It’s a Monday night in the thick of a summer heat in New Orleans. It didn’t rain today, so the air is especially oppressive. But as the sun sets, I walk just a few blocks north of the historic French Quarter: suddenly, the heat is no longer the only thing on my mind. I have turned onto Frenchmen Street, one of the gems hidden among the hustle of the Crescent City.
All right, so it’s not so hidden any longer, especially during the peak of festival season, but during these long summer days, ending up on a (much) quieter Frenchmen is the perfect remedy for the high temperatures that accompany the off-season.
Frenchmen Street Stroll
Start at the Old U.S. Mint
The Old U.S. Mint, at the corner of Frenchmen and Esplanade Avenue is first on my stroll. Like the name suggests, the building was once a branch mint of the United States Mint from 1838-1861 and again from 1879-1909. Now, it serves as a museum for musical documentation. The third floor is home to a state-of-the-art venue, and with musicians like Davell Crawford and Donald Harrison playing there, the old posters, paintings, and sheet music within the venue are literally given a voice. I once saw a show there showcasing Loyola University New Orleans jazz students playing alongside the incomparable Johnny Vidacovich.
On to Dragon’s Den
When you cross the street heading away from The Mint, you arrive head on at Dragon’s Den, a two-story venue bathed in red light that’s also at the intersection of Esplanade Avenue and Frenchmen Street. My first Dragon’s Den experience was a themed burlesque show timing up with the summer solstice two years ago, just to give you an idea of their incredibly unique programming. There is also arguably the best courtyard in the area out back, within which to rest your feet after all that dancing.
Bonus: Rare Form, another venue the hosts quite a bit of free jazz, a style of jazz music based upon improvisation and breaking down conventional jazz standards, is located right next door.
The Maison, mais oui
Continue down the block and reach the intersection of Frenchmen and Decatur streets, or what I lovingly refer to as “the bottleneck.” Once you’re past this hub of vehicles and pedicabs, you’re in the thick of it. One of my absolute favorite venues is the one I hit next, The Maison. I have seen countless shows here, and I will see countless more.
The Maison’s reoccurring acts are some of my favorites: Gregory Agid Quarter playing modern jazz, the twisted gypsy music of The Good For Nothin’ Band, and the blues and funk of The Jesse Smith Project. That said, Aurora Nealand is playing when I walk in and is absolutely killing it on saxophone with her band The Royal Roses. Good vibrations, figurative and literal, abound from both inside the venue and out — just peer through the giant storefront window to see what I mean.
I’ve seen countless shows at Maison, and I will see countless more.
30/90 is the newest venue on Frenchmen Street. Paying homage to the actual latitude and longitude of New Orleans, the outside of the building fits in well with the architecture of the French Quarter but opens into a cool and hip space. I was here a lot during Jazz Fest this past year, but the most incredible sets were by Space and Harmony, a side project collaborations featuring members of Naughty Professor and The Revivalists; and Khris Royal & Dark Matter with music that brings together funk, jazz, rock, EDM, and R&B.
Up to you: Raucous and rowdy, or keep it mellow
Directly next door to 30/90 is the one and only Blue Nile, a two-story club with stages on both levels. I stumbled into Blue Nile during my first-ever trip to Frenchmen, and all I remembered the next morning was that I danced and laughed a lot. I have seen everything there from local Afro-beat band Kumasi to members of internationally renowned Lettuce throwing a birthday party show for their drummer. You cannot rationally expect to go to The Blue Nile and still get a good night’s sleep, but you will have a most excellent story to tell the next day.
If a raucous party isn’t your scene, skip it altogether and go straight to Three Muses, a small and intimate space with the tables packed tight and the music of Glen David Andrews, who plays there regularly, putting you into a jazz-themed calm. Apple Barrel is another of the more cozy spaces on Frenchmen Street and is the perfect place to catch psychedelic country blues duo Deltaphonic crooning away.
Feed the music
When you inevitably realize just how hungry you are, walk across the street to Cafe Negril. All the way to the back of the venue, you can choose from any one of their Mexican-style dishes smothered in cheese. Then, just stay put for the seductive reggae that wafts throughout the club.
Finish on a high note with three Frenchmen heavyweights
We’re nearing the end of our journey but that doesn’t mean the energy is fading. In fact, the next three venues are what I would consider Frenchmen heavyweights: d.b.a., Snug Harbor, and The Spotted Cat.
The first time I ever stepped foot into d.b.a. was to shoot photographs of the incomparable Chief Smiley Ricks and the Indians of the Nation during my first Mardi Gras season. The show ended with a second line—a well-known celebratory staple of life in New Orleans. The room, dating back to the 1880s, is made entirely of cypress wood, giving way to what musicians call “the warmest sound in the city.” And the musicians that have played there—Jimmy Buffet and Stevie Wonder, to name two—would know.
The main room at d.b.a. dates back to the 1880s and is made entirely of cypress wood, giving way to what musicians call ‘the warmest sound in the city.’
Snug Harbor also boasts some of the biggest and most talented names in jazz. Charmaine Neville and Delfeayo Marsalis of the Neville and Marsalis families, both considered New Orleans music royalty, are just two who play there regularly. The first floor is made up of three rooms renovated from an 1800s storefront, and there is a balcony perfectly suited for escaping from everything the outside world throws at you on a daily basis and becoming one with the music. The first time I ever had an assignment at Snug was for trombonist Jeffery Miller, and it was spectacular. Did I mention he hasn’t even graduated college yet? Talent and determination spills out of this city like nowhere else.
The Spotted Cat is another of my personal favorite joints on the stretch. You can always find someone you know there, whether they’re playing a set on stage or milling about at the bar. Put another way, The Spotted Cat is the Cheers bar of Frenchmen. I had the distinct pleasure of shooting for Pat Casey and The New Sound there, who play every Sunday night.
One last stop: The Marigny Brasserie
From those last three clubs alone you’ll have an adrenaline rush like you’ve never felt before. So the last stop to make is at The Marigny Brasserie. Self-described at “decidedly irreverent, passionate, and a little bit different,” the Brasserie has all the love and vibrations of the rest of the street but also with an air of calm to usher you back into real life (whatever that means).
For me, walking down Frenchmen Street is like rereading a journal that you’ve written in the past. Every venue I pass is attached to a beautiful and musical memory, and I can remember each show like it was last night. A stroll down Frenchmen is a truly wonderful experience. Even when you’re sweating through your clothes.
All photos by Katie Sikora unless otherwise noted