Last year, more than ten million people visited New Orleans. They stood on the steps at St. Louis cathedral, crossed Jackson Square, and walked past Cafe du Monde to see the Mississippi River’s wide path beneath the Crescent City Connection. They went to Bourbon Street and drank hand grenades, then went to Pat O’Brien’s and drank hurricanes. They woke up with headaches.
Just east of the Quarter, less familiar neighborhoods provide new opportunities for entertainment in the Crescent City, away from the overwhelming activity of the French Quarter and distinctly different from the grandiose elegance of the Garden District. A weekend in the Bywater/Marigny showcases the art, dining, and music that makes New Orleans famous in venues far fewer tourists have explored.
Many visitors begin trips to New Orleans with beignets, and there’s nothing wrong with that! However, there are plenty of other indulgent breakfast options. One example is the praline bacon at Elizabeth’s, a quirky restaurant alongside the river on Chartres in the Bywater. Best known for their brunch, Chef Byron Peck offers up decadent dishes like Bananas Foster French toast and “redneck eggs” (with fried green tomatoes and hollandaise).
Then there’s Cake Cafe’s boudin and eggs. Also on Chartres, but in the Marigny, Cake is perhaps best known for offering a cupcake for $1 with any meal. (Yes, you should eat a cupcake with breakfast). Their apple and goat cheese king cakes are also a favorite when available during Carnival season. Chef/Owner Steve Himelfarb’s dishes reference classic American favorites and integrate local ingredients – like boudin, a Cajun sausage made from pork liver and rice. Cake’s version takes the sausage out of the casing and sears it hot on the griddle in patty form, served with coarse ground yellow grits, eggs, and fluffy biscuits. The preserves are house-made, too.
The best way to get around the Bywater/Marigny is with a bike, but the area is also relatively walkable, particularly if visitors staying in the CBD or Upper Quarter take the recently expanded street car line from Canal Street to Elysian Fields down Rampart. Several companies, including Confederacy of Cruisers, offer affordable bike rentals as well as bike tours. (There are tours for everything in New Orleans. Whether it’s food, spirits, ghosts, vampires, Hurricane Katrina, or the Civil War, there’s probably a tour for that). Recently, the city also started a public bike rental program, with plans to install 70 different pick up and drop off points with more than 700 bikes available. There are several different locations in the Bywater/Marigny, with plans to open more.
Most homes in the Marigny/Bywater are shotguns or Creole cottages. Both architectural styles include features designed to combat New Orleans’ famed heat and humidity. There are wide doors and windows with shutters and often front porches. Creole cottages typically have a wide central hallway for ventilation, while shotguns, as the name suggests, feature one room after another with a series of doors or openings that align to allow for air flow. In the Bywater/Marigny, many homes are shotgun doubles – featuring a unit on either side. They are painted in vibrant colors, creating a tropical feeling often exacerbated by the heat.
Exploring the neighborhood after a meal often leads people to Crescent City Park, a recently constructed green space formerly occupied by wharves and heavy industry. The park’s clever design includes elements of these former tenants integrated into the new space such as large concrete areas that used to dock ships converted into basketball courts. There’s also a dog park and a paved biking/walking path that follows the Mississippi River nearly to the eastern end of the Bywater. Once you’re there, check out the Music Box Village, an artist-built sculpture garden featuring giant, playable instruments, located where Rampart dead ends into the Industrial Canal levee. (The Village is open to the public on the weekends during the day, with musical performances happening most weekend evenings and intermittent weeknights).
If you’re ready for Happy Hour, Bacchanal Wine is also nearby. Live music often starts early on the weekends, on a stage in front of dozens of outdoor tables. There is also seating inside and a bar, but most people purchase wine by the bottle from a shop in front, as well as cheese, which staff takes and plates along with olives, preserves, and crispy bread from local Bellegarde Bakery for one of the city’s best cheese plates. There are also ample small plates options, which rotate seasonally.
There are numerous dinner options in the area, with the bulk of fine dining menus offering up a mix of New American trends and local touches. A good way to sample multiple restaurants is with a visit to the St. Roch Market, where nearly a dozen vendors offer everything from empanadas to oysters. The market’s history dates back almost 100 years, when it functioned as a space for raw seafood and produce vendors. Named after the St. Roch neighborhood which it technically inhabits, the building sits on the dividing line between that area and the Marigny on St. Claude Avenue – the primary thoroughfare of the Marigny/Bywater. St. Roch spent his life healing the sick in the 14th century, and his name became attached to the neighborhood after respite from a particularly severe yellow fever epidemic in the 1800s.
Quickly becoming second only to Bourbon Street in popularity is Frenchmen Street, in the Marigny, a center for live music both in and outside of venues. This is the place to go for music in New Orleans as a visitor, because the concentration of venues is so great, and there are always brass bands performing in the street on weekend nights. Biking at night in the area can be more difficult, so a Lyft or Uber is the best option.
Popular venues include The Spotted Cat, where live music plays daily from 2pm-2am on a tiny stage. Frenchmen is one of the only streets in the United States where people can still consistently hear live jazz music, and with that also comes swing dancing, which happens weekly at The Maison, a block down the street. Many participants are skilled dancers, but everyone is welcome. Arrive on Friday between 5-7pm for a $10 lesson from a champion Lindy Hopper, and then dance the night away.
One of the Bywater’s most popular new additions is Bywater Bakery, which offers up a chicory coffee and pastry combo for $5. Another modest breakfast option in the area is The Orange Couch, a modern, Marigny coffee shop with shockingly good gluten free zucchini bread and, as the name suggests, an orange couch as the decorative focal point in an otherwise clean, white space.
For those who want to continue the weekend’s indulgences – try Horne’s, a brunch spot on Dauphine in the Marigny with over the top entrees like the Orleans Slammer: eggs, hashbrowns, bacon, chili, and cheese. (It will cure a hangover). They also offer traditional breakfast options, in a small space that has that sense of warmth that comes from a lot of well-stained wood and handmade ceramics.
The Bywater/Marigny has a reputation as a home for a growing number of cosmopolitan artists and creatives, and in the last decade dozens of galleries have opened across the two neighborhoods. On Saturdays, most are free and open to the public, and artists are often available to talk about their work. These are small, intimate spaces, usually showing the work of one or a small handful of people. Some of the best on St. Claude include Antenna Gallery, Good Children (St. Claude Avenue used to be called Good Children Street), and Barrister’s.
If you’re visiting on the right weekend, the best way to experience art along St. Claude is during Second Saturdays, a coordinated opening of more than thirty participating galleries from 6-9pm on the second Saturday of each month. (Some of the galleries – like Staple Goods, are a few blocks away from the primary thoroughfare – but worth branching out for).
For those ready to start drinking again (laissez les bon temps rouler, as they say), Saturday afternoon is a good time to visit Parleaux Brewery in the Bywater. The small batch, craft brewery has a wide variety of beers on tap that they rotate routinely, and they offer free yoga on Sundays.
One of the neighborhoods’ longest running restaurants is Jack Dempsey’s, an ideal dinner spot in the Bywater on Poland Avenue. The food is quintessential New Orleans, meaning primarily unreasonably large portions of well-priced, well-prepared, local seafood. The casual atmosphere and old school appearance are both also a welcome respite from the sometimes almost overwhelmingly hip vibe of the Marigny/Bywater.
Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, when many middle class white New Orleanians moved to Jefferson or St. Bernard parishes, both the Marigny and Bywater were primarily white, working class neighborhoods. Many people made a living working on the docks or on the water. Jack Dempsey’s reflects that history, when po boys and beer joints were more common in the neighborhood than microbreweries and art galleries.
To end the evening in a similar vein, check out BJ’s bar in the Bywater. This cash only hole-in-the-wall has cheap drinks and local music on the weekends. Little Freddie King has his birthday party there every year.
By now, most visitors are either ready to move to New Orleans and consume 3,000 calories/day or ready to go home and cleanse. If you’re the latter, go to Satsuma and get a green juice. For those holding the former opinion, head to Buffa’s Bar, where brunch with a traditional jazz band starts at 11am every Sunday. It’s not the jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace. Expect lots of noise, cramped space, and first come first serve seating. The music and the positive energy outweigh the drawback of the crowds. During the inevitable wait for your food, listen to the music, and think about how jazz represents centuries of unique traditions that all collided in New Orleans, with different cultures arriving everyday, creating new art and traditions that make their way all around the world.