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Toasts of the Town 

Surveying New Orleans' best hotspots for cool drinks and regular live music

Ah, the haute couture of New Orleans: the grand architecture, five-star restaurants and hotels, vibrant art scene, and storied literary history, all set on the fabled backdrop of the Mississippi river.

And then there are the bars.

New Orleans' reputation as a drinking town isn't myth. Besides the annual outdoor bacchanalia of Mardi Gras, the Crescent City is filled with watering holes of all sizes and stripes -- which are filled with patrons who take their libations seriously. Whether you're in search of amazing absinthe, the sweetest mint julep or the perfect neat sazerac, there's a venue and bartender nearby ready to slake your thirst. Best of all, since music is the heartbeat of New Orleans, many bars and restaurants make steady live performances part of their ambience. As you head out into the night looking for just the right liquid refreshment and accompanying sounds, here's a guide to some of your best options.

If you're looking for upscale, head downtown. The touches at the French Quarter Bar at the Ritz-Carlton are a mirror of the hotel's famed amenities, right down to the complimentary bar munchies: deluxe mixed nuts and wasabi peas. And trumpeter Jeremy Davenport's cool jazz Thursday through Saturday nights -- his vocals and playing are often compared to Chet Baker -- is a perfect match for FQB's sophistication. (Retro jazz vocalist Ingrid Lucia sings away your workweek woes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.) Worldly ambience is also in effect a short walk away at the Bombay Club, known for its premium martinis. For a fitting soundtrack, Bombay Club presents New Orleans contemporary jazz artists like pianist Willie Metcalf and vocalist Samirah Evans on weekend nights.

Jazz and cocktails aren't limited to the French Quarter; top-shelf examples of both can be found at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street. d.b.a.'s made a name for itself among the hip younger crowd with its sweeping selection of premium scotches, whiskey and bourbon, and an impressive beer selection. On Monday nights, the Rob Wagner Trio provides adventurous music to match, with saxophonist Wagner often wailing like a young and ambitious Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And across the street frequently on Tuesdays at the Spotted Cat, the Cuban rhythms of Son del Pantano will have you thirsty for a rum punch or two.

Back into the Quarter on Decatur Street, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe's daily live entertainment roster -- in an intimate setting where there's never a cover charge -- remains one of the underappreciated gems of the local music scene. Even if the proprietor's endless catalog of sailing and drinking songs makes you feel a little seasick, Buffett leaves the singing to others here, and it's tough to beat relaxing with a premium margarita, listening to local bluesmen like Coco Robicheaux and Kenny Holladay.

For sheer New Orleans ambience, it's hard to top the famed bar at the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. With its subdued lighting, dark wood walls and cozy chairs, it's an apropos setting for the hotel where they filmed Pretty Baby. Veteran New Orleans guitarist John Rankin contributes to the lascivious vibe with his regular Tuesday night gigs, playing blues and New Orleans standards with style. Between sets, take your beverage of choice out on the Columns' massive front porch, and watch the streetcar go by for a quintessential New Orleans moment.

As long as you're headed Uptown, keep going to Le Bon Temps Roule, one of New Orleans' favorite neighborhood bars. The beer's always ice-cold, and the blue-collar atmosphere attracts both laborers and lawyers. It also makes Le Bon Temps Roule one of the best options in town when you really want to throw down, and on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the bar lets Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers and the Soul Rebels shake things up with some high-octane brass band sets.

And speaking of Kermit, he presides over one of New Orleans' legendary standing gigs, taking over Vaughan's in the Bywater on Thursday nights 'til the wee hours of the morning. And when crawfish and shrimp are in season, a full plate of spicy crustaceans is just the right kick-off to a cool longneck.

Such synonymous pairings raise the chicken or the egg question with establishments: which comes first, the bar or the music? Venerable establishments like the Maple Leaf are so identified with their live music performances that it's easy to forget that they'll serve up your beverage of choice in a cool atmosphere during the daytime, too. Still, for the full experience, the Maple Leaf boasts some of the best standing gigs in town, especially the ReBirth Brass Band's legendary Tuesday night parties, and Papa Grows Funk's Monday bashes to kick off the week. And Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl is the undisputed home of zydeco in New Orleans, with the top bands of the genre playing every Thursday night.

Whatever your taste, there's somewhere in New Orleans that offers your dream combination of sipping and syncopation.

click to enlarge Kermit Ruffins offers a quintessential New Orleans experience on Wednesday nights at Le Bon Temps Roule and Thursday nights at Vaughan's.
  • Kermit Ruffins offers a quintessential New Orleans experience on Wednesday nights at Le Bon Temps Roule and Thursday nights at Vaughan's.
click to enlarge On Tuesday nights, guitarist John Rankin's blues and New Orleans guitar work contributes to the alluring vibe of the Columns Hotel.
  • On Tuesday nights, guitarist John Rankin's blues and New Orleans guitar work contributes to the alluring vibe of the Columns Hotel.
click to enlarge Rosie Ledet is one of the stellar zydeco artists regularly featured on Thursday nights at Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl.
  • Rosie Ledet is one of the stellar zydeco artists regularly featured on Thursday nights at Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl.
click to enlarge Jeremy Davenport's cool jazz is a perfect match for the swanky vibe at the Ritz Carlton's French Quarter Bar.
  • Jeremy Davenport's cool jazz is a perfect match for the swanky vibe at the Ritz Carlton's French Quarter Bar.
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