After watching a performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, I wandered through the (very nicely) restored Armstrong Park, emerging under the arch onto North Rampart Street. There aren't as many nightlife options as there used to be on Rampart — R.I.P., Donna's and the Funky Butt, Mama Rosa's and Mother Bob's — but across the street you've still got a few choices for a nightcap. In the 800 block, there were two choices that couldn't be more stark. Outside Bar Tonique, there was a clutch of Sex and the Crescent City girls on their iPhones. Down the street, next to a laundromat, a large transvestite sat in front of an equally intriguing bar, making her own phone call.
Way back in 2008, when the craft cocktail movement in New Orleans was still pretty much limited to Arnaud's French 75, Bar Tonique brought things like house-made tonic waters, tinctures and meticulous measuring to an unlikely block of North Rampart. Inside Tonique, it's all old brick and mood lighting, and you've got your choice of sitting at the horseshoe bar, out back on the patio or on a seat near the window to watch Rampart's passing parade. Depending on when you're there, you can find Uptown drinkers, other bartenders, on-the-prowl singles or in-the-know tourists, but you'll always find classic, well-balanced cocktails prepared extremely well and presented with care.
Just a few doors down is Michael's on the Park, one of those French Quarter/Faubourg Marigny spots that people describe as "a gay bar, I guess, but sort of a neighborhood bar, too." On this night, it had $4 bottles of ice-cold Abita, people shooting pool and "Les Femelles Fatale," a drag show hosted by one of the bartenders, Princesse Stephaney. But the real prize was the back patio, a secret little courtyard overlooked by tall buildings and a rickety apartment building straight out of A Streetcar Named Desire (or Shake the Devil Off). It wasn't as luxe, manicured or well-lit as Bar Tonique's tony patio, but its low-key modesty was a better way to finish the evening.
Bar Tonique, 820 N Rampart St., 324-6045; www.bartonique.com
Michael's on the Park, 834 N Rampart St.; 67-3615
Oak Wine Bar, the fanciest joint on Oak Street, features great tapas, dozens of wines by the glass and live music in an upscale room that's as much L.A. as N.O. ("Wine Down Wednesdays" feature half-price bottles of wine). Then cross South Carrollton Avenue for the short walk to Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge — no sign, but look for the falling-down shed with the Christmas wreath on top. Inside you'll find dirt-cheap cans of Schlitz and a happy hour that starts at 7 p.m., when the place opens — in other words, the city's ultimate dive bar, and proud of it. The scene really gets going around 3 a.m., but it's fun any time. Oak is non-smoking; at S&J's, the secondhand smoke level makes it positively compulsory.
Oak: 8118 Oak St., 302-1485; www.oaknola.com
Snake & Jake's: 7612 Oak St., 861-2802; www.snakeandjakes.com
Start on the third floor of the Ritz-Carlton on a weekend night, where trumpeter Jeremy Davenport is holding forth in the Davenport Lounge to a crowd that will include tipsy young women and cougars. Then leave the hotel by the back entrance on Iberville Street and walk a block to the Alibi (look for its non-ironically kitschy '60s sign hanging from its cast-iron balcony). Inside you'll find a great selection of beers and a lot of Quarter service industry workers blowing off steam after a night of dealing with tourists.
The Davenport Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton, 921 Canal St., 524-1331; www.ritzcarlton.com
The Alibi, 811 Iberville St., 522-9187; www.alibineworleans.com
With its neighborhood vibe, tapas menu, reasonably priced drinks and live music, everybody seems to love Mimi's in the Marigny — which means it can get crowded, especially on Saturdays, when DJ Soul Sister spins rare tracks upstairs for her weekly "Hustle!" dance party. Too crowded? Walk across the street to the venerable gay bar Big Daddy's (no relation to the late lamented Bourbon Street strip joint of the same name). Inside, you'll find a low-key, non-scenester crowd of friendly neighborhood regulars and strong drinks at great prices.
Mimi's in the Marigny, 2601 Royal St., 872-9868; www.mimisinthemarigny.net
Big Daddy's, 2513 Royal St., 948-6288