Like it or not, here comes round two! In Pt. 1, we played restaurant critic. Now we’re giving you the lowdown on the downtown NOLA bar scene (not including strip bars). Something to keep in mind… this list only includes bars in the downtown/CBD; many of the city’s best bars are scattered throughout the city, particularly in uptown New Orleans. Also keep in mind this list is intended for tourists. Those of you who live here or visit often already know about these places.
Don’t worry – we’ll get back to writing about strip clubs soon enough…
Q: Okay, what if I want to go to bars that aren’t strip bars?
No matter how fancy the bar, anywhere is cheaper to get drunk than a strip club. (Pro tip: get your buzz from those cheap “Huge Ass Beers” down the street (40oz for $12), not $8 Miller Lite at Penthouse.)
The most popular bar on Bourbon has got to be Pat O’Brien’s, without a doubt. Well, it’s actually on St. Peter – but very close to Bourbon. Nice piano bar & patio bar – and their Hurricane is legendary in New Orleans. It’s definitely worth a visit. (UPDATE: Perhaps I should retract my “most popular … without a doubt” statement. There are tons of popular bars on Bourbon, obviously, and I usually prefer to avoid sweeping generalizations like “this is EVERYONE’S favorite” anyway.)
If you’re feeling fancy, hit up the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone. It’s historic (and cool looking). And expensive. I said fancy, asshole. Also, if you’re a self-proclaimed cocktail snob, you’ll love Bar Toniqe and Bellocq (at The Hotel Modern). They’ve got the best fancy (eh, “hand-crafted”) cocktails in town, and they’re both close to NOLA downtown. Sazerac (Roosevelt Hotel) is also nice, as are most of the downtown hotel bars. I’ve been to the Swizzle Stick (Loews Hotel) and the bar at the Pere Marquette (Renaissance Hotel) and both were enjoyable.
Maybe you’re like me and you prefer the cheap stuff. Good call! Look no further than Tropical Isle (any of the four locations). They invented the Hand Grenade, a “syrup-y sweet drink made with rum, gin, vodka, grain alcohol and melon liquor.” Don’t even get their other shit, just get the Hand Grenade.
Or you could try Spirits on Bourbon. This place is still kinda sad, and is only known because it was featured on SpikeTV’s Bar Rescue. But their signature drink, the Resurrection, is pretty good. A blue-ish, slushy, sugary sweet drink made with Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, lime juice, honey syrup, coconut water, and blue curacao – garnished with a jalapeño. My advice: just order the Resurrection and leave.
Still not convinced? For over 200 years, the Old Absinthe House bar has been a staple of the French Quarter. Yes, 200 years. Its history is quite fascinating. The building itself is even cooler. Intricate antique chandeliers, marble fountains, tons of memorabilia from athletes and celebrities that have visited there. It’s just something you have to experience to appreciate.
But what about the name? What the fuck is absinthe? Absinthe explained:
“A number of bars in New Orleans, including Old Absinthe House, served absinthe before it was outlawed in 1914. The mysterious beverage had a psychotropic allure – wormwood was the active ingredient – but it allegedly sent enthusiasts to the loony bin. Today, Herbsaint, a locally produced anisette, is a relatively safe stand-in for old absinthe-based drinks.”
In case you’re wondering, Herbsaint is used in their Absinthe House Frappe, Sazerac, and Absinthe Suissesse.
EDIT: I’m an idiot. Absinthe is no longer illegal. I’ve been disillusioned and now I’m going to Absinthe House to get funky on Absinthe!
Another cool, old place is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on “the quiet end” of Bourbon. It’s older than the Old Absinthe House (circa 1772) and it looks old. I mean, ancient. Live (classical) music and cheap drinks. Very historic – one of the country’s oldest bars.
Alright, last old place: Napoleon House. It’s in much better shape than Old Absinthe House and Blacksmith Shop, but still a historic landmark (200+ years old). Everyone orders the Pimm’s Cup. And sometimes the Sazerac (that drink was invented in NOLA, by the way). Their food is also pretty good. Stick with the basics (gumbo, jambalaya) and you’ll be fine.
Q: Anywhere we can drink that’s close to downtown, but away from Bourbon?
Well, yeah, but here are some of the highlights. A quick Google search will give you tons of great options as well.
- We all love Bourbon Street, but Frenchmen Street is where the locals go. There’s a (much) better music scene and you don’t get the same ridiculous prices as Bourbon Street. Blue Nile, d.b.a., and Snug Harbor are all great live music venues. The Spotted Cat gets great reviews, but admittedly I’ve never been. Same with The Maison. Three Muses has excellent small plates and might be the best restaurant on Frenchmen. And, of course, there’s Dat Dog! (Although the Uptown location is the best.)
- If you’re a connoisseur of craft beer or whiskey, your best bet is Avenue Pub. It’s pretty close to downtown (cheap cab ride) and definitely worth it if you want a beer list deeper than Bud Light and Abita.
- PJ’s Coffee sucks. It just sucks. There are plenty of good local coffee houses throughout the city, but avoid PJ’s at all costs. (CC’s ain’t great, either.) Or there’s a Starbucks at the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles.
- Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of The Layover in NOLA. He found some pretty good local spots like R Bar, One Eyed Jacks, and a true landmark in dive bars: Snake and Jakes (it’s a real beauty). You can see the full episode here.
- In a reader poll of “Best New Orleans Bar” on NOLA.com, Arnaud’s French 75 is killing it. I’ve never been, but its known for their signature French 75 cocktail (duh), and as a hangout for vintage cocktail enthusiasts. Says Fodor’s Travel, “… old-time elegance: tiled-floor, old-school-bar, French bistro. This dark-wood bar is complete with leather-backed chairs and imposing columns. Be sure to venture upstairs to the Germaine Wells Mardi Gras Museum (free), a slightly bizarre showcase for memorabilia and ball gowns worn by the original owner’s daughter.” Arnaud’s French 75 also made GQ’s list of ‘Best U.S. Cocktail Bars’, which they describe their French 75 as “… a hard-hitting Prohibition-era gin-and-champagne concoction.” Of course, they also note they make the cocktail with champagne and cognac, not champagne and gin.
Q: I’m actually interested in some swanky, posh nightclub – similar to what you’d find Los Angeles or Miami Beach.
The truth is we don’t have many; you might have been better off going to Vegas. There’s Bourbon Heat, which I’ve never been to. And Club Ampersand, which is supposed to be nicer than Bourbon Heat. The Metropolitan is worth checking out, and Jax Brewery is a good weekend option. Channing Tatum co-owns Saints and Sinners, which caters more to women and couples. “Burlesque-themed” that’s supposed to look like an old-world speakeasy—hors d’oeuvres, candlelight, white-gloved waiters, and so on (no white-gloved waiters… sorry). Cat’s Meow is just an awful establishment… a karaoke bar that’s only entertaining with a BAC of 0.3 or higher. Oh, and Masquerade Club sucks. But you already knew that.
Q: Okay, what about a live music venue?
We’ve got those in spades. Check out Frenchmen Street; I mentioned some good ones earlier in this post. Or head to South Peters, where you’ve got The Republic and The Howlin’ Wolf. There’s also the House of Blues on Decatur. Tipitina’s is famous for its music, but I promised to keep this post exclusive to downtown NOLA and Tip’s is uptown. Or you could walk throughout the Quarter and find TONS of music. You’d have to be blind and deaf to miss the music scene in New Orleans.