Bourbon Street may be the best known place to party in New Orleans, but here’s why you should skip it for Frenchmen Street instead.
If you look at a map of The Crescent City, you will find a number of streets that proceed in an east-west fashion, only to make a sudden left turn away from the Mississippi, continuing north under a different name. (What are they escaping, one wonders?) In this way, two famed New Orleans corridors—Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street—come close to having a corner in common, but miss the connection by just a couple of blocks. And therein lies the metaphor. “I can tell you that Frenchmen Street could be considered by some as a sort of bohemian haunt,” says Bill Arceneaux, writer for Big Easy Magazine. “While the city itself is home to weirdos and misfits of all shapes and sizes, Frenchmen has an especially begotten artsy quality to it I find, and almost punk at times too. Mind you this is no ‘hardcore’ street, but it does appreciate diversity and eclectic attitudes.”
To say that Frenchmen Street, which begins just east of the French Quarter on the precipice of New Orleans Marigny neighborhood, is the Big Easy’s “best kept secret” would seem to defy the lively throng of locals and travelers alike that parade its sidewalks nightly in search of the best live music scene, or more. “The cat’s out of the bag,” offers Arceneaux, “but of course we’d want to share the wears and tears of Frenchmen for anyone and everyone willing to participate!” And participation is key. It may be no secret, but it is safe to say that Frenchmen Street is the perfect place where all the sights and sounds that make Nola wild and wonderful converge, with options for every manner of culture-seeker, if your culture is art, eccentricities, live music, Creole cuisine, or just a sick party, dude. This Mardi Gras, skip the more, ahem, “predictable” antics of Bourbon Street, and head on over to Frenchmen, night or day (but especially night), and enjoy a real live look at good times rolling.
The Live Music of Frenchmen Street
New Orleans, and especially the French Quarter, is a place where even during the day you can feel the residual throb of last night’s bass drums reverberating in the very pavement, with bands upon bands in nearly every bar. Bourbon and Frenchmen Streets alike share this vibrant live music scene, but whereas you’ll find a lot of famous cover songs emanating up and down Bourbon Street (by nonetheless incomparable musicians), Frenchmen offers a selection of all the various musical influences that convene to make New Orleans exactly what it is: jazz, blues, reggae, afrobeat, hip hop, funk—you feelin’ me yet? If Bourbon Street is an expertly-assembled party soundtrack primed to achieve maximum “woohoo!” status, Frenchmen Street is like a funky playlist curated by the most esoteric hipster vinyl collector, except that like, you’ll totally still want to dance to all of it. Frenchmen’s most famous music venues include Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, Apple Barrel, Three Muses, d.b.a., Bamboulas, Café Negril, and Maison. Arceneaux also recommends Checkpoint Charlie’s for some local color: “drinking and listening to music and local talk.” Any of these is worth a pilgrimage unto itself, or else just wander up and down the street and go where the voodoo moves you.
The Restaurants of Frenchmen Street
Even as a die-hard New York City resident, if I had to stake my claim on the most interesting food city in the U.S., it would be New Orleans. (Fight me.) For my taste, no other city lays claim to as many site-specific delicacies—I’m thinking those famous beignets, pralines, po’ boys, jambalaya, muffaletta, etc.—while still being the kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere that has any and every world cuisine on offer. And the whole world is on Frenchmen Street, so you can have it all without having to leave the party. Case in point: nearly all of the aforementioned music clubs also serve dinner, many with a Creole attitude. Plus, a meander of just a couple of blocks gets you everything from the quick and/or lowbrow: alligator sausage dog at Dat Dog or falafel at Mona’s, to the middlebrow: like, there is an entire Mac and Cheese section of the menu at Marigny Bistro, to the highbrow: actually, scratch that. You won’t find a ton of white tablecloth affairs on Frenchmen Street proper, but highbrow is not exactly why you came to Nola in the first place, right? Tacos? Thai? Sushi? All on Frenchmen Street. Italian? Soul food? Covered. (It bears mentioning that Café du Monde and Central Grocery, New Orleans musts, are as close to the intersection of the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street as one can get.) Late night munchies? There’s this spot called 13 Monaghan that specializes in “tachos” (that, is, tater tot nachos,) and one menu item is even called “srirachos,” and I’m sorry but I’m going to have to go check that out right now.
The Bars of Frenchmen Street
The Hurricane is a good time and all, and aptly-named to transform you into a natural disaster. Fortunately, Frenchmen Street has you covered for some more adult, craft libations that one might approach in a more genteel fashion as to not have to declare yourself a state of emergency. New Orleans cocktails are the stuff of legend, built to accompany the complexity of jazz, but you need not fight your way to the bar at the most long-standing establishments for a proper Vieux Carré or Sazerac. Many Frenchmen Street outfits are playing the cocktail game in a more understated, worthy manner. Start your day before visiting the Frenchmen art market or Louisiana Music Factory with a renowned Bloody Mary or Mardi Gras-themed King Cake Cocktail at Ruby Slipper Café. For a potent potion to begin your night, try a Storyville Sling at Maison (music, food, and cocktails—even a mixology class on offer—truly Maison is one-stop shopping). Newcomer Royal Bar at the Royal Frenchmen Hotel was quick to enter the “best of” lists, and offers a $3 martini happy hour. (So much for maintaining decorum.) If spirits are less your thing, Frenchmen Street now has a brewery that calls it home, and with it one of the best brew pun names on record: Brieux Carre Brewing Company.
In short, Frenchmen Street has all the makings of memorable New Orleans Mardi Gras experience, with photo ops you can likely still show your parents.
Related Video: Get the Party Started with These Mardi Gras Cocktails
Header image courtesy of Maison.