The eclectic local culture of New Orleans thrives throughout the city, but Frenchmen Street boasts a concentration of NOLA culture unlike anywhere else—a concentration of music, of soulful singers and brass bands, of cheap drinks, of an immediate, genuine sort of friendliness that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else outside the Big Easy.
Like any big tourist destination, New Orleans does have its share of obnoxious, tourist-friendly kitsch, most of it concentrated on and around Bourbon Street, but you may not know that the true heart of the city’s rich culture beats just a few blocks downriver along vibrant Frenchmen Street, which more or less forms the border between the French Quarter and the more low-key Marigny neighborhood—a juxtaposition that could also describe the dual tourist- and local-friendly atmosphere.
Shops and Attractions:
The few inviting shops you’ll find along Frenchmen Street are refreshingly free of the tasteless trinkets and unfunny T-shirt slogans abundant in other parts of town.
Instead, you can check out places like the Louisiana Music Factory, a warmly lit living room-esque shop filled wall to wall with great music on vinyl. You needn’t have a record player to enjoy it here—not when you can spend a good half hour simply listening to the music playing over the speakers and browsing the aisles alongside the store’s resident tabby cat.
The surrounding blocks have a few other worthwhile stops, including the hole-in-the-wall art gallery I.J. Reilly’s Knick-knacks & Curiosities. It’s a small place filled with modest but well-crafted souvenirs that smack of NOLA authenticity, like ties printed with maps of the city or coffee table books profiling local hotspots and cultural traditions in text and pictures.
The true shopping draw along Frenchmen Street, however, only emerges around nightfall and goes until one each night, save for Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Of course, this is the Frenchmen Art Market, a gathering of vendors selling paintings, self-designed t-shirts, framed photographs and whatever other creations they might be producing that month. The concrete alley is strung up with Christmas lights and decorated with colorful chalk art, making for a pleasant stroll that doubles as a street market full of local color.
Bars are sweaty overcrowded dungeons filled with inconsiderate people, where customers pay to talk to the people they came with, drink overpriced cocktails and listen to music they don’t like.
In most places, that can be unfortunately true. New Orleans, and especially Frenchmen Street, isn’t like most places though. Each bar along the boulevard boasts its own distinct but inviting brand of atmosphere and musical inclination.
The key is the music. The best live acts tend to arrive in the late afternoon and jam with few interruptions until the wee hours. The crowds most nights are plentiful but manageable, characterized by their tipsy joviality rather than drunken, obnoxious stupors. It’s almost impossible not to make friends.
The Apple Barrel Bar features intimate jazz bands that reflect the cozy décor of the place. It’s far from lively, but depending on the night, such a low-key music and drinking spot might be the perfect place to unwind.
The Blue Nile has a dance floor and spacious stage frequented by big, soulful brass bands, plus a rotating roster of drink specials and stylish lighting to reflect the place’s name. The spacious bar is large enough to accommodate big crowds to dance along to the music from big bands, making this perhaps Frenchmen Street’s best
D.B.A. New Orleans is another prime contender for that title, boasting big local acts and an even bigger selection of beers, wines and liquors. Their impressive roster of drinks and acclaimed live acts—who typically fall into the realms of soul, blues and jazz—makes this one of the hottest spots along Frenchmen. Unlike many other bars within a three-block radius, they generally charge a cover in the neighborhood of $5 for shows after 10 pm.
The Spotted Cat is a reliable spot where drinks are cheap and the jazz bands play day and night, belting out exactly the sort of authentic Dixieland jazz you’d expect to hear in New Orleans. It’s traditional but with a hint of modernity, a balance duplicated in the Spotted Cat’s atmosphere. It’s a dive-y, hip throwback of a tavern, complete with young and old couples alike swing-dancing in between taking sips from the cheap beers on tap.
The R Bar is a lovably colorful dive bar with a jukebox instead of live music. It isn’t much of a destination, but it’s a good place to grab a breather and a cocktial in between dance sessions elsewhere. Visit here on a weekend during crawfish season in spring, and you might find them boiling crawfish whole to serve guests inside.
The essential spot to stop for a fulfilling meal along Frenchmen has to be the uber-popular Three Muses restaurant, which will often require reservations on a peak night. It’s a small space, but ideal for a group looking to sample and share plenty of tapas-style appetizers and main dishes like the lamb sliders, while enjoying the stylings of whatever jazzy band or solo artist is playing for the diners that night.
If lamb doesn’t sound intriguing enough for you, you might consider paying a visit to Dat Dog. They bring the American cuisine classic hot dogs into the twenty-first century using a customizable menu of toppings and multiple kinds of exotic sausage meats. Beyond beef, they offer dogs made from duck, alligator, crawfish and more.
For one of the most authentic collections of Creole cuisine this side of the Mississippi, you’ll have to head away from Frenchmen Street into the lower half of the French Quarter to find Coop’s Place. Unmistakably a dive, Coop’s makes up for its modest ambience and for the perpetual crowds lining up to dine with a friendly staff and a selection of delicious local favorites like seafood gumbo, chicken Tchoupitoulas, Cajun fried chicken and fried crawfish.
On late nights, you might also spot the nautical-themed food cart called Pirate Pizza roaming the neighborhood serving slices of everyone’s favorite drunk-snack. It’s a colorful food cart that does only one thing—serving up cheap thin-crust slices—but it does it well.
As tempting as it might be, don’t make the mistake of confining yourself to one bar all night on Frenchmen Street.
Wander around instead, and while you’re out there trying to spot the distinctive sails of Pirate Pizza, for example, don’t be surprised when a brass band appears to turn one of the street corners into their own makeshift venue.
Just as the city gets nightlife right, so too does it offer the sort of impromptu street performances we all dream about. Mostly because the band members play their underused brass instruments in a way that exudes musicianship and showmanship. Thanks to the city’s lax alcohol policies, you can grab a to-go cup from a nearby bar to enjoy during these performances.
Less conventional performers sometimes frequent the area. You may see a street corner poet, stooping over an old-fashioned typewriter and willing to write you a custom-made poem in exchange for a few dollars.