There's a rite of passage that almost every New Orleanian goes through at one point or another " usually early in their tenure here, or potentially during the infamous visit that prompted relocation to this swampy city of sin. It's the first time you look up, bleary-eyed, from the bar to squint at the street outside the door " or in some of the more hardcore, never-closing establishments, the plastic flaps that stand in for a door " to see sunlight. Not sunrise. Not the creeping blue-gray of pre-dawn light " but full-on morning sun. It's breakfast time. Order another High Life. If this is happening to you, you're in a dive bar. No lounge with a martini menu or a tapas selection will let you do this to yourself. Those kinds of places will close by 2 a.m. " maybe 4 " so that its staff members can collect their tips and go spend them at dive bars. New Orleans is rife with congenial dives, and there are more varieties than there are bottles of beer on the wall. There's the hipster dive bar, like the Saint (1111 St. Mary St.), where cheap domestic beer can be an affectation and DJs spin obscure vinyl. There are institutions like the junk-shop chic Saturn Bar (3067 St. Claude Ave.), and there are bars for serious drinkers, like the cabdrivers' favorite Smitty's (2483 Burgundy St.) in the Marigny, where tipplers must be buzzed in after a security-camera once-over from the bartender. There are the havens for, let's say, mature drinkers, like the Brothers Three (4520 Magazine St.) in Uptown.
The most improbably terrific stories of epic nights of boozy fun have the dives of New Orleans as their settings. After all, it's unlikely that you'll find yourself wearing a Viking helmet and reading a transsexual hooker's poetry at 7 a.m. over caipirinhas at the Lobby Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. Shabbiness and shadiness can make any watering hole a dive but what makes a dive bar truly legendary?
Dave Clements owns the storied Uptown shack Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge (7612 Oak St.), the locus of much after-hours fun. Outside, it's a tilting, tin-sided monstrosity that looks about to topple; inside, it's a pitch-dark tunnel lit vaguely by sparse Christmas decorations. 'We got rid of the jukebox because it kept breaking," Clements says. 'But also, it was too bright."
The spare conditions at his bar (which doesn't get going till after midnight and closes, often, at 8 or 9 in the morning), he says, create an atmosphere where patrons create their own fun.
'It's sort of like your downstairs basement," he says. 'Go down there, your parents aren't there, and you can get away with doing whatever. It's this little other world where you can go get into these crazy conversations with anybody." For a while, Snake's was home to a dubious Wednesday night tradition " which, he says, exists more in legend than in actual history " known as 'Naked Night," although, Clements says, they're doing their best to phase that out.
'People, frat boys would be calling from out of town, asking, "If I get naked, can I drink free?'" he says. 'We'd say, "It kind of depends on what you look like.'" The uncertain legality of it also prompted Clements to discourage the nudity. 'If you get naked, there's no guarantee you'll drink for free," he cautions.
On the other side of the coin is the gutter-glitter aesthetic of bars like the defunct Audubon Inn on St. Charles Avenue. An SRO hotel turned pseudo-Warholian art venue, the bar hosted DJ nights and fashion and art shows that served as the backdrop for ridiculous levels of hedonism from the hotel's residents and their friends. (One particularly memorable art show turned each hotel room into a distinct art installation; another party decorated each room as a specific sexual fetish.) It was homey in a surreal way, with regular performers or DJs coming downstairs from their rooms in pajamas for an afternoon eye-opener. Tom Harvey, a DJ who hosted a reunion party at the Country Club bar last Mardi Gras for former Audubon habitués, remembers its disco-dive appeal.
'You'd have the guys drinking at the bar in the middle of the afternoon like they had been for the last 35 years of their life, and the resident artists would start trickling down from their rooms," he says. Tuesday nights offered dollar beer for anyone who wanted to decorate the club with fresh art.
Like any good dive bar, it was the spot for the after-party, or the after-after-party, and anyone could show up " and did. The cast of the Real World New Orleans filmed a particularly drama-ridden episode around a night at the Audubon. The bar was also the only real electronic dance music venue in town, and touring DJs knew it.
'I got to DJ with Sasha and Charles Feelgood there," Harvey says, naming two world-renowned house DJs. 'They'd play a rave at the State Palace and call up after and say they wanted to play [the Audubon]. Those nights would go on until 11, 12, 1 in the afternoon the next day. I DJ'd for 12 hours straight on a regular basis. I don't know how I did that. Well, I know, but I can't tell you." Perhaps the most important quality of a dive bar, then, is that any day (or night) is Anything Can Happen Day.
'We keep it clean, but keep it funky, in the good sense of the word," says Clements. 'I'll come in to clean and I'm like, "What the hell happened last night?'"
- Cheryl Gerber
- The legendary Audubon Inn was home to all sorts of bohemian adventures.