Whether you’re a veteran visitor to the Big Easy, or you consider yourself a Very Local New Orleanian, chances are you’re hanging out in the same areas. Mid-City, Uptown, and the CBD. Or the Garden District, the Bywater/Marigny, and — maybe just on special occasions for you locals — the French Quarter.
I can’t lie, those are excellent choices!
But, in this piece, I’m going to submit another neighborhood for your consideration.
It’s on the river side of Coliseum Square Park, and the neighborhood’s original anchor was supposed to be Tivoli Circle (more recently known as Lee Circle — until, well, even more recently). The streets heading upriver from the circle are named after the Nine Muses of Greeth mythology.
The Circle was cut off from those muses in November 1954 when the Greater New Orleans Bridge — transformed into the Crescent City Connection in the 1980s — was built to link both sides of the Mississippi River. But duck under the bridge and the muses can still be found. On the lake side of the park, you get all nine. On the river side, it’s less; but walk along Erato, Thalia and Melpomene streets — between Magazine and Annunciation — and you’ll see these muses brought you here for a reason.
This stretch is a small piece of the Lower Garden District, recognizable for its curving streets and early-19th century homes — both evidence of the city’s early expansion upriver from its original downtown core.
Check out old maps and you’ll see the area we’re looking at — the geographic lowest of the Lower Garden District — had some of those homes, as well as a whole lot of industry. The Sanborn maps from the first half of the 20th century, for example, show a mostly residential neighborhood dotted with various factories and warehouses.
What’s changed today is the addition of a third kind of use. New Orleanians aren’t just coming to this tucked away corner to sleep or — for a very specific industrial example I found — to buy soap in bulk. They’re also coming here to frequent a handful of their favorite small businesses in the city. A cold and creative beer? A midnight piece of cake? An extensive whiskey list? Or an expertly crafted cocktail or cup of coffee?
If you were standing here a decade ago, you might not have guessed it, but now this neighborhood has all that and more.
So let’s dig in and take a look at some of the businesses that are making this neighborhood such an increasingly popular place to visit, as well as live.
Get Your Morning Joe
“We feel like our slice of the city has connected the Lower Garden District to the Warehouse District,” said Bobby Winston, owner of French Truck Coffee. That connection wasn’t necessarily in play when his popular shop opened up on the 1200 block of Magazine Street in 2014, but now he says it’s not rare to get tourists walking over from The National World War II Museum.
But it’s not just tourists. It’s an increased number of New Orleanians living in the area, plus service industry employees coming from nearby businesses like Courtyard Brewery, Barrel Proof and many others. “We all go and support our neighboring businesses after work or on our break,” Winston explained. “I think that’s part of what gives the area such a local feel as it revitalizes.”
And he believes French Truck is playing an important part in that revitalization. “We think coffee shops change neighborhoods.” And when you step inside, you can see what he means. It connects the people in the neighborhood. It’s a place to congregate and share ideas, especially during the day since so many of the other businesses are nighttime oriented.
Plus, let’s not forget, they serve an awesome cup of coffee. Stephan Belle has worked in coffee bars for more than 14 years, and he says you’ve got to check out their Oji drip to get a feel for how coffee can be like alchemy. “It’s a mad scientist collection of tubes and filters. If you’ve ever seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s pretty much the set up Gale has in the lab!”
Customers I spoke to praised everything from the quality of the beans and roasting, to the fun latte art; and from the comfortable rocking chairs upfront, to their generous bean loyalty program.
Cara Traczek swears by “the NOLA Iced Coffee if it’s hot, or the hot latte if it’s chilly.” No matter the weather, this is a great spot to start your neighborhood adventure.
A Different Kind of Brew
Maybe instead of a coffee, you’d prefer a beer? Then Courtyard Brewery has got you covered! They’ve got dozens of beers on tap — in every style under the sun, and with a good mix of their own house-made beers and those from top breweries around the country.
I went with the Fluff-a-rama, which is an IPA brewed with marshmallows and vanilla beans, just to name a few ingredients. It was as delicious as it sounds, and matched only by the cool hang Courtyard provides.
“We’ve got a laid back atmosphere, and tons of outdoor space,” said head brewer, Scott Wood, who opened Courtyard back in 2014. “We’ve got safe open spaces for first dates, quiet nooks for private or romantic conversations, and sweeping areas for large gatherings or community events.”
Wood lives in the neighborhood and has seen visitors to the neighborhood shift over the last half-decade to about 50% tourists and 50% locals, “which makes sense given how close the Convention Center is.”
But even though tourist traffic has increased, Wood says the brewery’s focus has always been on the neighborhood. “We love collaborating with other bars and restaurants from the neighborhood. We brewed an anniversary beer for Barrel Proof’s fifth year in its building, and act as a community center — hosting events for local nonprofits. We helped build this neighborhood up from a collection of dusty warehouses, and want to see it continue to succeed!”
Get Your Whiskey On
“We were too far down Magazine to be part of the main Garden District drag of restaurants and bars, and the Crescent City Connection cut us off from the Warehouse District.”
That’s how Barrel Proof ownership partner, Liam Deegan, described how isolated it felt to open a bar on the corner of Magazine and Erato streets, on the remnants of a streetcar line abandoned nearly a century earlier. But today the term “isolated” no longer applies as Deegan’s bar has become a gathering point.
“We get the brewers from Courtyard, the baristas from French Truck, the bartenders from Bakery Bar, and it starts to feel like a tight little community inside the already tight little community that is New Orleans.”
And there’s a reason Barrel Proof is a spot people like to congregate. The cocktails are fun, and the food menu is inventive and tasty, but the real draw is the 50+ craft beers, and the more-than-300 whiskeys available in a spacious and classically New Orleans corner bar.
As businesses continue to pop up around it, it’s Barrel Proof that feels like the anchor holding it all together.
Put Something in that Belly
I’ll be honest with you: I’d only noticed Fat Boy Pantry once or twice before; and I’d never stepped foot inside it. Then, last night — on my way to my bike following a beer at Courtyard Brewery — I realized I hadn’t yet grabbed dinner.
“Let’s give Fat Boy Pantry a shot,” I thought.
The idea that I almost wrote this article without including this place — and what has to be the best Cuban sandwich in the city (I don’t want to hear a peep about recency bias!) — is an inexcusable near-error.
Let me say it even clearer. To go to this neighborhood and not get their Cuban sandwich (they call it The Havana) would be like going to Maine and not getting the lobster; like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower; like coming to New Orleans and not getting a po-boy.
So, please, make room for it. The Mojo roasted pork and ham, the melty-warm gruyere cheese, the black-garlic mustard and pickles — served as a sandwich, freshly pressed. it was the kind of sandwich — savory, but with hints of sweet — you hope will never end.
They have a variety of lunch and dinner sandwiches (like the fried lobster po-boy), and breakfast sandwiches (hellllllllllo, breakfast pita with roasted lamb belly!). And everything’s served all day. That includes 10 flavors of ice cream — everything from a rich chocolate chip cookie dough, to a “Cajun Crackerjack” featuring molasses, peanuts and pork rinds — all made in house.
I almost made a grave mistake by not coming to this place. But then I saw the error of my ways. I hope you’ll do the same!
A Bakery with Many Layers
New Orleans lays claim to a lot of notable inventions (Jazz music, movie theaters and Venetian blinds to name just a few), but perhaps none is sweeter than doberge — the thinly layered cake invented by New Orleanian baker, Beulah Ledner in the 1930s.
In business for three years, Bakery Bar has carried that mantle proudly at the corner of Annunciation and Erato streets, in a building that also carries a lot of history. Before Bakery Bar moved in, the location was Eleven 79, an eatery many believed to be the embodiment of a classic New Orleans-Italian restaurant. Before that, it was Monaco Bob’s Touchdown Lounge, a dive bar / music club that hosted Archie Manning at least once and still somehow keeps a semi-active Facebook page despite it no longer existing.
But Faith Simmons, Head Cakebrarian at Bakery Bar, believes they can be around for the long haul. “We’re a place for every day celebrations,” she said. “People come in for dinner, drinks and dessert, or to grab a whole cake to go. Some come in for a first date, while others come in for happy hour with coworkers. Some show up with their kids and grandkids, and others bring their friends for a boozy brunch.”
No matter when or why you show up, you’ll be treated to a creative and thoughtful offerings, featuring dozens of cake varieties, a food menu packed with nostalgia (The Last Twinkie on Earth, the savory Pop Turnts, and Chicken Nuggets & Waffles are just a few examples), and a seasonal cocktail menu — currently with flavors meant to evoke memories of summer such as climbing trees, peach pie at a barbecue, an afternoon of crawfish, or escaping the heat at a movie matinee.
And, incredibly, you can experience it all until midnight six nights a week!
New Kid on the Block
And that brings us to the neighborhood’s newest offering. Claret Wine & Cocktail Bar, by the team who owns and operates Tujagues and Bar Frances, is a chic environment to imbibe with a glass of wine and enjoy a few light bites, such as the whipped feta and country bread, or the tuna tartare.
“People have said that when they’re here they feel like they’re transported to Los Angeles or Miami,” said owner, Mark Latter, “but we designed Claret to be uniquely New Orleans, with our city’s knack for lingering conversation at its heart.”
An evening at Claret can feel like sitting on the porch with friends. There’s a very Instagrammable patio space, surrounded by tropical plants and an artificial turf. The bar also features a wall, which can be completely opened to allow customers and conversation to swing back and forth between inside and outside seating.
Opened in May, Claret is in the brand new Framework building, a mixed office and retail space. And Latter knows the success they’re seeing is aided in part by the businesses already present in the neighborhood. “It’s become a great area for local establishments. We have walking traffic year-round, a wonderful surrounding neighborhood, and the doorstep to the CBD just a few blocks away.”
More to Come
And, with the opening of Framework, we know there’s more to come. Satsuma just opened up a new location in the building, and restaurants like American Chinese eatery, Blue Giant, and thalia — the second concept by Chefs Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig of Coquette — are both set to open in the neighborhood soon.
“The neighborhood’s already got great coffee, cake, dinner, wine, beer and whiskey covered,” said Deegan of Barrel Proof. “And the more places that open, the more people will be able to come to our neighborhood and hit a bunch of great spots without even stepping into an Uber. It’ll all be right here. That’s the hope.”
It’s a hope that’s closer to being realized every day.
WRITER MATT HAINES LIVES IN NEW ORLEANS. FOLLOW HIM AT MATTHAINESWRITES.COM, AND ON FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER.