Where Y’Eat: For NOLA Art Bar, Food as a Bridge to Convene a Community

Jun 11, 2020

Change, uplift, expression. Some ideas now coursing through this moment in history are the same that inspired the transformation of a once-familiar spot in the Marigny. It’s one black entrepreneur's vision at the convergence of art, literature and civic interaction, balanced by a nice cocktail or two.

For now, though, to cope with the pandemic, that vision is being sustained by an unscripted assist from New Orleans food – namely boiled seafood, garlicky grilled oysters and some go-cup fróse.

I recently spent some time with New Orleans native DJ Johnson. Last summer, he bought a cluster of buildings at Elysian Fields and St. Claude avenues – the old Gene's Po-Boys, Ilys Bistro and Gene's Curbside Daiquiris.

He opened his art gallery and lounge NOLA Art Bar in the former Ilys spot. Next door, the former daiquiri shop will become a bookstore and coffee shop called Baldwin & Co., named for the African-American writer and activist James Baldwin.

It’s all about creating different access points for people to have thought provoking conversations, to learn from each other.  

We got a taste of that potential when NOLA Art Bar opened in February, just a month before the pandemic response paused the gatherings it was built to convene.

To keep going, NOLA Art Bar has morphed into a takeout restaurant, serving plates for curbside pickup or to eat in its open-air patio, an unexpected oasis in back.

The daily menu is short and changing, with mainstays of boiled shrimp and crab legs, chargrilled oysters, fish tacos and wings.

Eventually, NOLA Art Bar will get back to its original purpose – showing work from artists under-represented at traditional galleries, and setting a social space around them. The bookstore café will join the project too.

For Johnson, the goal across it all is spurring conversation. Food is the pivot to get NOLA Art Bar through this crisis. But in New Orleans, it turns out food is always a good way to get people talking