From its low-key and relatively inauspicious beginnings as a party among a group of friends sharing a house in Tremé in 1972, Southern Decadence has become one of the largest and most raucous events in the annual New Orleans party calendar — and given the number of large and raucous events in town each year, that’s saying something.
One of its main draws is that it turns a substantial chunk of the French Quarter into a giant block party. (That is, more than it is already.) So what difference does it make which bar you get your go-cup from?
Turns out, bars really are a central part of the Southern Decadence experience. Each one offers its own unique atmosphere and, in some cases, signature cocktail. And if early September weather patterns in New Orleans hold true this weekend, you’ll want to make sure you’re holed up in the right one to wait out the inevitable thunderstorm that passes through.
Golden Lantern (1239 Royal St.)
No Southern Decadence experience is complete without raising a cup (or getting one to go) at the Golden Lantern, which has been the official starting point of the Decadence parade since 1981. The single entrance on Royal Street means that getting in and out can be a little difficult when it gets crowded, but once inside you’ll find a convivial space with a veritable archive of New Orleans gay historical memorabilia on the walls and some of the friendliest bartenders in the Quarter. No cover.
Bourbon Pub/Parade (801 Bourbon at St. Ann streets)
Oz (800 Bourbon at St. Ann streets)
Together, these two clubs form the pulsing, rainbow-colored epicenter of what gay locals and visitors alike affectionately call the Fruit Loop: the cluster of gay bars within a few block radius from the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann streets. With their balconies overlooking all the action and constant stream of club music, they may seem indistinguishable to the casual observer.
But each has its own personality: The Bourbon Pub tends to be more cheerful and attracts a more diverse crowd (including women and older visitors of all sexes), while Oz skews a little younger and has more of an edgy nightclub vibe. Both charge covers for dance parties and special events, and weekend passes for each are available.
Café Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon at Dumaine streets)
Anchoring the downriver side of the Fruit Loop is what many sources claim is the oldest continually operating gay bar in the United States — and if Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote drank there, it’s certainly worth your time too. These days it’s less a magnet for literary geniuses than a crowd that’s especially popular with the bear community: the excellent wraparound balcony (with a killer view down Bourbon Street) as well as the entire corner of Dumaine and Bourbon streets will be filled all weekend with plenty of big and brawny bonhomie. No cover.
Good Friends (740 Dauphine at St. Ann streets)
If the Fruit Loop has an equivalent to “Cheers,” it might be Good Friends. It might not necessarily be a place where everyone knows your name, but it’s a place where pretty much anyone can feel comfortable. That might have something to do with the fact that it’s known for its legendary Frozen Separators: a delicious (and deceptively alcoholic) concoction that’s akin to a creamy Brandy Alexander-flavored slushie. (Whipped cream and a cherry are optional and recommended). One or two of these and you’ll be making plenty of new friends in no time. No cover.
700 Club (700 Burgundy at St. Peter streets)
Yes, the irony of a gay bar in the middle of the French Quarter that shares a name with an evangelical broadcast institution (www1.cbn.com/700club) is lost on no one. Somehow this place never feels as crowded as other bars do on big party weekends, and is thus a good place to escape to if you’re feeling claustrophobic elsewhere. (Also good if you’re hungry — their tiny kitchen turns out some pretty tasty pub grub.) No cover.
Rawhide (740 Burgundy at St. Ann streets)
At the other end of the Fruit Loop, Rawhide attracts a down-to-earth crowd of men who like being with men doing manly things — which means that women will feel distinctly out of place here. That said, it’s worth checking out for its sweaty, old-school cruisy vibe that’s increasingly rare in this current app-obsessed age. Cover charge at door.
Phoenix (941 Elysian Fields Ave. at North Rampart St.)
AllWays Lounge (2240 St. Claude Ave.)
Further afield in the Faubourg Marigny, the Phoenix and AllWays Lounge are definitely worth a long stroll (during the day) or short ride (after nightfall) to escape the Quarter crowds for a while. The Phoenix is New Orleans’ premiere leather bar and attracts a correspondingly butch crowd, while AllWays has become a beacon for all things queer and fabulous thanks to its frequent theme parties and alternative drag and performance events.