Originally published in New Orleans magazine, 2006.
The lively crowd I walked into at Molly’s at the Market one Monday night at 3 a.m., after the Saints kicked dirty-bird butt, was a rare and beautiful thing. Most post-Katrina Mondays Molly’s has been more of a krewe of tew – I only know because this is a regular one-beer drop-by for me after my midnight jazz show on WWOZ (now housed by the French Market.) This night, the bar is filled with loaded fans and happy television production workers. I talk with an assistant producer at CNN and an ex-native happy to return and share the camp-meeting feeling of the Superdome revival … in a late-night world often colored by soundless ESPN, Molly’s may be the last bar in America without a TV.
Playing pool at the Old Point Bar once with jazz drummer Calvin Weston two years ago, I heard the surprise in his voice when he said, “People think New York’s a 24-hour city. This is a 24-hour city.” Well, things ain’t what they used ta be – as Duke Ellington once swung that commonplace thought into philosophy – and we lack the tourists, the workforce, the population, and the devil-may-care (but we done forgot) spirit of that all-night time. Still, if you’re looking for food, company or trouble – or all three – check the directory for drug stores and gas stations, and come with me to where the late, late-night swamplight shines. This is still a bohemia where many joints are officially open “till” – a non-word that somehow sums up the city’s anarchical impulses.
Start with what you know: the Thursday-night Vaughan’s Lounge ritual with Kermit. He’s often on tour these days but his replacements have been stellar – whether trombonist Corey Henry’s hellacious band or Troy Andrews’ Orleans Avenue. Located deep in the Bywater, Vaughan’s is the 1970s bar of your dreams – if you remember the ‘70s, that is, or your dreams. If you don’t, it’s a laid-back, old-school, bi-level neighborhood joint with cheap drinks, Mardi Gras tinsel and a dance floor next to the bandstand. The music runs 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. (give or take), the big pot of rice & beans shows up around 11 p.m. (give or take), and the easy low-key hang runs until 5 a.m. (give or take). It gets way too hot in here, but that only increases the social circulation, sending folks onto the outside benches that wrap around the corner bar. This last visit, the Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews band pelted the room with power ballads grafted onto jam-band funk for the first set (not a good thing) then settled into a tighter, jazzier second set. There were two highlights. First, a bullfight-themed brass-blasting “St. James Infirmary,” with Cab Calloway hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hos and Andrews leading the audience in call-and-response. Then, in the midst of a generic funk groove, two black women slid off their barstools and sync’d into an Electric Slide in front of the band, one so fluid and shimmying that people burst into applause twice ... and when the band locked into the women’s moves, quoting Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” everyone gathered ‘round and the house got its collective freak on.
Heading back toward the Quarter, the late, late-night life is down to the stalwart Markey’s Bar (winds down between 1 and 3 a.m.) and the Mardi Gras Zone, a former bead warehouse that’s in the process of morphing into a 24/7 super-grocery. Down the left side of the bunker my female companion drifted, fingering beads, wigs, boas, hardware and paintball supplies, and then we came down the right side to stare incomprehendingly at the full line of dairy products, the fruits and vegetables, the bread and cheese. The Zone’s owner hopes to fill the gap left by the loss of neighborhood supermarkets (e.g., Robert’s on St. Claude), and as Bill and Ginger told us, every week a rack of masks goes out and a new cooler comes in. Wine, beer, fish and cheese are all on the way. Along with the Walgreen’s on St. Charles, the Zone’s all there is now for that late beer-groceries-and-Advil run.
Besides, it’s down the block from Mimi’s, where the boho spirit reigns at 3 a.m. over food industry workers just off-shift, E/R medical personnel, subculturalists of all kinds, and of course, artists and slackers. There’s a jazzed calm in the room, people simply talking to – not performing at – each other. At the tables along the wall, candles rise into mirrors that reflect a certain Spanish-mission quality the room has only on late weeknights, given the weekend crowds for Soul Sister’s DJ parties. Just as important is the excellent selection of tapas (hot and cold) until 3 a.m. If it gets too mellow, hit Big Daddy’s across the street – a 24/7 gay bar where someone will always dance with you. If it’s too social, there’s the R Bar, where nearly everyone will allow you to hunker down in a corner with a beer or a companion. Now let’s head down Frenchman since about half of the city’s all-night action probably takes place in a half-mile radius of the corner of Esplanade and Decatur streets.
Frenchman & Its Environs
One Sunday night ramble began with Tim Green’s sax solo at Snug Harbor, as he pealed off a bent, descending riff so soulful he lifted his leg like a flamingo to hold it, then stomped his foot down to free up the melody; then, after a deep penguin dip to the floor, he came up powerful and straight and honked his way to glory – literally marching back into the theme, right leg then left, until the band took it away. I rode the solo’s arc over to the new (24/7) Zotz – a high-ceilinged gray bohemia with comfortable chairs, pastries and sandwiches, and the graveyard shift’s java priestess, Emily of the blood-red dreadlocks. Readers, sleepers, writers and re-fuelers drape across the chairs, but (Emily says) business falls off after 3 or 4 a.m. A few months back, recent robberies and violence forced some early closings, but recent arrests have helped bring some confidence back. On weekends, the blasting shows of the refurbished Dragon’s Den upstairs, create an upstairs/downstairs circuit of the loud and the restless.
Crowds on Frenchman remain thin compared to pre-Katrina levels, but weekends still bump until 3:30 a.m. or so, as d.b.a., Cafe Brazil, and Ray’s Boom Boom Room wind down. The last man standing (or lying down) will be swept out of the Apple Barrel, a place no bigger than its name, where anytime of night a gaggle of drunkards wave liquid wisdom from the rusted chairs outside – and yet, I’ve never heard a smart cracker-barrel word from this Greek chorus. It was hard to squeeze into this joint in pre-Katrina days but now you can just grab a space at the bar and absorb the distorted, snake-crawling bluesiana for which it is famous, especially if Coco Robicheaux’s playing.
When it’s time to grease the drunken beast, head over to 13, the best late-night food on the post-Katrina partyscape. The kitchen’s open until 4 a.m., but it’s not just the food: the place has character, a sharp-witted staff and a wakeful level of hubbub. There are slow-cooked sandwiches, custom pizzas, good appetizers and overhead, a flat-screen TV shows movies as if from God’s third eye. In the thick, humid, early-October soup, I was cooled off by a frozen Irish coffee while watching Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and refusing the bruschetta temptations of Kim the Bartender. Didn’t matter that Gus Van Sant didn’t quite capture Sissy Hankshaw’s hijacking the ‘60s vortex; Uma Thurman sure looked the part and besides, at 13, after half an hour, you’re usually trading jokes with the cook or a fellow sot at the bar. The place is level-on-the-level (to quote John Prine) and every neighborhood should have one.
It’s true that the grill at Checkpoint Charlie’s is open 24/7, but you can only get something to eat if the bartender has time to cook, and if he can cook (i.e., there’s no cook). At 4 a.m., everyone here leans to one side. The pure slapstick of watching the smashed leaners try to eat chicken wings sent me and my companion away from the bar and up the steps to the pool tables, where a tall, black man in white pants sat sleeping, head in hand. The pool tables were level – as opposed to the customers – and thankfully, someone fed the jukebox all Dylan songs. Then the man awoke. He watched us while drinking a Coke and eating peanut butter out of a jar. I was trying to give my friend some tips on lining up shots and then on my turn, the man – call him Nestor – showed her how to hold the cue. Turns out he’s a singer of what he calls “country gospel,” and asked us to come see him that Tuesday. When we left I learned that Nestor had told my companion she was beautiful (true), asked her to have his children (wacked), and managed to slip his number into her purse (impressive). I must admit her pool game has improved.
A hard-partying old girlfriend used to tell new arrivals, “If you’re at Snake & Jake’s at 5 a.m. – and that’s a conscious thought – you need to go home.” That probably holds for The John as well, a cavernous bar a few blocks down Frenchman named for the row of painted silver-and-black toilets along the back wall. It’s worth a stop to relish the wondrous variety of ‘70s album covers checker boarding two entire walls – and to get a drink in a mason jar. Soon you’ll notice how the bar’s meager light vanishes into the dark high ceilings and then The John starts to feel like the roadhouse from Twin Peaks. Without Angelo Badalamenti to score the scene, I played Miles Davis’ “My Funny Valentine” on the jukebox. However, two minutes into its cool muted meditation, the chunky lesbian bartender ordered a heavy-metallica couple out of the bar and ruined the mood.
That drove us over to Iggy’s, a great bar to sit out a domestic squabble. It’s cozy (the bar fills the small room), bright (but not too), mildly distracting (ESPN flickers soundlessly, women’s fingernails clack the video poker), and there’s solid drunken story swapping. I was eavesdropping on a low-watt conversation between the bartender (an older white woman,) a well-dressed middle-aged white guy and a 30-year-old black woman in a shower cap when “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” came on the jukebox, and without warning, the woman hit the chorus in full voice. At the turn of the next verse, she simply rejoined the conversation as if she hadn’t blasted us with karaoke. From our sponsor: Opportunity to play Tom Waits’ “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” at 4:30 a.m. in a place like Iggy’s? Priceless.
Mojo Lounge is the new welcome-mat as you head into the Quarter from Frenchman, and you could make a day of it here: there’s outside tables, free wi-fi, a pool table, a few video games and (always) a few workers killing time at the bar on cigarette breaks. The kitchen’s open until 2 a.m. (pizzas, quesadillas, salads, even steak sandwiches) and it winds down two hours later. A few blocks down this lively stretch of Decatur is Angeli, which in pre-Katrina days was the only restaurant open until 4 a.m. down this way (currently, until 2 a.m.). Mojo feels like a good bar; Angeli, like a late-night diner. You make the call.
If your kid dresses like a Dickensian guttersnipe in that sort of layered Cat-in-the-Hat bricolage – and he’s not home by 3 a.m.? – you’ll find him at The Abbey. Serving skater punk insomniacs, blasted dancing fools and random drop-ins, The Abbey’s not for tourists, slummers or Sunday adventurers, so just go down to Molly’s at the Market where you belong. One of my ex-students calls it “the 40s and pit bull bar,” and it is apparently a den of iniquity where cops harass the patrons on a regular basis. In addition, don’t even look in next door at The Dervish – unless your kid’s a Goth who’s into techno, and then really don’t look in. (They’re both 24/7.)
The Clover Grill has returned to its 24/7 glory from Thurs.-Mon., so go for the burgers and burlesque, and look away from the pink tiles if you’ve been drinking huge ass beers. Cabaret music pumps in, the tall black cook flips fries and bumps butts with the waiter, and “the joint is (generally) jumpin’.” The Fats Waller tune was actually playing when I walked in last week. Ask the way to the bathroom before you go, because through the tiny diner’s kitchen you step into a courtyard that might have been a stage set for Streetcar – with its Escherian maze of balconies, shadows and cellars, and always just out of earshot, some couple barking at one another. If you want to go a bit further back in time – like to the 18th century – you can drink by candlelight at Lafitte’s till 3 a.m.
Still the only true 24/7 food options in the Quarter are the Quartermaster grocery and Deja Vu, a haven for cops and cabbies. The walk from one to the other goes right down the middle of a sad shuttered Bourbon St. (by 2:15 am). The bartender at Deja Vu, Elisa, was a Bronx-raised spitfire dressed in black and tattooed from here to see-ya-next-Tuesday, and after serving us beers, cursed some bad tipper after tallying his check. The conversation then turned to celebrity bad tippers – “JLo,” someone yelled, “Vanna White,” “Halle Berry” – and then a massive cop tossed in (former Chicago Bull) “Scottie Pippen ... they used to call ‘im ‘No-Tippin’ Pippen.’” With a few cops, a few alcoholics, a few video-poker addicts, decent food and one entertaining halfwit, it felt like a cable sitcom about an all-night diner.
All this late-night debauchery works up quite an appetite. “The chicken wings good?” I asked Elisa. “You from New York?” I nodded, my Brooklyn accent never quite tamed. “Then they’re not that good.” (My crush on her grows.) My evening’s companion ordered the vegetarian omelet; I punched him in the shoulder because, well, c’mon. “The bacon cheeseburger then,” he said; “‘Atta boy,” I said. It was a damned good burger: all flame-broiled greasy, grilled goodness. We left nourished, stopped for a drink next door at Rio (24/7) and then again at Erin Rose down the block (open 22/7). Quarter conclusion: Conti between Bourbon and Dauphine is the go-to place for the late, late-night show at its slummingly safest.
For a homier destination at the more ambient edges of the Quarter, try Cosimo’s – a lively two-room den awash in golden-red light and bonhomie, with a great jukebox and a few pool tables in a separate alcove. Quality respite until 5 a.m, Thurs.-Sat. (and until 2 a.m., otherwise.)
My first year in town I stopped my car and walked into Igor’s Bar/Grill/Game Room/Laundromat just to confirm that sign’s neon truth. Sure enough, squeezed in the back corner beyond the pool tables were two washers and two dryers. Similar neon claims at Lucky’s and Avenue Pub were upheld upon further inquiry. If you’ve ever wondered how three 24-hour bars survive in a quarter-mile stretch of St. Charles in Central City (i.e., below Jackson), here’s my theory: The Uptown strip serves collegetown (Grit’s, F&M, the Balcony, Miss Mae’s, Le Bon Temps) whereas the St. Charles strip harbors the young working stiffs. At 2 a.m. at Avenue Pub, bored young workers – black and white, male and female – played pool and listened to Al Green and The Clash. Good music, kids, I thought, so Godspeed, enjoy the tacos, and may you outwit your boredom. If not, they’re likely to wind up as the cynical characters at Lucky’s – too smart for their fate – or nodding at tourists at Igor’s who think they have a clue about New Orleans … Or worse, doing your laundry at one of these places while drinking the night away.
Heading up from the St. Charles to the Uptown strip, there’s a smattering of joints open till and not till dawn: The Saint is for hipsters and fugitives; Rendezvous has been re-imagined as a sports bar and is slowly becoming a Parasol’s-style neighborhood joint for post-college singles; Shiloh is a DJ-powered living-room space where the hip-hop and techno soundtrack is the path to altered states; and Kingpin is a fine neighborhood dive in the grand tradition. The only true 24/7 joint is Miss Mae’s, which may have the cheapest top-shelf drink prices in these United States – a fact that fosters a rare intergenerational mix of senior citizens, sports fans, working-class men and female undergrads. Le Bon Temps needs no introduction as a music venue or as a premium dive, but in its 24/7 weekend mode, it also generates testimonials such as this one from a beautiful 40-year-old Loyola professor: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen daybreak through the windows of the Bon Temps.”
A few blocks up, Uptown finally has a 24/7 java joint – Urban Cup – with real food: wraps and panini, salads and red beans. Lively with students most of the time, it also attracts the sort of young professionals who seem to be running mail-order businesses off their laptops. Before, Uptown folk had to go to the Zotz on Oak St., a claustrophobic oasis that keeps the Riverbend from sinking into a pre-dawn slough of despair.
From 2-6 a.m. Uptown, the all-night action moves to the nitty-gritty of Uptown undergraduates, F&M and Grit’s. (Until then, they’re both neighborhood joints.) The liveliest places on weeknights in collegetown, they’re also packed to the gills on weekends. Unless you’re desperate for crowd noise or looking for spectacle (or your kid), pick on some joint your own size.
Finally, if you’re hungry and it’s passed 4 a.m. – closing out The Balcony Bar (kitchen open until 3 a.m.) and Le Bon Temps (about the same) – you can either wait in a line 10 cars deep at the 24-hour drive-thru McDonald’s on St. Charles and Louisiana, or drive on and show your stomach some self-respect. There’s Dot’s Diner in Kenner, with its kitschy decor, working-girl wait-staff, and old-school carbo-loading. Better yet, there’s Betsy’s Pancake House (opens at 5:30 a.m.), with its cheap, plentiful food, iconic back-talking waitresses and eclectic clientele (male construction workers at dawn, downtown workers at lunch, church-going families through the weekends). If you can stand the bright lights and the tourists at the end of a dark night of the soul, there’s always Harrah’s “Midnight Buffet.” In addition, if you can no longer face the world outside your car, there’s a surprisingly satisfying breakfast buffet at the Sav-A-Center at Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon streets.
Personally? I’m waiting for Betsy’s to open.