Though famed for its bar-lined blocks — and the ability to drink legally on the walk from one bar to the next — most New Orleans residents are not out imbibing every night, despite what tired city tropes might have you believe. Recognizing that and the long-growing market for alcohol-free spaces, local Black entrepreneurs are leading the way in the city, from a mobile sober bar with deep New Orleans roots to an oxygen bar that hopes to be a safe haven for soul care.
Rhadell Green introduced the city to its first sober bar, Sober Bar Babe, in 2018, serving a menu of non-alcoholic drinks, sno-balls, and locally-made snacks from a purple, yellow, and blue tiny house (resembling a New Orleans shotgun home) set on a trailer. Green started out under the Claiborne Avenue bridge, a popular weekend gathering spot that, prior to the building of Interstate 10, was lined entirely with Black-owned businesses. “I was chasing second lines, trying to introduce sobriety at these alcohol-filled events,” Green says. After the city drove off her and other vendors with threats of arrest, Green spent about a year setting up on the Lafitte Greenway before moving to her current spot on N. Rampart Street, right in front of the Louis Armstrong arch at Congo Square.
“I noticed there was no one for four blocks on the Treme side of Rampart providing hydration for tourists, protests, graduations, all these events that take place in the park.” Beyond that, Green says, “I felt the ancestral spirit there.” Congo Square served as a meeting ground for the city’s enslaved African American population as early as the 1740s; it’s also where African American women first started selling pralines and calas, a beignet-like rice fritter, in the 1800s. “Then when they started talking about moving City Hall there, I thought ‘nu-uh, no one’s touching Armstrong Park.’ I decided to be a sort of gatekeeper for the park,” Green says.
Green sells fruit-based concoctions, NA beverage brands, and locally-made snacks, like pralines, and is often seen chatting with customers who later post photos to social media praising the experience. “This is my homeland, I know the whole history of New Orleans,” she says. “The tourists don’t, so I give them the history prior to being purchased by the Americas. We talk about Black issues, gay issues, we talk about everything — it’s a vibe.” Green says she often receives emails from customers, telling her to keep going and celebrating her addition to New Orleans culture, support she says has been much-needed at times. “I’ve gotten a lot of pushback — been attacked verbally, had my business discriminated against, and had everyone tell me to sell alcohol,” Green says. “But I can’t be bullied.”
In a slightly different category is Dream House Lounge, which opened at 401 Baronne Street on July 3. Founder David Wallace says it’s an oxygen bar and wellness lounge — “I don’t identify Dream House as a sober bar,” he says. “I want it to be known as a safe haven, particularly for Black and brown people who have not historically had places to come talk about their dreams and aspirations.” It’s essentially the reason he named it Dream House Lounge.
There are three main offerings at Dream House: The oxygen bar; “conscious cocktails” as part of a menu of beer, wine, and spirits that are either non-alcoholic or alcohol removed; and a bottle shop, where everything on the menu, plus more nonalcoholic bottles, are available for purchase.
Wallace worked with acclaimed New Orleans mixologist Jessica Robinson, owner of Justini Cocktails, for the menu. Hers was an early Black-owned mobile bartending service (it now has a consulting component), an industry that has since grown substantially. The Dream 75 is a riff on a French 75, made with zero-proof Ritual gin and a sparkling beverage from Tost; the Whiskey Dreams, based on a whiskey sour, is made with Monday zero-proof whiskey, lemon mix, and garnished with a dried blood orange slice dipped in white chocolate. “Customers keep talking about the smell of the drinks,” Wallace says, and how it recreates the experience of having a regular cocktail.
The bar menu and bottle shop feature Black-owned brands, like Mocktail Club canned cocktails, founded by Pauline Idogho; Nzinga Knight’s Brooklyn Brewed Sorrel, a spiced hibiscus drink; and a local brand, Yoro, co-founded by Robert Haynes and Michael Olaiyaco. Much like the menu is designed to celebrate Black success; the layout and other components of the space are meant to nurture communication.
“Historically, our ancestors sat in circles, and that’s where they built community, manifested the future, engaged in dialogue,” Wallace says, so chairs and couches are either round or half-rounds, and positioned to face each other. The layout also relates to what Wallace says is one of the biggest benefits of socializing without alcohol: a heightened level of conscientiousness and presence. Even the paint brand used to paint the walls, Clare, is Black-owned, and Wallace enlisted Domonique Tolliver and her Claiborne Avenue business Crazy Plant Bae to fill the space with greenery.
Wallace’s hope for Dream House Lounge is for it to be a sacred space for everyone, “but especially people who appreciate and love Black art, culture, and identity,” he says. He has plans for an ambitious weekly calendar of meditation classes, poetry and DJ nights, and chef pop-ups. “I want to show off people’s different talents — music, food, art — in a space where they can build connections and strength.” Beyond the drinks and oxygen, Wallace says, he hopes people will come there “to think about their day, ancestral journey, and do some soul care.”
“You’re really coming to Dream House to tend to your soul,” says Wallace. “It’s important to name that.”
Green likes to quote Ellis Marsalis about New Orleans, who called it a living museum, and “the manifestation of participation.” It’s a city, she says, made by refugees, people looking for something different. “That’s why everyone loves coming here, it’s about the people and the experience. And that’s what my bar represents in my heart.”