Besides the food and the music, New Orleans also has the best watering holes
As I stood in front of Sidney’s Saloon, at the corner of St. Bernard and St. Claude avenues, a divine realization came over me: The reason we love New Orleans is not only because of the food and the music but also because of all the great bars. New Orleans has the most corner bars per capita than any other city in the nation. Some cities have an abundance of great colleges, hospitals or parks (and we certainly have those), but New Orleans also has a plethora of great neighborhood bars. Mostly located on corners where two intersections meet, the neighborhood bar is at a crossroads, not just of streets but of lives. Whether it’s Downtown or Uptown, neighborhood bars are New Orleans institutions, where distinct and diverse souls come together.
Neighborhood bars have replaced the mega-club or music club as the preferred destination for hipsters and non-hipsters alike. Depending on whom you ask, the ingredients of a great neighborhood bar may include cheap drinks, an unusual jukebox, friendly bartenders, a pool table or all of the above. After years of taking these bars for granted, I decided to take a fresh look at some of my favorites.
700 Burgundy St. (corner of St. Peter)
Not to be confused with Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye’s “club” of the same name, this 700 Club has bathrooms that are marked “Adam” and “Steve.” Locals Mike Cookmeyer and Matt Giglio have opened a refreshingly new outpost for the alternative-lifestyle-friendly audience. With videos blaring the latest from Beyoncé and Madonna, this bar is a cross between a funky French Quarter lounge and a neighborhood bar for the beautiful people. Mike’s mom is a steady presence at this truly local establishment. The bartenders are friendly, and you are bound to know one or two or three of the chic and fabulous who visit.
2040 Burgundy St. (corner of Frenchmen)
The John, aptly named after the toilets that serve as seats, is open 24 hours. A true service-industry bar, the John has some of the cheapest drinks Downtown. Domestic beers are $2.50 and cocktails begin at $3.25; an added bonus are the cold mason jars that are served with each beer. Although the jukebox leans toward hard rock, the walls of the John are covered with vintage album covers ranging from Fats Domino to Carole King. With a big-screen TV and a pool table in the back, the John attracts people all day and all night.
1200 St. Bernard Ave. (corner at St. Claude)
Sidney’s Saloon is Kermit Ruffins’ latest enterprise, and it is one of the most authentic neighborhood bars in the city. Soon to be renamed Kermit’s Jazz Saloon, the Treme institution features a jukebox that includes Sammy Davis Jr., Beyoncé, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye and more. Sidney’s is home to Kermit and many of his musician friends. It is sprinkled with an array of well-dressed oldtimers and some funky hipsters. While my friends and I sat at the bar, an older gentlemen who was all dressed up—tiepin and all—told me stories about the days when St. Bernard Avenue was the place to be. With a stage area and a full kitchen, where Kermit, depending on the day, whips up crawfish, turkey necks or red beans and rice, Sidney’s is one of the last surviving saloons in the city!
800 Lessepps St. (corner of Dauphine)
Thursday nights with Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s is legendary. Both locals and visitors from around the world know about this storied venue. During Jazz Fest, you are lucky to get in. However, as our permanent Thursday-night destination, we always manage to squeeze into this neighborhood hangout. Vaughan’s is the closest thing to Studio 54 that we have in New Orleans. With famous actors mingling with musicians, captains of industry and college students, Thursday night at Vaughan’s beckons everyone from near and far. Proprietors Robyn and Cindy can always be found at the end of the bar, and the red beans and rice will always be served during the setbreak. Life is good at Vaughan’s.
THE GOLDEN LANTERN
1239 Royal St. (corner of Governor Nicholls)
As the official home of Southern Decadence, the Golden Lantern boasts the smallest performance stage in the entire French Quarter. A popular bar for locals of every persuasion, the Golden Lantern is the source of the best Margarita and best Bloody Mary in the entire city. With two cocktail hours (8 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 9 p.m.), the bar welcomes all and features a myriad of specials including $6 beer pitchers. As the home of Donnie Jay, a former Southern Decadence grand marshal, the Golden Lantern is steeped in Southern Decadence history, and rumor has it that Decadence was actually created here. Commissioned photographs of past grand marshals dot the walls along with a full-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe. Musically, divas rule and video monitors anchor the bar. This is one of the friendliest bars in the city, so don’t be surprised if a stranger offers to buy you a cocktail. He may even be buying for the whole bar!
4301 Burgundy St. (corner of Lessepps)
Located deep in the Bywater, BJ’s Lounge is one of those bars that gives the impression of only welcoming Bywater residents. No need to worry. During my last visit, my friend and I—not exactly Bywater types—were dressed to the nines. We parked the Lexus near the entrance, and the bartender buzzed us in. We promptly sat at the bar, ordered two beers (which only cost $6) and took in the ambience. Much to our surprise, the bartender was quite friendly and made us feel welcomed. The most skilled set designer couldn’t replicate BJ’s decor, which is a hodgepodge of tiki bar meets the bowery. With upside-down Chinese umbrellas dotting the ceiling and a fullscale racing car over the pool table, you can’t help but feel as if you have entered an alternate universe. While a cute transplant from San Diego played a game of pool by himself, I sauntered to the jukebox where I selected “Tell Mama,” by Etta James, and “I Feel Good,” by James Brown, along with an unrecognized James Booker tune. We began to dance as the 10 other people in the bar barely blinked an eye. As we cheered on the stranger from San Diego, my friend and I toasted to being at one the coolest private parties in the Bywater.