On early visits to the bar d.b.a., not long after it first opened in New Orleans, I couldn’t decide if I just didn’t fit in or if the bar itself was out of place. The owners operate another bar of the same name in Manhattan, and they replicated many of its features in their New Orleans expansion, from the dark woodwork to the blackboards dangling above with the bar’s high-end liquor selection scripted in chalk. It charged higher prices for better stuff, and the crowd veered heavily toward yuppies and suburban imports.
During that period, I was afflicted with the common and virulent New Orleans notion that shabbiness equals authenticity, as if every club in the city had to look like a Saturn Bar rummage sale to feel legit. To this parochial view, the hand of deliberate interior design at d.b.a. rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed like a slice of the East Village had landed in the heart of New Orleans’ growing, locals-oriented entertainment district. I went there often enough, though I kind of sneered at it.
I have since reformed my earlier prejudices, and d.b.a. has changed a bit, too, though all of its original defining elements persist, and you certainly will see more medical students and junior partners drinking $6 pints here than welders; bus drivers; and, say, casually employed journalists. But a surefire way for a New Orleans bar to build a space in locals’ hearts is to present local bands. And though I know many musicians wish this were not the case, the spoiled New Orleans crowd responds particularly warmly when clubs charge little or no cover. The once-tiny stage at d.b.a. was more than doubled during a renovation a few years back, which presaged a major expansion of its live music program. Today, a heavy line-up of local bands and light door charges are the calling cards of d.b.a. as much as its craft beer selection or fine bourbons.
The band calendar that has developed at d.b.a. has made the bar my favorite venue in town for live music, and I also love d.b.a. now for the options it presents. Because it is housed in two long, parallel, connected rooms, you can soak up the band and dance to its tunes on the stage side of the club or have a conversation on the other side. The four bench-lined window bays are perfect spots for catching up with friends while experiencing the music.
There is also the mattering of timing. More often than not, d.b.a. books two bands for the night, with the first beginning quite early. This means on a Sunday evening you can hear the always-fun, sometimes-zany, eminently danceable vintage jazz of the Palmetto Bug Stompers and later make an 8 p.m. dinner reservation or just call it an early night at the end of a weekend. On most Wednesdays this November, the world’s premier guitar-washboard-sousaphone trio, the Tin Men, play their fantastically eclectic sets at 7 p.m. and cede the stage to local blues or funk bands at 10 p.m.
As far as the d.b.a. crowd goes these days, that is largely up to the particular bands booked any given night. For instance, the music room surely will see people doing the Cajun two-step and waltz at this Friday’s late show when the Lafayette-based band the Lost Bayou Ramblers begins its revved-up rendition of traditional South Louisiana French music. And if Ramblers bassist Alan Lafleur happens to climb up on his sturdy upright instrument and balance on it like a surfboard as he continues playing –– as he has done in the past from time to time –– the room may briefly seem more like a rockabilly throw-down than a fais do do. The next night, however, when Creole soul and jazz crooner John Boutte takes up his standing early-evening Saturday gig, d.b.a. will be filled with attentive fans rapt for his slow numbers, clapping along with his up-tempo tunes and shooting glowering glances over to the chatty elements hollering on at the rear of the room.
In an interesting case of cross-pollination, a second New York d.b.a. has opened in Williamsburg. It too is modeled after the original, but also includes a Sunday afternoon menu featuring boudin, broiled oysters, boiled shrimp and muffulettas. If homesick New Yorkers can still find a dose of the East Village at d.b.a. on Frenchmen, it seems that New Orleanians on the road can get a taste of home at d.b.a. in Brooklyn. I just hope no one up there is as judgmental about the olive salad as I once was about d.b.a.’s early New Orleans incarnation.
d.b.a., 618 Frenchmen St., New Orleans, 504-942-3731