The Essential New Orleans Bars Every Visitor Should Check Out
A trip to New Orleans isn’t complete without beignets, a po-boy, riding on the streetcar, seeing a cemetery, barely making bail, and taking photos in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Unspoken, but fully understood, is the fact that most visitors will darken the door of a bar or two along the way, perhaps between each of said destinations.
No one needs to be pointed to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Pat O’Brien’s, or most of the bars lining Bourbon or Frenchmen Streets -- you’ll feel those disturbances in the Force on your own. Go beyond the obvious, and you’ll find a bevy of essential bars that capture the prismatic essence of New Orleans drinking, in all its divey, swanky, cheap, tony, casual, festive glory. You didn’t come to the best bar city in the world merely to catch beads, did you?
The immortal neighborhood joint: The Chart Room, bless it, is indestructible, un-ruinable. The upper Quarter dive in high-tourist territory has, over the eons, made its share of must-visit lists; in 2015, it changed owners after 40 years of Ray Newman and family running it. Still, the vibe of this dark, cool outpost on Chartres Street remains unhurried, unworried, and unlikely to ever bow to a single trend, ever. Also in the “some things don’t change” department: If you want one of the coldest beers or tallest pours in the French Quarter, you’ll want to bring actual cash money. Grab a seat, grip your 10-ounce Bud Light, feed some singles into the juke, and just soak. You’ll be entertained by the video poker devotees, the old-timer regulars with their elbows on the bar, and happy tourists singing off-key to the music wafting out of the open front doors.
To go back in time: Inside the swanky, lost-in-time Sazerac Bar, you could find yourself looking at all kinds of historical wonders: WPA-era murals by Paul Ninas, the 1878 Ascot Cup, and a bullet hole that erroneous lore credits to an assassination attempt on then-Senator Huey P. Long, who liked to sip Ramos Gin Fizzes at the bar. While you’re sipping your expertly made cocktail in the dark, well-appointed room, consider what you are not seeing: tourists in cargo shorts sipping watery beer. (At least one hopes.) Even if some of your comrades in drink are tossing back domestic swill instead of, say, the bar’s namesake, the historic decor buffers it. It’s hard to imagine a prettier bar in New Orleans. The best time to visit is the Christmas season, when thousands of strands of string lights festoon the lobby of the grand old hotel.
Always dark, always cool: On a dripping hot summer night, a crowd of people sweating outside a packed bar in New Orleans debate a pressing matter: Where is the coldest place we can go right now? There come the normal suggestions: a mall, a movie theater, a museum (never mind that it’s midnight). Then some brilliant person names the toilet-themed bar on Burgundy St. Unlike museums, The John is always open. Step into the meat cooler and belly up for something cold, strong, and cheap. If you’re looking for frills, there’s a jukebox, a ping-pong table, and golden toilet seats. If those don’t meet your definition of “frill,” the John may be too cool for you.
For beer lovers: You don’t have to sell a beer enthusiast on the merits of the Avenue Pub. The bar rocks nearly 40 taps, which they fastidiously maintain, as documented on the website under a page titled “Why Our Draft Tastes Better.” (Short version: They clean their draft lines every two weeks and use “a high tech system that mixes CO2 and Nitrogen for each type of beer” to push drafts out of the kegs.) For those customers less inclined to enjoy the hoppier things in life, the Pub boasts a full bar, with particularly extensive rosters of bourbon, rye, and whiskey. Other amenities here: It never closes, so you can rub shoulders with travelers and locals 24/7/365. Depending on the time of day, you’ll mingle with EMTs, post-graveyard-shift bartenders, or businessfolk loosening ties at happy hour.
The kitchen’s menu, developed in consultation with Boucherie’s Nathanial Zimet, nails the “elevated bar fare” sweet spot, with “to die for fries,” a grilled cheese so fancy they call it fromage grille, and a cheese and charcuterie plate featuring selections from St. James Cheese Company. Help yourself to beaucoup seating, whether it’s in the fine front bar, the tables out front or in the back courtyard, the comfy salon seating of the upstairs bar, or a perch on the balcony overlooking picturesque St. Charles Avenue.
Something for everyone: This bar simply works. A rotating menu offers inventive cocktails with fanciful names (“I believe I’ll have another Great Idea!”) that are delivered speedily -- in itself, a marvel. There are plenty of places to hang out -- with clusters of tables set up for Monday’s free food and comedy night, or a big dance floor cleared each month for DJ Ann Glaviano’s all-vinyl Heatwave party. The crowd tends toward the young-and-hip, but all are welcome.
Even on quiet nights, though, Twelve Mile has all the little things that make a bar feel homey. You’ve got food if you need it, places to sit and stare at the curios that catch your eye -- like the stuffed shark and squid hanging near the Hyperbole and a Half print on the wall -- a solid jukebox, pool, and personalized matchbooks to light your smokes or pass a number to someone. It’s the neighborhood bar worth leaving your actual neighborhood to adopt as your own.
Coffee milkshake utopia: Let’s try a scenario: You wake up in the French Quarter and find yourself in the enviable position of not having a damn thing to do all day. What’s your first stop? If you have the wicked kind of good sense, and it’s at least 10am, you will haul yourself to Molly’s at the Market. There, order you up a Frozen Irish Coffee -- which is, yes, the alcohol-laden coffee milkshake that dreams are made off, slide $5 into the jukebox, and plant you in the window seat to watch the Decatur Street wildness ride past you all morning.
The Frozen Irish Coffee comes in small or large -- you may be able to stomach two of the former, but I wouldn’t risk it with the latter. Luckily, Molly’s has an exceptionally well-priced list of specialty cocktails to explore after a healthy breakfast. The spot is popular with locals and tourists alike, and all shades of weird, so don’t be surprised if in a frozen coffee haze you find yourself surrounded by dozens of adults in bunny costumes, or a burgeoning bachelorette party in matching outfits, or grizzled grumpy men who drink bar black coffee out of mugs emblazoned with curses.
Low-key good times: What is there to love about Pal’s? Let’s count the ways: One, an air hockey table in the back room and a selection of vintage board games to entertain you. Two, a drink called the Gingerita, and yes, you want one. Three, different pop-up food options every night of the week. Four, vintage porn in the bathrooms. Five, if you order a double, you get a personalized “Mardi Gras”-style go cup. (Translated for the non-locals: Instead of handing you disposable, clear, soft plastic cups, Pal’s offers 16-ounce hard plastic cups with its logo emblazoned on the side, which mimic the style of cups thrown from floats during Carnival parades.) Seriously, why are you still reading? Get yourself to Pal’s.
Lonely hearts in flattering light: Slip inside the Lost Love Lounge, and the red walls seem to glow in welcome -- why arrive fancy when everyone looks good in a shade of rouge? Tibetan prayer flags hang above the bar, joined by a variety of signs: a beer list and daily specials scrawled on boards, advertisements for TV and comedy nights. Everything about the place invites you to linger, even the sorta-ratty vinyl bar stools. The front room rounds out with video poker machines, a pool table, a couple of high cocktail tables, and a stocked bookshelf. Head to the back to grab a quick meal from the Vietnamese kitchen. There’s no wrong day to visit the Lost Love Lounge, but don’t miss the annual St. Joseph Day altar.
Dapper, with a view: The Columns is a pretty bar. You’ll be able to tell as you walk up to the 19th-century private-home-turned-hotel: a white mansion with a handsome veranda that overlooks a picturesque stretch of St. Charles Avenue. You can sit on that veranda and watch streetcars rumble by while you tipple concoctions: a Ramos Gin Fizz, a Brandy Milk Punch, a Kir Royale, an Old Fashioned. Or you can steal inside to the stunning Victorian Lounge -- the origin of your al fresco cocktail. If you belly up to the bar, while you wait you can let your eyes devour the sights of the room -- the curved mahogany walls and coffered cove ceiling, the gilded bronze chandelier hanging above you. Enjoy the view. That’s the Columns’ raison d'être.
New, hip, sharp, wet: We all knew the Ace would be cool -- after all, the Portland-based hotel chain is known for including guitars or turntables in guest rooms. But when the New Orleans outpost opened at the beginning of New Orleans’ summer (you know, in March), the clearest sign of Ace’s operators valuing the local market was this: a pool open to the public. Alto was the see-and-be-seen place during endless summer 2016. The rooftop garden is an urban oasis of vines and string lights, where swimmers can soak while sipping concoctions like the Frozen Blue Hawaii. All cocktails are served in unbreakable, keep-it-cool metal tumblers, and Alto also serves pretzel dogs, grilled octopus, and kale salad, for the hungry and hip.
College kids, college prices: You already know Ms. Mae’s. You already know about $2 well drinks, which college kids can cop for half-price on Thursday nights by showing a university ID. You already know about the bar that never closes -- not like we have a shortage of those in New Orleans, but Ms. Mae’s is not one of those bars that happens to be 24 hours. Its eternal openness is institutional, a beacon on the corner of Magazine and Napoleon. (Hell, the bar’s official website is a digital wall of shame.) Inside, you’ll find pool and air hockey and foosball. You’ll find very cheap drinks served in plastic cups. You’ll find big groups and singles, older folks drinking during the day, and college students hooking up at night. And you might even find that rare, bold, endangered animal attempting the Ms. Mae’s 24 challenge: finishing one drink per hour every hour for a full day.
For tourists only: I’ve walked inside Tropical Isle exactly twice. First, almost 10 years ago, my cousins were in town. I tried to steer them to any of my usual haunts, but my cousin’s frat was hosting a private party at Tropical Isle, so I did the sign of the cross and went to Bourbon Street. Upstairs, I stood in a room like other crappy rooms anywhere -- there was booze, there were rowdy college kids, there was a lot of talk about going to a strip club. When it was clear I couldn’t steer the crew to a neighborhood joint, I gave my cousins a quick hug and we parted ways. Enjoy New Orleans, I said.
More recently a local comedian wrote an article about escaping French Quarter tourist traps, including a line about avoiding “smelling of sour hand grenades and regret.” The owner of Tropical Isle, creator of the infamous Hand Grenade drink, complained to the news. And then a few days later, I found myself inside the bar, ordering two Hand Grenades to go (cost: $9 each), for props in a sketch comedy show with the theme “Public Apology Parade.” I was offered one; I chose PBR instead.
I hope to never darken Tropical Isle’s door again, but I also hope that door never closes. It is an essential part of New Orleans. After all, if people didn’t walk down Bourbon Street with giant novelty drinks, how would I know whom to avoid?
The stuff of local legend: Snake and Jake’s is the kind of bar where you could be sipping a Schlitz next to George Clooney and vaguely wonder if that guy next to you is actually handsome, or if he just looks good in low, red light. The ramshackle, tin-roof shack on an otherwise-sleepy stretch of residential Oak Street is an unrepentantly divey, small, late-night neighborhood bar. After the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Thrillist named it one of the best dives in America, the lore can overtake the reality. Tourists make the effort to visit the uptown New Orleans hole in the wall seeking some special kind of debauchery -- is it really true that you drink free if you're naked? -- but can also end up realizing this is just another good-time dive.
Happy hour starts when the bar opens at 7pm, and you can go to enjoy a low-key vibe and monopolize the jukebox. As the night wears on, the crowd balloons and shrinks on repeat. Expect to see college kids, neighborhood folks, tourists on a pilgrimage, people in search of the best dive bar in the world. At these prices, you can stay all night.
Always gay, always a party: You’re always welcome at Bourbon Pub. At the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon Streets, the big brick building with a wraparound balcony keeps its bright blue shutter doors open day and night. What you find once you step inside the two-story, 24-hour gay bar and dance club depends on the day and time. Sit at the downstairs bar and enjoy your cocktail while a cavalcade of TVs stream music videos. Head upstairs for karaoke, drag, cabaret, and burlesque shows, or to dance dance dance. If you need a break, that big old balcony overlooking Bourbon Street offers a place to catch your breath.
The locals' Irish favorite: In the tradition of Irish pubs, Finn McCool’s is more than a bar. What’s special about Finn’s has nothing to do with bottles lining the backsplash or stored in wells. The Mid-City institution borrows from the best of two cultures: an Irish pub that functions more like a community center, and a no-pretensions New Orleans corner bar that welcomes all comers. What you’ll find at Finn’s are friendly bartenders and a heavily local crowd (unless, maybe, it’s St. Patrick’s Day). If you’re looking to watch football -- and I don’t mean the American kind -- Finn’s is the best place in New Orleans to plant yourself. Longtime owners and founders Stephen and Pauline Patterson sold the pub in 2016 to bar regular and fellow Irishman Sean Kennedy and restaurateur Anthony Macaluso, who have vowed to follow the welcoming tradition of their forebears.
A house away from home: Located inside a converted house that looks charmingly out-of-place within its Warehouse District surroundings, Circle Bar is a venue that redefines the meaning of the word “intimate.” The close-quarters space is downright snuggly, with a laidback, living room-feel that makes drinkers feel like they’re right at home -- if their homes also happen to be privy to some of the best up-and-coming rock bands in the country and a killer happy hour. The bar regularly plays host to stellar local acts and hovering-below-the-radar punk and indie groups (think: Colleen Green, Angel Olsen), but is all-too-often overlooked by out-of-town visitors. Thankfully (whew) you won’t make that mistake now. -- Sarah Baird
Jazz is the family business: Sure, Ooh Poo Pah Doo might technically be a relative newcomer to the jazz scene, but since opening in 2013, the bar’s deep musical roots in New Orleans have quickly made it a Tremé mainstay. Owned by the daughter of legendary R&B artist Jessie Hill and named after his hit 1960 song, Ooh Poo Pah Doo not only honors Hill’s legacy, but offers a place for the next generations in his musically gifted family (like Trombone Shorty) to perform on the regular. The bar’s beauty is in its ability to retain a neighborhood feel while hosting some of the globe’s top-notch jazz talent, making every night feel like it’s the right time to bust out your dance moves. Bonus tip: The red beans on Mondays are some of the best in the city. -- Sarah Baird
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