Most visitors have wandered past the 219 Restaurant (219 King St.; 703-549-1141), just south of Market Square and next to the visitors center. It's an attractive and pricey Victorian restaurant with white tablecloths, chandeliers and large oil paintings meant to invoke turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Upstairs is the Basin Street Lounge, a reliable (and slightly less formal) place to see jazz trios and quartets Wednesday through Saturday, usually with low cover charges.
But I rarely make it that far because I'm always pulled down into the Bayou Room, the rough-edged boozer hidden in the building's basement.
Decorated with New Orleans street signs, stained glass, feathered masks from a long-ago Mardi Gras and, as of last weekend, a mounted warthog head wearing a green sombrero, it's unlike anywhere else in the historic district.
Despite the Bourbon Street decor, the Bayou Room lacks the bacchanalian atmosphere of, say, Lulu's Club Mardi Gras. Instead of the producers of "Girls Gone Wild," weekends are more likely to bring thirty-somethings in polo shirts blowing off steam and pumping their fists to vintage Beastie Boys or Def Leppard songs, or even younger folks in jeans and T-shirts drinking gin and tonics or pints of Yuengling. (There are boxes of Trivial Pursuit cards on the bar if your group craves something more intellectual, but you'll probably be drowned out when half the crowd begins shouting the chorus to Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name.")
It's far less raucous during the week, when you can grab a stool at the bar, watch a ballgame and soak in the divey surroundings, which include the building's original foundations and, in one of the odder traditions, hundreds of business cards stapled and taped to the ceiling and high on the rugged brick walls, most tattered, peeling and yellow from years of cigarette smoke.
There's no happy hour, but prices are low. Battered catfish nuggets are $4.95; a steaming bowl of red beans, andouille sausage and ham, served with a slab of French bread runs less than $6.
I dragged my old college roommate to the Bayou Room for a drink last week. He worked for a government contractor in Old Town for more than a year, but he'd never been in. "Oh, man," he said, as he tucked into a bowl of gumbo. "I wish I had known about this place when I worked in Alexandria."
-- Fritz Hahn (May 20, 2005)