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Snake and Jake’s Operates on the Other Side of Twilight

In this installment of “Dive,” a look inside an Uptown New Orleans bar that’s become a landing place for oddball night owls, even at 6 a.m.

It’s 7 p.m. and Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge is just opening. It’s a chilly evening in the Uptown neighborhood of Carrollton and a half-dozen women visiting New Orleans for a conference hustle into the bar’s dim crimson glow. On side of the bar sits Dave Clements, Snake and Jake’s owner, his best friend Robert Schramel and a lone Yankee traveler. With its moody red string lights and broken down stools, the bar’s vibe exists somewhere between a less-sinister Twin Peaks cabin and a Mississippi River fishing shack.

Schramel turns to the Yankee. “Hey, how much do you weigh? Sorry to ask, but you look like you could be a good jockey.” The Yankee demurs, and inquires about his experience in horse racing. Margaret the bartender slides an Abita Amber across a green laminate counter tattooed with the pocketknife and bottle cap etchings of a thousand nights before.

It turns out that Schramel, a New Orleans native, had been a jockey for some decades and is full of advice about how one might go about breaking into equestrian sports. It also turns out that he had once considered partnering with Clements on Snake and Jake’s back in 1992 when the ramshackle building went up for sale. “It’s a long story,” says Clements.

“I came to check out the neighborhood late one night,” says Schramel, chiming in, “saw a man bleeding in the street. He’d been shot maybe ten minutes before. I thought that was a sign if there ever was one.” Schramel didn’t become an owner, but he became a regular, at least when he’s in town from Santa Fe where he spends most of his time these days.

Clements—also a New Orleans native, as well as a carpenter and musician—found his partner in a guy named Tony Tocco who owns the restaurant Atchafalaya. Like much of New Orleans, the area’s demographic has shifted in the last couple decades. Longtime residents have moved out, a charter school has moved in and real estate is expensive. “I didn’t set out to gentrify anything,” says Clements, who has shaggy gray hair and a soft, half-lidded smile. “But I bought buildings on the block, cleaned up houses and made what some people call the Clempire.”

The bar’s hours—7 p.m. to 7 a.m.—are a double-edged sword. It’s a nuisance to neighbors (part of why Clements keeps acquiring nearby real estate), but it’s also a home for creatures that operate on the other side of twilight—off-duty musicians, service industry workers and night owls. “When most other bars wanted to close, to get rid of people they said ‘Go to Snake and Jake’s,’ which is how we got started,” says Clements. “I don’t really remember why we kept those hours. The bar kind of looked like shit [in the daylight], and no one wanted to come early.”

Inside Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge

Snake and Jake’s isn’t really a place you go unless you know about it. The only sign of its existence—and its purported Christmas theme—is a fake wreath wrapped in lights and a Regal Beer mural. The interior is a mix of concrete and stucco, wood and brick. There’s a chimney that Clements jokes is the only thing holding the place up. (To the contrary, as an old time bartender liked to say, the only thing actually holding Snake and Jake’s up was nicotine and regret.)  The Reverend Goat Carson used to grill ribs in the fireplace, pour tequila over the top and set them on fire. Until one day when he almost burned the place down.

These are just a few of the dozens of details that propagate curiosity. Furthermore: Who is Jake? And for that matter, is there a Snake? What’s with the Christmas theme when so few signs of the holidays are manifest? Like so many oddball corners of New Orleans, it requires peeling back layers and scraping away grime to see the real story. Indeed, there was a Jake. Two, actually. The first owned the S & J Lounge (which preceded Snake and Jake’s) with a guy named Richard Brown (alias: Snake). Neither Snake nor Jake bothered to take down the previous bar owner’s sign, which read “Christmas Lounge”—not because it had anything to do with the holidays, but because it had been owned by a guy named Sam Christmas. When Clements took ownership of 7612 Oak Street, both signs were still up. Someone suggested smooshing the names together, which actually sounded pretty good.

The second Jake was a big orange tabby cat. “He just showed up one day,” says Clements. “I was standing there, and he walked up, walked into the bar and jumped on the counter.” It was known that Jake liked Scotch. He’d stick his face in people’s glasses—never waited for the lagniappe, just took it. “He was mean. He would walk away and then stop, like ‘I forgot to bite you,’ and walk back and bite you.” Jake has since passed on, but he’s immortalized on the bar’s website. Today, bartender Juan Park brings in his dog Peeve. Peeve sits on a stool just like a customer and people buy him “shots” (dog treats) for $2, which goes into a jar and gets donated to animal shelters around the country.

Schramel, still intent on reliving his jockey days, files one last request with his Yankee recruit. “When you get back to New York, go out to Belmont,” he says. “Go talk to some people, see if you can get a job in the stables.” She nods, and thanks him, drains her beer. Margaret asks if she’d like another, and she would, but has to get going; she’ll try and stop by after dinner. “I’m on until midnight,” says Margaret.

The women on the other side of the bar summon Clements. They’ve just ordered another round and want to know the history of the place. A building as pockmarked and broken down as Snake and Jake’s begs questions, and one gets the feeling that Clements spends a lot of time talking about its genesis. But he’s a good sport, and sidles over. “You want the long story or the short story?”

Tip: If it’s past midnight or 2 a.m. or even 4 a.m., and you’re still feeling it, Snake and Jake’s is here for you. Stop in after a show at the Maple Leaf or after dinner at Jacques-Imo’s. Introduce yourself to Clements, ask him about his time in a punk band, or his years with a rockabilly band, or his stint with a Tex-Mex band. And, if he’s there, buy a shot for Peeve. Who dat! Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge | 7612 Oak St; (504) 861-2802

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Tagged: bars, dive, New Orleans