Don’t linger at the wall sculpture.
As far as dive bar environments go, the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans is fertile ground. Though walkable to the more tourist-heavy areas of the city, the Bywater is a bend of the Mississippi River away from the French Quarter, a neighborhood removed that can sometimes feel like the edge of the city, though it is really a gateway to points east (like the Lower 9th). BJ’s Lounge counts dive bar royalty as its neighbors, including Bar Redux and Vaughan’s, but offers a distinctly unique atmosphere all its own.
Outside, BJ’s Lounge projects everything organic to the Bywater neighborhood. Humble appearance, faded white paint with a splash of green, low hanging Christmas lights, flung open doors, even the simple metal chairs outside fit with the world around the dive bar. This is a corner bar in a residential neighborhood and the vibe outside lives up to that high bar given we’re talking about a dive bar in New Orleans.
The view inside feels a little bit like an explosion, a dense array of visual activity in what is really not that big of an interior space. The front room is dominated by the bar itself, an L-shaped wooden altar to drinking domestic beer under a drop ceiling and a wall AC unit. Beer cooler, elevated liquor bottles, mirrored back, Christmas lights (blue this time), the hits are all here. But it’s the environment around the bar that gives BJ’s Lounge its distinct feel.
The walls just inside the front door are covered with densely-packed photos circling a wooden sign that reads, “BJ’s, Your 9th Ward Living Room.” And the photos match the living room proclamation with an array of images that feel like some kind of family photo album displayed for the world to see. Some photos are fresh, some are aged, but it’s not hard to understand that this is a neighborhood bar for neighbors (and there’s a sign saying just that amid the photos).
Of course, not every family photo album includes family members taking photos in front of a massive shrine to the female anatomy, which happens to be the eye-catching feature of the adjacent wall. Writing description will both insufficiently convey the piece and give this review a sharp left turn best left to the eye of the beholder. From all accounts, it’s a popular piece of wall art at BJ’s Lounge, and with fairly obvious reason.
Beyond, a pool table commands a small alcove just off the bar, flanked by mounted deer and bowling trophies. A black curtain divides the pool area from a stage in back, where the explosion of visual appeal continues across every wall, flanking an area that sometimes houses live music. A handful of video poker machines, a New Orleans dive bar staple, stand against the wall opposite the bar. Those and about a hundred more visual details create in BJ’s Lounge a richness that feels both welcoming and a little dazzling on first visit.
The Bywater is the perfect neighborhood to create the series of unique dive bar gems that dot the area. In contrast to some of the more heavily visited parts of New Orleans, the Bywater is very much a place where people live, rather than visit, and that has a real impact on the bars that have grown organically over time here. BJ’s Lounge, neighborhood corner bar, not only feels like a natural extension of the area, but a unique offering in a city as rich with drinking uniqueness as New Orleans.