Last Call for Neighborhood Bars?

Local watering holes are poised to become casualties of the pandemic.


A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


Every day since the COVID-19 shutdown, retired New Orleans firefighter Kevin Lee makes his way to the corner of 6th and Chippewa streets where he sits alone inside his bar — Pete’s Out In The Cold. Walking by, neighbors wave at Lee’s cameras to say hi, or honk the horn when they pass.

“I’m still the protector of the neighborhood,” he says proudly. Lee says Pete’s, an Irish Channel institution since 1931, is the last area holdout. “There used to be 10 bars right here and we’re the last.”

New Orleans’ neighborhood bars are deeply woven into the cultural fabric of the city.

“So many of our customers have met their spouses here, and now their grown children frequent my bar,” says Polly Watts, second-generation owner of the Avenue Pub. “It’s where people come to celebrate and mourn. They regard our bar as an extension of their own homes.”

Many bars with food permits continued to operate throughout the pandemic, while those without have become what Danielle Boyce Batten, owner of the Little Bar On Gravier in the Central Business District, calls “the political scapegoat of Covid.” As a member of the city’s Reopening Advisory Panel, Batten co-chairs the Economics/Data working group. “The statistics are skewed,” Batten says. “The data does not discern between bars with or without food permits.”

I visited a Mid-City bar with a food permit recently and saw Batten’s point. Inside the cool, dark space regulars were seated at tables instead of on barstools, sharing orders of French fries that allowed them to indulge in day drinking, a favorite New Orleans pastime. Enforcement of the provision requiring 51% of sales to be in food seemed unlikely to me.

Bar owners say navigating the labyrinth of changing regulations has been exhausting, both financially and personally. Initially, many rushed to receive provisional food service permits. Then, on June 13, all bars were allowed to reopen with limited indoor capacity when further restrictions were lifted. Two weeks later, the rules changed again, restricting sales to curbside service of sealed containers. T. Cole Newton of St. Claude Avenue’s Domino reported, “By operating with a skeleton staff, we were able to turn a small profit that month.”

Frozen, alcoholic beverages have long been an exception to the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control laws, so many bars responded by investing in equipment. One such business owner is Kelder Summer-Jones. She and her husband, Ken, opened Whiskey and Sticks in the Bayou Road business corridor during the summer of 2018, calling it their “retirement plan.”

“To comply with takeout regulations, we purchased a frozen drink machine, but by the time it arrived, the rules had changed again,” says Summer-Jones.

After images of French Quarter crowds hit the national news, Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered all bars closed at midnight on July 12, without any indication of when they might reopen.

In late August, during a call with city business leaders, Sarah Babcock, the director of healthy environments and communications for the New Orleans Health Department, explained that the city’s resources were prioritizing opening Orleans Parish schools. Once schools operated for four to six weeks with no virus resurgence, she said, re-opening bars would be considered.

“There was total silence on the line,” saidWatts. “Everyone was stunned to learn the situation was hopeless until mid-October or early November at best.”

Meanwhile, the party continues unabated on Bourbon Street with crowds sporting to-go drinks mixed with package liquor from nearby stores. Cure’s Neal Bodenheimer pointed out that for the first time, “Municipalities across the nation are giving their constituents the option of to-go drinks with takeout meals.” Across Louisiana, curbside alcohol sales continue, but in the city that invented the “go-cup,” bar owners are left empty-handed as another piece of New Orleans’ deep culture appears poised for extinction.


Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.