New Orleans (CNN)The sultry rumble and chipper clang-clang of passing streetcars are as emblematic of the atmosphere of New Orleans as brass bands, jazz funeral lines and Creole cooking.
Favorite son Tennessee Williams bolstered the lore of it all in 1947 when “A Streetcar Named Desire” was published. (Blanche DuBois, en route to Stanley Kowalski’s residence, described it as “that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.”)
While the Desire streetcar line (named for a Bywater street, not to mention the name of a long-demolished housing project) is no more, New Orleans now has a new route: the North Rampart Street-St. Claude Avenue line.
Christened in October 2016, shiny red-and-yellow cars carry passengers from the palm tree-lined theater district of Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue, a neighborhood corridor revived with youth appeal and alternative music clubs and adventurous cuisine imported by rebellious newcomers.
Though locals have been slow to jump onboard the new line (it seems to be mostly used by bartenders, waiters, hotel staff and Harrah’s casino workers commuting to the French Quarter and its fringes), visitors coming to the city during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest will find it makes for an enthralling alternative bar crawl.
The Rampart-St. Claude line encompasses about two miles of restaurants and bars and a handful of destinations along the way, among them the French Quarter, Louis Armstrong Park, farflung Tremé (the real deal when it comes to jazz hubs) and the Faubourg Marigny, the latter the epicenter of spontaneous street music and local color.
New Orleanians and frequent visitors know the allure of the St. Charles line — the oldest continuously operating line/track in the world — is that you can pull the cord, kicking off a buzz, and get out at any street you like to marvel at antebellum mansions, walk over to the retail of Magazine Street or sip a Ramos Gin Zizz on the grand porch of The Columns Hotel.
The Rampart-St. Claude line, while far more abbreviated, provides similarly distinct opportunities to hop off and drop in to a watering hole or cafe along its path or to stroll into uncharted turf. (Do travel in a group; the streets are picturesque, but tipsy loners make easy prey for alley-loitering muggers and worse.)
Streetcar single fare is $1.25. For $9, you can get a three-day “Jazzy Pass,” so you can make a handful of stops. Exact fare is required for single fare. Streetcars on this line stop operating around midnight, so riders might want to gravitate back toward their lodgings’ surroundings for late-night revelry.
Testing the route
On a recent brisk but clear early Saturday evening, we kicked off our own streetcar nightlife crawl at the corner of Canal and North Rampart streets, the backdrop aglow with the newly restored neon signs of the revived Joy and Saenger live music and performance art theaters and the hotel and condo skyscrapers looming in the distance.
Near the entrance to pastoral Louis Armstrong Park (named for native son “Satchmo”), on the French Quarter side (Tremé is adjacent), is the Black Penny, our first stop.
A craft beer (nearly 100 varieties) and cocktail bar, the shabby-chic corner watering hole opened in 2015 but feels as lived in as the trompe l’oeil walls covered with salvaged barge boards and vintage framed photographs.
It’s a mostly young and stylish crowd, favored by pre-and-after-work restaurants staffs, and a perfect indoctrination to a more local scene. Grab a booth off the bustle of the bar.
Back on the streetcar, we approach the mustard-yellow corner storefront that is home to Meauxbar, a three-year-old restaurant with a lively bar scene.
With Spartan decor and a modern vibe (not seen enough in clutter-obsessed New Orleans), the restaurant is one of the most reliable spots for a romantic date over French-inspired cuisine (say, hanger steak au poivre with parmesan frites) and savory booze-absorbing comfort fare like a popular French onion grilled cheese stuffed with braised beef and onions, duck fat popcorn and chicken and boudin cassoulet.
Owner Robert LeBlanc, a handsome devil with an understated demeanor, takes a seat with our gang, nudging us toward trying a spiked sno-ball, overflowing with a dollop of shaved ice. We’re glad he did.
Modestly priced, Meauxbar. At happy hour, it’s $5 for a beer and a shot until 7.
A friendly port
Meauxbar is our fancy-leaning stop on the run. Now we head farther downriver to Esplanade Avenue, the oak-tree lined expanse off North Rampart that acts as a border separating the French Quarter and the Caribbean-flavored Faubourg Marigny.
Exiting the streetcar, we walk a few blocks up the cinematic avenue and can already smell our destination. We’re going where any savvy traveler does when in this area of town: Port of Call.
Besides the wooden sign announcing you are there, you’ll find on almost any given day or night a line outside the door, and one of the more diverse mixes of people, standing around drinking from Big Gulp-sized white plastic cups bearing the bar’s logo.
This is most likely the fruity-toxic Monsoon (take it easy, and start with its smaller version, the Windjammer, as we do from near-blackout experiences thereafter). “They’re lethal,” I hear one awaiting customer say with glee. The Monsoon is the local’s Hurricane alternative, afloat with pebble ice, pineapple-and-passion fruit, and light and dark rum.
Cleverly, the owners of this charbroiled-cheddar-burger-and-loaded baked-potato classic have, since the 1960s, blown vented grill smoke out onto the streets. You can smell Port of Call’s backyard cookout aroma even with car windows closed from five blocks away. It’s a divining rod to what’s in store.
It’s dark inside, and most of the time, freezing cold: There’s no way of putting it lightly. Its patronage — a mix of locals and tourists, black and white, lawyers and blue collars — largely have frames befitting the fare. Take your time to nab a stool at the horseshoe-shaped bar. It’s just more fun to be playfully heckled by the bar staff and mix with whoever is next to you.
Everyone has an anecdote; most are on their way to being jovially wasted. There’s a reason most of the male and female bartenders never quit or are dismissed. They’re some of the most comedic and expeditious servers in the city.
Off the line
A block south of the end of the line, along the St. Claude corridor, are several terrific live music and performance clubs: the AllWays Lounge and Theatre, The Hi-Ho Lounge and Siberia, a hat trick of character.
What separates them from the formidable selection of clubs to go to in New Orleans is that these spots often provide entertainment that is less conventional than the more legendary live jazz hubs New Orleans is known for. And you can jump from one to another if there’s a set break or the music’s not your bag.
The area may appear somewhat desolate, maybe even dodgy, between watering hole beacons, but it’s one of many corridors that have been tapped by a youthful set to the point where, like its adjacent Bywater neighborhood, it’s sometimes referred to as Brooklyn South.
We opt to head back to the Quarter fringe and get out of the streetcar on Orleans Avenue, where about 10 blocks away, in the neighborhood Tremé, the birthplace of jazz and onetime Congo Square, we enter the truly bona fide live music scene at the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar, within a 15-minute walk (but Google map it up).
In the heart of Tremé, where nearly every legendary jazz dynasty has come up and learned their trade with marching drums and trombones passed down to grandchildren, Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar is named after a hit composed and performed by R&B great Jesse Hill, whose family own it now.
On this night, about 10 p.m., James Andrews and the Crescent City Allstars are already in full swing. We’re in luck. Besides the charismatic and natty Andrews, the Treme Baby Dolls performers are in the house, bobbing parasols to the beat. These ladies of a certain age are dressed in sateen bonnets and baby-doll dresses, each a character unto themselves.
James Andrews, known as “Satchmo of the Ghetto,” is the older brother of Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews). Leading his band into jazz, R&B and blues standards, he alternates between belting his trumpet, singing in his raspy voice and battling an upright bongo.
The mixed crowd carries plates of barbecue and Southern staples (provided gratis) as an informal “second line” is formed, circling the dance floor.
In New Orleans, a little extra something, or unexpected prize, is called, in Louisiana French patois, “lagniappe.” Considering the embarrassment of riches of food, exceptional music, spectacle and welcoming vibe, we were over-served. Time to head home.