The best kind of history, the kind you can drink in.
The Bywater is this reviewer’s favorite New Orleans neighborhood, a stiff competition given the city’s status as maybe the best collection of dive bars in America. There’s just something about the untouched, neighborhood vibe of the area that somehow escapes the tourist hordes despite only existing a few blocks from the French Quarter. Vaughan’s Lounge is, in my opinion, the dive bar kind of this nearly perfect part of town, a combination of history, building and location tough to beat despite the considerable competition that surrounds it.
A search for “New Orleans dive bar” should probably just turn up about 15 pictures of Vaughan’s, a ramshackle-looking, shanty of a building occupying a corner plot in a very residential neighborhood. The paint is faded, the walls are peeling, the roof is rusted, the wood pillars are weathered, the place looks both like it might fall down at any moment or persist in its current state for all eternity.
Outside, wooden posts prop up an overhang that runs the length of the building, permanent wooden benches underneath with the odd stump here and there to serve as beer rest. An amazingly ancient sign commands one of the exterior walls, reading “Vaughan’s Restaurant Po-Boys Daily Specials Seafood,” a remnant of a family business that once operated a few blocks away. The windows, which of course look to be original, feature a ring of red and green transparent glass panes that look about as old as time.
The layout inside almost feels like stadium seating at a movie theater, the lowest level serving as home to a collection of short tables and chairs, the upper level hosting the bar itself. A low ceiling and wooden railings between the two partitions only accentuates the feeling of staring up at the bar as it exists on some kind of dive bar altar. Maybe it does. Brick steps divide the two levels, almost giving off the feeling that the lowest area was once outside, since reclaimed by the bar to provide a little extra indoor seating.
Taking that one half-step up provides access to a bar that again looks like it’s probably original, a short curving wood and metal contraption that has hosted drunks for about a decade or seven. The liquor bottles are stacked high just below a line of framed, ancient photos that can be found here and on almost every other vertical surface within Vaughan’s. The visual stimulation is endless, old signs, vintage clocks, murals and randomness of every variety mixed in with the photos.
Because this is New Orleans, a video poker alcove extends off the bar, this one given a stained glass and Christmas light treatment to add a little character. A “Welcome New Orleans Visitors” sign can also be found in this little gambling oasis, an amazingly, vintage-looking banner in a place so filled with historical stimuli that it is relegated to the video poker room.
Off the other end of the bar is a room that can best be described as the room for everything else. On this reviewer’s last visit, the room held a diverse set of items including a dog bed, jewelry for sale, a handful of coolers and a broken chair or two. The yard that extends from Vaughan’s looks roughly similar, itself a collection of misfit items of a dive bar’s past, which of course only adds to the appeal.
Vaughan’s Lounge is, simply put, the perfect New Orleans dive bar. The rusted roof and weathered wood outside pair seamlessly with the original bar and its associated photos, signs and beer lights inside. There can be nothing more authentic than a cold beer at a cheap price at Vaughan’s, a reason to not only visit the Bywater neighborhood, but to visit New Orleans at all (a high bar given the many other reasons to visit). Every peel of the paint and every scratch on the floor feels like it has both always been there and will probably always be there, an authentic and enduring testament to one of America’s best dive bars.