Street of Dreams

After a couple of rough years, Frenchmen Street is hotter than ever.


It's Friday night in the Faubourg Marigny, and downtown hipsters dot the sidewalks -- making their rounds, chatting with familiar faces and planning for the evening. The parking spaces along Esplanade Avenue begin to fill up. By midnight, live music is playing at seven different clubs in a three-block section, and the crowds are spilling out into Frenchmen Street.

Frenchmen Street has long been a hot spot for local nightcrawlers, and after a few years of changing fortunes, it's getting hotter. When the Dream Palace, at 532 Frenchmen St., shut down in early 2000, the street lost its oldest nightclub tenant. (Clarinetist Jack Maheu tried to bring traditional jazz in its place, but that venue has already closed.) In March 2000, the Dragon's Den, above Siam Café at 435 Esplanade, closed in the midst of a legal dispute with the City of New Orleans. Yet while the summer of 2000 was a slow period for Frenchmen Street, it also was a time of rebuilding. The street was void of significant foot traffic even on weekends, but construction was under way at 618 Frenchmen, where d.b.a. would open that fall. Locals flocked instantly to the New Orleans branch of this popular Manhattan bar, which features a wide selection of top-of-the-line beer and liquor. Dragon's Den soon reopened and resumed booking live music nightly, a saving grace for neighborhood musicians who thrive on the Marigny's club scene.

"There is good music going on in other neighborhoods," says Dragon's Den manager Sarah DeBacher, "but it doesn't compare to here. This is where musicians come to hear each other play." Regular Den gigs like Cuban combo Los Vecinos on Sunday nights and Jeremy Lyons and the Deltabilly Boys on Monday nights are staples of the neighborhood's nightlife. Earlier this year, d.b.a. jumped on the live music wagon: the Rob Wagner Jazz Trio, the Middle Eastern band Mafouz, and DJ Droo are now all regular acts. Mainstay Snug Harbor continues to draw tourists and locals with top-flight New Orleans jazz and touring acts.

Since d.b.a. opened, the block of Frenchmen Street between Chartres and Royal has sprouted a handful of new businesses. Café Negril opened last month at 606 Frenchmen; the Jamaican-themed restaurant and bar features reggae and dancehall music on the stereo, and enormous vibrant murals with images of the likes of Bob Marley. Jamaican cuisine by Chef Cecil Palmer (the Manchester, Jamaica, native formerly of Palmer's Restaurant) is the main attraction, but Café Negril is picking up steam as a watering hole and late-night hangout, especially on weekends, when the Executive Steel Band performs. When reggae bands play across the street at Café Brasil (a longtime Frenchmen Street music destination), people hop from one venue to the other. "The people on Frenchmen Street are a different crowd than anywhere in the city," says Café Negril owner Mark Johari Lawes. "You have young people, old people, the whole spectrum."

Earlier this year, across the street from d.b.a., the Spotted Cat opened in a building that was vacant for years. A cozy bar with storefront windows, the Spotted Cat has a mellow candlelight atmosphere, and the nightly live music focuses on smaller combos and acoustic bands like Mike West and Myshkin. There also is an increasingly popular open mic poetry event every Tuesday night at 7 p.m. "We're flabbergasted at how wonderfully the street has turned around," says owner Trish Cone, who is "delighted" that she chose Frenchmen Street as the location for her bar. "I think it's the new Decatur Street," says bartender Daniel Finnigan. "My old favorite bar on Decatur Street is now one of those stores that blasts zydeco at you, so I could sense the tourist side of things pushing into my space there. Now, the local scene is on Frenchmen."

Many neighborhood dwellers view Frenchmen Street as a safe cultural haven for locals. While it's directly adjacent to the French Quarter, few tourists seem to find their way so far downtown. "It's just laid back," says DeBacher. "You can get cheap drinks on Frenchmen Street. You can run into your friends."

While business owners and residents are generally happy to see further development in the neighborhood, others stress the need for cautious progress. "Another Bourbon Street is exactly what nobody wants," says David Berman, president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. "What we do want is a civilized district where adults can listen to music."

Luckily for younger club-goers, the definition of civilized is subjective. On the weekends, there is still plenty of action on Frenchmen Street in the wee hours. As one neighborhood twentysomething explained while hanging out in front of the R Bar on Royal Street on a recent Sunday morning at 4 a.m.: "It's a typical night in the Marigny. You just walk around and around the Triangle until you fall asleep."

Caf' Negril owner Mark Johari Lawes and Chef Cecil Palmer bring a taste of Jamaica to Frenchmen Street. - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • Caf' Negril owner Mark Johari Lawes and Chef Cecil Palmer bring a taste of Jamaica to Frenchmen Street.

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