Just a few miles downriver from the French Quarter, not far from where the Mississippi bends into its famous crescent, there’s another New Orleans to discover – the boho Bywater. A neighborhood with deep New Orleans roots, this vibrant mix of residential, retail and green space was a magnet for outliers and artists drawn to its gritty and ramshackle charm. Fast forward a handful of years and Bywater remains architecturally intriguing, a red hot address with a smattering of funky shops and locally owned restaurants that thrum with New Orleans vitality. Since Bywater is my neighborhood, here are some of my favorite places to discover.
While its residential and commercial architecture tracks the city’s history, Bywater is historically significant in another way. A section of Press Street between Bywater and Marigny was changed to Homer Plessy Way in 2018, paying homage to Homer Plessy, a local Creole who protested segregation by sitting in a Whites-only rail car. Sixty-one years before Rosa Parks helped changed the rule of law by sitting at the front of a bus in the Jim Crow South, Plessy made his case, but lost in the 1896 Supreme Court decision supporting segregation laws for public facilities.
Bywater is shot through with eye-popping public mural art, sprucing industrial buildings with multi-story portraits, affirming messages and brilliant outsider art offering a world where alligators are purple and catfish swim in a turquoise river. Check out Nnamdi the Gator by Devin DeWulf at Burgundy and Clouet, Iko, a celebration of second lines and social aid and pleasure clubs at St. Claude and Franklin and Ernie K-Doe by Lefty Parker, a smiling portrait of the local legend splashed over the pink building that used to house Euclid records at the corner of Chartres and Desire.
Art lovers will also find galleries to explore, including Dr. Bob’s folk art at 3027 Chartres and the New Orleans Art Center/Gallery, 6,500 sq. ft of exhibit space spotlighting local artists of all ilk. Embrace your artsy side the second Saturday of every month with exhibits and open houses throughout the St. Claude Art District. For something completely different, immerse yourself in the surround-art of Music Box Village, a one-of-a-kind, artist-built sculpture garden that hosts art and music events in an eclectic outdoor setting.
Bars and Music
Bywater bars tend to be low key neighborhood hang outs. Markey’s Bar on Louisa serves bar grub, a wide selection of local beers and potent cocktails. A lively spot to watch sports, Markey’s offers outside seating for pet-friendly cocktailing. BJ’s lounge, Vaughan’s and J&J’s Sports Lounge are three local dive bars within stumbling distance of each other, each notable for cheap drinks and friendly service. Vaughan’s has live music on Thursday nights. Another music hot spot is Bar Redux on Poland, with tasty eats and an outside courtyard for chilling. Across St. Claude Avenue on Clouet, Saturn Bar is legend, family owned, home to live music some nights and a regular Saturday 80s dance party. Bacchanal at the bend of Poland and Chartres has live music seven days a week, a wine store up front and a fine menu of nibbles including one of the best cheese plates in town.
From oddball Chinese to cheap breakfast to barbecue and James Beard award winning cuisine, Bywater flexes its muscles as a formidable dining destination. Much of the good eating is clustered along the neighborhood’s border, St. Claude Avenue, where Junction is the spot for grass-fed beef burgers and beaucoup beers. Vegans and vegetarians adore the Sneaky Pickle, where veggie and grain bowls keep company with a few meat-based dishes. Reds is the place for unconventional Chinese, but don’t look for a sign that says the restaurant’s name, instead go in where you see a graphic red square on the outside shingle. Next door, Saint-Germain serves small bites and wine. Polly’s is just one of the great breakfast and lunch options, with Italian specialties conjured from sister restaurant Mona Lisa’s in the Quarter. Shake Sugary offers pastry and breakfast items, with a line of vegan and gluten free treats also on the menu.
Head into the neighborhood towards the river, and culinary riches abound. Must eats in the neighborhood include Bywater Bakery, where Chaya Conrad kills it with bagels on Wednesday, inspired cakes and an impressive line of sweet and savory King Cakes during Carnival season. Elizabeth’s is legend for brunch and Bloody Mary’s and praline bacon, as well as daily plate lunch specials. Frady’s One Stop Food Store serves cheap eats, dishing homemade, hot food at rock bottom prices, and always with a smile. Smell the Joint from a block away – the barbecue palace is always smokin’ something, but definitely do not miss he brisket, Pizza Delicious on Piety street serves imaginative (and delicious!) pies next door to Bratz y’all where brats and schnitzel reign supreme.
If it’s date night, head to the Country Club, where chef Chris Barbato crafts globally hued American dishes with creativity and finesse. There’s a saltwater pool and grill outback when it’s time for a staycation – $15 gets you access to the pool. James Beard award winning chef Nina Compton opened Bywater American Bistro on the first floor of the Rice Mill Lofts last year, following the success of Compere Lapin in the CBD. Compton, partner-husband Larry Miller and chef de cuisine Levi Raines make a stellar trio, delivering seamless front of the house service along with Compton’s particular haute Caribbean cooking.
Crescent City Park along the river is a gem, a 1.4 mile, 20 acre urban linear park that connects the neighborhood to the riverfront. Neighbors and visitors alike appreciate being able to walk along the river to the French Quarter out of traffic’s fray, ride a bike on a surface free of pot holes and sit and contemplate river views. Part of the French Market District, Crescent Park is also home to a Wednesday farmers market by the Piety Street bridge from 1 to 5 pm. Completed in 2015, the $30 million park funded through a post-Katrina recovery program, currently spans from Mazant Street to Elysian Fields, with talk of expansion in the works. You can walk down the steps or take the elevator on the French Quarter just minutes from the French Market. But don’t be surprised if Bywater calls you back – there’s just so much to discover here.