These days, last call comes at 6 p.m. at Molly's at the Market, a bar in the French Quarter across the street from the French Market Place and several hundred yards from the Mississippi River.
"Last call" are two words not normally associated with this city, where the bars typically are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each day since Hurricane Katrina burst the levees, the city has become more and more of a ghost town. All the famous restaurants and bars are boarded up and closed.
But Molly's is open for business. It closed at 7 o'clock the night Katrina started blowing in and was open again the next afternoon. "We swept everything out and had the doors open at 4:30," said owner Jim Monaghan Jr. "Hurricanes come and hurricanes go. We stayed open because the people need some place to go, especially in this neighborhood."
Once you have lived in or even visited New Orleans, it steals part of your heart. How many other cities in the country have the word "beloved" placed in front of it, as is often the case with this place? It is a place that feeds the soul as much as the stomach. It is a place that smells like Mom's kitchen, where people greet each other with a hello and then, almost always, "Where'd ya eat?"
Now all the familiar smells of gumbo and fried oysters and crawfish bisque and blackened fish are gone. And a tour of some of the city's landmark restaurants and most famous tourist attractions breaks that stolen piece of your heart.
Now you have to hold your breath when you walk past the Acme Oyster and Seafood Restaurant on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. An overloaded dumpster reeks. On the sidewalk across the street, torn garbage bags full of opened oyster shells are covered with an army of flies.
Bourbon Street is deserted except for police cars, military Humvees, and, one day recently, two New York cops walking an unfamiliar beat. "It is my first time in New Orleans," said one, who declined to give her name. "I wish I would have come before this."
Commander's Palace in the Garden District is a classic New Orleans restaurant. Founded in 1880, it is across the street from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, a walled square block containing above-ground tombs of famous city fathers, from Samuel Jarvis Peters, the father of the city's public school system, to Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays, a Confederate general. The street is as quiet and empty as the graveyard. The glass on Commander's Palace's front door is smashed, but it looks as though the lock held. Through second-floor windows overlooking the courtyard, the tables are visible, still covered by crisp white linens and set for service.
Members of the Brennan family, which owns Commander's Palace and a dozen other New Orleans restaurants, have set up a new base of operations at their restaurant in Houston.
"My Aunt Ella and my mom have informed me that we are going to rebuild," Brad Brennan said by phone from Las Vegas, where he runs a branch of the chain. "And because they are the matriarchs, and they're strong women, we will rebuild it. We're not offered a choice on this. They are the command, and the waters will part. And we'll make it bigger and better than before. I do believe that."
It came as no surprise that the folks at Antoine's on St. Louis Street, the place that claims it invented oysters Rockefeller, would not use just ordinary plywood to cover up the elegant French doors that line the first floor. The plywood was painted purple, yellow and green, giving it a decidedly Mardi Gras feel even in the worst of times.
Owner Rick Blount -- his family has owned the place for five generations -- had just finished inspecting the place the other day and came away happy. No water made it inside, but the winds of Katrina damaged and knocked out some bricks on the side of the building.
Blount had evacuated his wife, Arlene, daughter Casie, 15, and son Ricky, 8, to Tallahassee before Katrina stuck, expecting they would be back in town in three days. He plans to get his wife and kids settled with relatives in Vero Beach, Fla., and then get back to his beloved city to reopen the business.
"My great-great grandfather started the restaurant just before the Civil War," said Blount, "and we have managed to survive the Civil War, two world wars, the Depression and Prohibition. We will be able to survive Katrina."
One of the charming things about New Orleans is that in restaurants like Antoine's and Galatoire's, the regulars have waiters for life. Waiters hand out business cards, relationships are formed and waiters are handed down from parents to children.
Galatoire's, on Bourbon Street, is a turn-of-the-last-century restaurant that has a narrow, mirror-lined dining room on the first floor. Locals met for Friday lunches that stretched on for hours, sometimes until it was time to leave for dinner elsewhere.
The restaurant was untouched by water or looters. Most days there was a line of tourists waiting to get in the front door for lunch or dinner. To the left of the door is a gate, now locked, that once served as a passageway for regulars to bypass the line, walk through the kitchen, out into the dining room, where they would be spotted by their waiter and seated.
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, where blackened redfish was made famous and dirty martinis are served in Mason jars, is boarded up. All Paul Prudhomme wants to do is start cooking again. One of New Orleans's most legendary chefs, he assumes there is water damage to its beautiful hardwood floors. From afar, he's hoping that the roof made it. He figures that he is one of the lucky ones. Not that his restaurant is his priority at this point.
"The people that are trying to rebuild are our first mission," Prudhomme said by phone from Pine Bluff, Ark.. "We're going down [to the area] Saturday at the latest. We're going to bring food with us. . . . We have a catering company, so we have mobile stoves and pots and pans. We're prepared. All we have to do is get the food there."
John Besh was already in New Orleans earlier this week -- with the blessing of police -- cooking red beans and rice for the relief workers. "Those people will need food," says Besh, whose Restaurant August is known for its more avant-garde cuisine. These days, he is thinking about big pots of jambalaya and old New Orleans staples. "It won't be haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, but it will be New Orleans."
Several blocks away, the Napoleon House, a dimly lit bar on Chartres Street with the ambience of 1830 Paris, is closed, but not boarded up. A tourist trolley is parked outside, empty, two wheels on the sidewalk.
At Molly's it was getting near 6 p.m. and Jim Monaghan was giving last call so his customers wouldn't be out in the dark. A couple of off-duty cops were having a drink, along with three or four British journalists, who didn't seem to mind the warm beer.
Monaghan's father, a legendary New Orleans character, opened the bar in 1974. It is a hangout for cops, journalists and bartenders. Former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards has tended bar there a few times, once even when he was on trial for racketeering and supposedly under a gag order. As he made drinks, he recited a poem about the U.S. attorney who was prosecuting the case against him. The last line of the poem ended with the governor telling the prosecutor to kiss his behind, though he did not use that word.
Monaghan's father once ran for city council and in a debate criticized the Vieux Carre Commission, the watchdog of the French Quarter. "He said during the debate that all the rules that the commission was passing were making it difficult for transvestites to get their mules up the back stairways," Monaghan recalled, laughing.
His father was not elected.
The first few nights after Katrina, Monaghan said there was some gunfire on his block. "This is a small neighborhood," he said, "and we knew who was doing it. They were young kids down the block acting all macho. They came in here one day looking for a drink and I threw them out. I told them: 'If you think you are going to be shooting guns at night and drinking in here during the day, you're crazy.' They left a day or two later, the last of the riffraff."
The city may be flooded and its people are being replaced by soldiers, but its sense of humor is still intact. Down the street from Molly's is Central Grocery, where muffulettas were said to have been invented or perfected, depending on whom you talk to. Looters got into the store, but were quickly chased away. The windows and doors were boarded up. On each piece of wood is a hand-lettered sign that reads: "Looters will be shot on sight." Each warning was signed by "Martino Gambino." Businesses on either side of Central Grocery had the same dire warning signed by Gambino.
"Completely made up," Monaghan said of the name. "We wanted something that sounded scary."
Staff writer Jennifer Frey contributed to this report.