybe a little too sterile for a place called Bruno’s. The crowds are a mixed group of Uptown professionals relaxing and upscale college students feeling out where their first career job may be coming from. The people who can hire them are in the room. 7538 Maple St., 861-7615, BrunosTavern.com
Ste. Marie. A place to “hang” for the new class of CBD residents. Very contemporary in an urban Los Angeles kind of way. The walls are covered in art that, upon close examination, shows the engineering map of New Orleans’ downtown area as it looked in 1884. A large champagne tower is an entry feature. 930 Poydras St., 304-6988, SteMarieNola.com
The Rusty Nail. Bit of a geographic stretch here to include this place in the Warehouse District. The Rusty Nail cocktail is a Scotch-and-Drambuie-based drink, and these folks make a good one. New Orleans jazz music. No smoking. Parking lot. 1100 Constance St., 525-5515, TheRustyNail.biz
Mid-City Yacht Club. Hurricane Katrina blew a lot of boats around, but not this far inland. The closest this neighborhood is to navigable water is more than a few miles, as the crow flies. Never mind. Some of the ceilings are floorboards from a Katrina-flooded home. This is the rebuilt pride of a neighborhood, albeit one you don’t just drive by. For you to visit this place, it has to be your destination. 440 S. St. Patrick St., 483-2517, MidCityYachtClub.com
Mick’s Irish Pub. Irish, no. A great neighborhood pub, yes. Mick’s is pretty good-sized and there always seem to be places to sit. A great cast of characters, cold beer, video games, pool, ping-pong and a comfortable feel. Dog-friendly. 4801 Bienville St., 482-9113
Bayou Beer Garden. A relative newcomer but definitely an up-and-comer. In the heart of Mid-City, this welcoming watering hole has lots of outdoor seating including the quiet back area with waterfalls and lush foliage, all set in a classic building. Bar bites and a sandwich menu. 326 N. Jefferson Davis Parkway, 302-9357, BayouBeerGarden.com
Finn McCool’s Irish Pub. The proprietors are from Belfast so they should know how to operate an Irish bar, even in New Orleans. Every night there’s some activity happening here like pub quizzes and darts, and football (soccer) is usually on the telly. Now serving Boo-Koo Barbecue out of a side window. 3701 Banks St., 486-9080, FinnMcCools.com
Beer – The right temperature
Aren’t those frosted mugs served by neighborhood bars in New Orleans just the best? Plenty of weight to the glass, lots of volume and cold, cold beer, often with ice floating just below the foam-line.
A big plate of fried soft-shell crabs and a mug of cold beer – that’s a New Orleans two-course feast.
But it’s wrong. Beer isn’t made to be served that cold. When you take the temperature of a beer that far below 45 degrees – and in a frozen mug it’s probably around 37 degrees – you have eliminated certain flavors and aromas that make beer such a great beverage.
Serve beer, depending on the style, somewhere between 45 and 55 degrees and you’ll enjoy what the brewmaster intended.
Unless, of course, you aren’t dealing with a very expensive beer; then those frozen mugs make some sense because, if the beer has no fine, subtle qualities, you aren’t eliminating anything. You are just having a cold, frosty beverage. Prost!
Walkin’ in New Orleans
One of this city’s great contributions to world culture, and I don’t think we are overstating the case here, is the go-cup.
Walking around and drinking alcoholic beverages is a right we take for granted and at which our visitors marvel. Try leaving a bar with a drink in just about any other town. You won’t get far. Not even to the door.
Several drinks come to the forefront when we talk about this topic, the biggest two being the Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s and the Hand Grenade from Tropical Isle. Both are located on or just steps from Bourbon Street. Big surprise!
In Pat O’Brien’s case the drink is laden with rums, fruit juices, simple syrup and grenadine. You can substitute the word “sugar” for every one of those ingredients. The drink was invented, it’s said, by O’Brien himself, who bought a huge quantity of rum for a deal he couldn’t pass up in the 1940s. Then he hit upon the really cool idea of creating a drink and serving it in a glass the shape of the hurricane lamps that were in heavy use locally for years.
In the case of the Hand Grenade, Pam Fortner and Earl Bernhardt, owners of Tropical Isle, wanted to create a special drink commemorating the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair. The Hand Grenade is a combination of gin, grain alcohol, rum, vodka and melon liqueur, a rather overwhelming combination of ingredients that don’t do well near open flames.
As you stroll around the French Quarter, you’ll see multiple uniquely shaped containers in various stages of consumption. You will also note that the mental facilities of the person holding the container are directly related to the contents remaining in the container. The Hand Grenade is served with a little plastic “pellet” full of alcohol that’s supposed to float in the drink or have the contents squeezed into the concoction. Sort of a prize like the toy in the Cracker Jack box.
Then there’s the alternative plan, which is to purchase a really cheap beer and amble about with your “suds.” Check out The Chart Room, located at Chartres at Bienville streets, for a non-watered down, fairly priced brew.
But whatever you do, don’t walk around with empty hands. People won’t know what to make of you. Visitor who still doesn’t get it? Stuffy local? Killjoy?