Bar Owners Bet on Locals to Bring Back Bourbon Street
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When the end came for Johnny White’s bar on Bourbon Street, it closed the book on one little piece of local French Quarter life. Soon, the old barroom will reopen with a new name, new operators and a tall order before it – getting locals back to Bourbon Street.
Local restaurant owner Brian Mullin and his partners bought the property at the corner of Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue. They’re now developing a new a bar and restaurant here called Local 718.
They plan to open by Halloween in restaurant mode, using the full-service, limited-occupancy format that many bars have used to reopen in the pandemic.
When business restrictions loosen, it will be a 24-hour operation, which, like its predecessor, will include two small bars and one eatery.
The name Local 718 (not to be confused with the Ohio-based steelworkers union) riffs on the bar’s street address and Mullin’s aim for it.
“I know a lot of people are wondering what will happen to the French Quarter when they see places closing,” Mullin said. “We want this to be a place that shows how locals are coming back.”
Local 718 sits in the very heart of the city’s tourism hub. In normal times, this stretch draws a torrent of out-of-towners to drink and party and soak up the Bourbon Street atmosphere. Through the pandemic, even before bars could resume takeout drinks, visitors still flocked here.
But as the pandemic continues to alter travel and tourism, one looming question is how French Quarter business will change in the long run. That’s what Mullin and his crew are trying to answer at their own little corner of Bourbon Street.
For decades, Johnny White’s had stood in contrast to the big clubs around it, and it maintained a cadre of regulars alongside the tourists.
It gained new acclaim by staying open through Hurricane Katrina, keeping the drinks flowing as all hell broke loose. In the aftermath, news crews covering the catastrophe set up shop in the bar, and the tale of the plucky pub that carried on became legend.
The bar’s history goes back to namesake Johnny White, a coach and teacher who in 1969 opened his first bar around the corner on St. Peter Street (known as the original Johnny White’s). The Bourbon Street bar followed in 1989 and was composed of several small bars with different names that operated under the same roof over the years.
The most recent incarnation of that cluster included Johnny White’s Corner Pub (on the corner), Johnny White’s Hole in the Wall (adjacent, and attached) and Johnny White’s Pub & Grill (upstairs).
They all ceased operation March 16 during the first coronavirus shutdowns. However, the bar’s family owners had been in talks to sell the property before the pandemic arrived. By May, that deal was completed and this chapter of Johnny White’s was done.
A few months later, news came that the original Johnny White’s bar on St. Peter Street also would not reopen. This time, family owners attributed the closure directly to the pandemic, and the business restrictions enacted to fight it.
“It’s been a really depressing time in the industry, people are hurting,” said Melissa Harrigan, general manager at Local 718. “They need to see some good things happening, they need to see what’s going to be here when the plywood comes down.”
She said living up to the history of Johnny White’s means cultivating a local appeal, and that starts with the people on staff.
“People in the bar business in this town have followings, it’s like your hairdresser or your therapist, you go where they are,” Harrigan said, who previously worked at the Decatur Street restaurant Coop’s Place, which remains closed.
Bar manager Jeff Youngblood was previously a bartender at the nearby Erin Rose, and he’s seen how strong the local niche can be.
“Locals still want a comfortable place to come back to,” said Youngblood. “They want that place to go after work, or watch a game down here, to just hang out.”
Fellow service industry workers will get a discount at the bar. After all, one steady supply of locals in the French Quarter is always the people who work at other businesses in the neighborhood.
Mullin’s family has been in the bar business in New York and New Jersey for many years and he worked his way through it. He came to New Orleans for a job and decided to make it home. Last year, he opened a restaurant called the Little Easy on Julia Street, in the former home of La Casita.
The renovation for Local 718 is light. The layout will remain the same, with the two connected bars (the former “Hole in the Wall” section will be called the 5-Star Dive Bar). A small courtyard, previously used mostly for storage, will be reopened with a few outdoor tables. The kitchen will serve a mix of New Orleans staples (gumbo, red beans) and bar food (loaded fries, sliders).
The bar will have a DJ and, once restrictions loosen, live music and stand-up comedy nights.
By AP reporter Ian McNulty