Dive Bars of the World

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Dewon “Itchy” Scott blows some trumpet at the Candlelight Lounge in New Orleans, a fixture of the Treme neighborhood.  Photo credit:  Matt McClain/The Washington Post

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The white-haired woman in the loud tropical shirt is a regular at the Candlelight Lounge. Someone tells me she’s 92 and lives nearby in the historically black Treme neighborhood, but I can’t verify any of this. The woman may be elderly and frail, but as she sits on an old brass dining chair outside the Candlelight, she’s primed for a fight. She declares that I’m just like all the other white writers who visit Treme: I’m here to make everyone look stupid.

“You make money off of them and what do they get from it?” she asks me, her rhetorical skills sharp. “Nothing.”

Her anger is pure and clear, if slightly misdirected, and I respect it. Treme is changing before her eyes: Many of her neighbors never returned after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters ravaged their homes in 2005. Landlords and developers have, in turn, jumped at the opportunity to redefine the neighborhood located so close to the French Quarter: Rents and home prices have skyrocketed, which has slowly altered the complexion of Treme. Who could blame an old-timer for being ticked off?

Candlelight Lounge owner Leona “Chine” Grandison, who grew up in Treme, knows what role her bar plays in the neighborhood. It’s not just a cheap watering hole. It’s the place where neighbors and friends gather to celebrate life’s major moments, like when former president Barack Obama was first elected. It’s the place to dance to the horn-driven heartbeat of New Orleans brass bands, which once pulsed so strongly in Treme. It’s the lounge where the displaced can return and still recognize their old stomping grounds.

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“When you see these people come back, everybody says, ‘My God, Chine, things really have changed.’ . . . I have a lot of people I missed that didn’t come back to this city, can’t come back ’cause they can’t afford the rent,” Grandison says. “They always got a place to come here.”

Owner Leona “Chine” Grandison describing what her bar was like after Katrina

 Theodore Joseph Jarreau doesn’t need a special occasion — or a tease from the “Treme” series, which aired for four seasons on HBO — to make a trip to the Candlelight. He’s a frequent visitor. He shuffles into the bar, one hand clutching a bag and the other shaking uncontrollably. Grandison invites him to grab a beer from the cooler. When I ask him to recount his early days at the bar, he offers a demonstration instead. He stands up and starts scratching his feet across the concrete floor, chicken-style. Then he breaks into “Little Red Rooster.” And sings every verse by heart.

Quick Facts

Year founded: Circa 1979 as a bar called Grease. Current owner Leona “Chine” Grandison started running the bar in the early 1980s and purchased the place around 2002, about three years before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Interior: Grandison began to renovate her bar in 2015 but ran out of funds before it was finished. The new plywood roof gives the place a barnlike quality, while the cinder-block walls, painted midnight blue, suggest cooling Gulf waters, which is good. During renovations, thieves swiped the Candlelight’s air-conditioning units. Grandison has been soliciting funds to complete her renovation, including a new kitchen.

Music: Internet jukebox, and brass-bands every Wednesday. Grandison hopes to add more bands on the weekend.

Signature drink: None. You better know what drink you like when you approach the bar.

Draft beers: None. The Candlelight trades mostly in major commercial beers, though it also sells many different Abita bottles.

Worst day: August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina landed and the levees were breached. Grandison evacuated to Texas, where she lived for many weeks. When she finally returned to the Candlelight, “it looked like a tornado had just passed through and ripped it.” She had no flood insurance.

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