The Wednesday night open-mic crowd on July 30 huddled outside the back room at Buffa's Bar & Restaurant and shuffled into seats at several tables and a few stools facing the stage. In Buffa's front bar facing Esplanade Avenue, a group heckles Sharknado 2, the night's special feature on the bar's TVs. Holly, the bartender, says she'll be back at work the next morning — July 31, the date of the bar's Civil District Court hearing — but will be rooting for Buffa's from the bar.
The next morning, Buffa's musicians, staff and supporters — wearing gray and black T-shirts with the bar's red logo — filled Judge Paulette Irons' courtroom to support Buffa's, which faces a lawsuit from its neighbor Sidney Torres IV. Torres alleged the bar violates the city's sound ordinance and that the city improperly issued it a mayoralty permit to host live music. Buffa's received its permit in 2012 at the height of music schedule shuffles following a citywide crackdown on bars and venues that did not have proper permits. Armed with more than 50 statements from past performers attesting to its long-term status as a live music venue, Buffa's was grandfathered in. Earlier this month, the bar collected more statements from musicians in its defense.
After more than an hour of discussion outside the courtroom, Torres, Buffa's representatives and their attorneys reached a temporary compromise, one that limits live music at the bar.
Buffa's opened in 1939 at the same address where it stands today: 1001 Esplanade Ave. Its owners say the bar has hosted live music for nearly two decades, with two to three shows a week for most weeks beginning in 1996, and more frequent music performanes in the last several years. Gambit's archives show calendar listings for the bar as early as 1994 (with Walter "Wolfman" Washington & the Roadmasters and John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars playing Wednesday, Nov. 23, 1994).
Brothers Frank and Vincent Buffa Jr. own the building; since 2010, Chuck Rogers has owned the bar, which began operating 24 hours a day in 2007. According to Rogers, he made Torres aware of plans to soundproof the bar earlier this year, though Torres wrote an email in May saying "we feel it is premature for you to do any work to Buffa's that would advance Buffa's as a live music venue" until a forthcoming lawsuit played out in court. Torres filed the lawsuit in June.
Torres — the entrepreneur who ran SDT Waste and Debris and its French Quarter trash pickup, street cleaning and city recycling services — now operates The Cove resort in the Bahamas. Torres purchased the three-story property at 1011 Esplanade Ave. next to Buffa's in 1999; it currently is for sale, listed with French Quarter Realty.
In the lawsuit, Torres claims the music at Buffa's exceeds allowable noise levels and has damaged his property. According to the lawsuit, "noise" at the bar causes "physical discomfort and annoyance to any person of ordinary sensibilities seeking to reside in petitioner's property." The lawsuit also says the bar has caused "mental distress, pain and suffering" as well as "the inability to sleep, entertain and take solace in the privacy of their home." The lawsuit surprised the bar staff and regulars, who say Torres once was a regular. (Torres introduced Kid Rock to the bar.)
Rogers said he made repeated requests to measure sound from Torres' property.
"He ignored us," Rogers said. "We haven't had any contact with him at all."
Rogers also said that music at the bar ends no later than 2 a.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays, which feature acoustic duos, except for gigs during special occasions like Mardi Gras or the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Its midnight comedy show on Fridays doesn't have music.
On July 31, attorneys for Torres and Buffa's introduced the terms of the agreement: no live music on Mondays and Tuesdays; music must end at 9 p.m. Wednesdays; music must end at 9 p.m. Thursdays until Buffa's installs a sound curtain or other soundproofing measure, after which music can end at 11 p.m. (That music, however, must be a duo with no drums or amplified instruments except vocals.) On Fridays and Saturdays, the music must end at 11 p.m., and 3 p.m. on Sundays.
The 60-day compromise begins Aug. 4. The parties will regroup at the end of the 60 days.
The standing-room only courtroom was filled with bar supporters in Buffa's T-shirts. On the Civil District Court steps, however, several people wore T-shirts that read, "bring back old Buffa's," "no mayoralty permit" and "support our neighborhoods." According to the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), a supporter said a "private company" hired them. When asked if that company was Torres, the supporter said yes. Torres told Gambit he didn't hire anyone, adding that even if he did, it's no different than Buffa's musicians showing up to support their employer.
Wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and a slim black suit and skinny tie, Torres told Gambit he's satisfied with the terms of the agreement.
"Absolutely," he said. "My position has always been to work with Buffa's. ... I've been living there 17 years, and I know what's there now (at Buffa's) and what it used to do. ... We want Buffa's to succeed. We want musicians to play. We just want reasonable hours."
Rogers said the compromise is a "good step towards resolving the whole situation."
Rogers said the temporary sound curtain will be installed in the next week or so. "It's not just financing and money," Rogers said about installing soundproofing. "It's contractors, their schedules ... the curtain is a good first step."
Buffa's back room bar typically hosts movie nights on Mondays, which Rogers said will continue, as will the fall's Monday Night Football schedule. Rogers said he had planned to schedule jazz singer Antoine Diel on some of those nights, but will cancel those plans. Wednesday night features an open mic, which begins at 8 p.m., but will be rearranged. "We're going to have to shuffle that," said attorney Tommy Milliner. "When musicians find out, they're just going to have to get there early."
Thursday's schedule gets tricky. The new agreement requires duos only, which is not usually a problem; it's a slot typically held by Aurora Nealand and Tom McDermott at 8 p.m. But when they're not there, other musicians fill in (on Aug. 8 is Hannah Kreiger-Benson, Amy Tail and Emily Guidry). The weekend's late-night live music also will be rearranged, though the midnight comedy shows on Friday can continue. The agreement also will cancel upcoming gigs on Sunday nights.
Kreiger-Benson, who also represents MACCNO, said while she's glad the neighbors could reach an agreement, it shouldn't "be done on the fly in a courtroom."
"It sets a bad precedent in terms of process," she said. "Meanwhile, musicians' livelihood could be collater- al damage."
Judge Irons asked city attorney Dan MacNamara if he was satisfied with the compromise. The City of New Orleans also is named in the suit, which alleges the city illegally issued Buffa's its music permit. "You don't have a dog in this hunt?" Irons asked.
"Just a small one," MacNamara said, laughing.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's press secretary Tyler Gamble told Gambit the city couldn't comment on pending litigation.
Buffa's and Torres expect to meet in court again in October.