The True Bar Behind True Detective

Bayou Gauche is a small fishing village at the end of America—a place that seems to telegraph a sort of primordial southernness. The only bar in town, Fisherman's Wharf, has recently caught the attention of Hollywood, becoming the centerpiece of HBO's True Detective. Christopher Ross explores the bar behind the bar.

You’ve probably never heard of Bayou Gauche—a small, rural fishing village in southeastern Louisiana—but there’s a decent chance you’ve seen an image of it before. Most recently, it appeared on the HBO series True Detective, the coastal scenery dovetailing with the show’s haunting vision of the Lower Boot. Comprising roughly twenty square miles of lightly populated marsh and wetlands—mostly untouched by development, seemingly forgotten by time—Bayou Gauche has become a kind of holy grail for film and television directors seeking to visually telegraph an almost primordial deep southern swampland. One of the most remote towns in the state, it is surrounded by water and serviced by a single, twisting road running alongside the bayou’s edge and beneath the branches of cypress trees curtained with Spanish moss.

“Every car commercial that’s shooting in the area eventually leads to Bayou Gauche,” says location scout Batou Chandler, who frequently works with local film productions. “It’s all hard turns through acres of pristine, picturesque swamp, right by the water. Outside of New Orleans, it’s unbeatable.”

Given the provincial zip code, star sightings are absurdly common: Zac Efron was here, shooting The Paperboy, as was Kate Hudson for The Skeleton Key and Josh Brolin for Jonah Hex. Mariah Carey made her music video “Don’t Stop (Funkin’ 4 Jamaica)” on a nearby camp. The History Channel is there now filming a new show.

In the business of finding and depicting signifiers of authenticity, when it comes to backwater Louisiana, Bayou Gauche is the signified.

Matthew McConaughey was in town not too long ago for his role in True Detective, playing the character of Rust Cohle, a grizzled ex-detective currently employed as a barkeep at a hole-in-the-wall called Doumain’s Domain. With his unsmiling demeanor, chain smoker’s drawl and a bleak brand of barstool philosophizing—”time is a flat circle,” he says, which we’re bound to endlessly repeat—Cohle is your classic dive bartender. “I live in a little room out in the country behind a bar, work four nights a week,” he recounts in the second episode, puffing on a Camel Light. “In between, I drink. And there ain’t nobody to stop me.”

His place of work is a similarly grim affair: through the bar’s haze of cigarette smoke, we glimpse taxidermied deer heads and fish on plywood walls, a glowing neon Schlitz sign, a solitary customer passed out on the counter. Like many of True Detective’s set pieces, the place projects an air of sluggish decay, tinged with menace.

“We envisioned it as the kind of place where people go to drink away their troubles,” say Alex DiGerlando, who was the first season’s production designer. “A lot of bars on the show have a sadness hanging around them but they’re still social places where people go to talk and drink together. Doumain’s Domain doesn’t have that. Maybe there’s regulars, but it’s not even the kind of bar where hookers or bikers go. We wanted it to feel like a bar at the end of the earth.”

Butch Adams, a retired 63-year-old technician who lives next door and is one of DeJean’s closest friends since childhood, swings by every day for a case of Miller Lite. “I’m supposed to be the best customer,” he says. Like DeJean, Adams seems far from starstruck by the A-list crowd; if anything, he expects them to be starstruck by Bayou Gauche. “It’s God’s country down here,” he says. “You got natural beauty and golden opportunities. You a fisherman? Fine. You a hunter? Fine. We got a waiting list a mile long of people wanting to live down here.”

Like Rust Cohle, Doumain’s Domain does not actually exist. But Fisherman’s Wharf, where McConaughey’s scenes behind the bar were shot, does. Opened in 1968, it is Bayou Gauche’s only bar, sandwiched among other houses along the road and across the street from a boat dock where anglers set out into the waters in search of catfish, bass, crappie and bluegill. Unlike its abandoned corollary on the show, Fisherman’s Wharf is an eminently social place, a public house in the truest sense of the word. It seats about 30, but can become standing room only when it’s busy, on the weekends and in the summer, catering to Bayou Gauche families, commercial and recreational fishermen and oil workers.

Before Hurricane Katrina swept away the kitchen, they served food too. Don Dubuc, a Louisiana outdoors writer and radio broadcaster, used to live half an hour away and would frequent the place after fishing at daybreak. “It was nothing to go in there and find they’d be serving fish that were caught right out of the bayou—fried catfish for breakfast,” he says. “They might be frying chicken, who knows, they might even be cooking some game back there. It was that kind of place.”

Fisherman’s Wharf is as much as a part of Bayou Gauche’s local ecosystem as the rising and falling of the tide and the changing of the seasons. Residents (who pronounce it Bayou “Gosh”) come here for occasions festive and solemn, for birthday parties and for wakes, to raise a glass to friends and to scatter the ashes of the deceased back into the swamp. It was the venue’s intangible sense of native personality, accumulated over decades like wear and tear on a favorite sweater, that made it an ideal background for the show.

“We felt very lucky to have found it,” says DiGerlando. “The bar already had plenty of character. And we liked that it wasn’t attached to anything, that it had this green wildness looming over it. You got the feeling it’s the kind of place that attracts characters.”

One of those characters is the bar’s owner, a bearded, friendly 63-year-old named Joel DeJean who is essentially Bayou Gauche’s landlord. His family owns 14,000 acres in the area, which have been in their possession since 1925, including the entirety of Bayou Gauche, where they lease land out to the residents cheaply. DeJean has spent almost his entire life there, and now lives about 600 feet behind the bar. He is an avid hunter and fisherman—most of the taxidermied creatures on the walls of Fisherman’s Wharf and his home are his trophies, including a terrifying 260-pound, 7.5-foot long alligator gar, which he shot in the pond behind his house.

DeJean seems accustomed to and unfazed by the frequent celebrity presence in town. While True Detective was the first show to shoot inside the bar, the parking lot has often been used as a base camp for productions in the area. He once took the singer and cowboy Roy Rogers out alligator hunting in the bayou. Josh Brolin became a regular while he was there, coming by after the day’s shoots to throw back a few. Woody Harrelson, who co-starred on True Detective, stopped in to say hello and DeJean showed him and McConaughey’s son the alligators in his yard.

“We mostly get local people in here, but the others that come in from out of town to see the backroads and whatnot, they’ll stop in and they’re amazed. They’ll sit there for hours just listening to us coonasses talk in our Cajun accents,” he says.

Filming shut the bar down for three days, to the chagrin of regulars, some of whom are daily visitors. Butch Adams, a retired 63-year-old technician who lives next door and is one of DeJean’s closest friends since childhood, swings by every day for a case of Miller Lite. “I’m supposed to be the best customer,” he says. If there’s a crowd, he’ll hang out; if not, he walks a couple meters back home.  “I can stumble home if I want to,” he says. “I say that cause I’ve done it. At two in the morning, after being in the bar all day, you don’t walk straight.” Like DeJean, Adams seems far from starstruck by the A-list crowd; if anything, he expects them to be starstruck by Bayou Gauche. “It’s God’s country down here,” he says. “You got natural beauty and golden opportunities. You a fisherman? Fine. You a hunter? Fine. We got a waiting list a mile long of people wanting to live down here.”

Adams lives with his 80-year-old mother Miss Lou, who is another loyal patron at Fisherman’s Wharf, which she calls the Cajun Cheers. “It’s all family and friends, everyone looking out for everyone. We take care of one another,” she says. When patrons get too drunk to drive themselves home, she gives them a lift. Warm and motherly, she also occasionally acts as a bit of a go-between for the Hollywood set and the local wildlife. When the craft services crew for True Detective was setting up, she walked over to pay them a visit. “I went over to the cooks and I said, look, I have a pet alligator in my pond. Y’all might want to feed her before you start cooking because otherwise she might join y’all. You should have heard the commotion. What? Alligators? Where? I said, they’re all around us so you better make friends.”

Miss Lou’s pet alligator is nine feet long and named Knucklehead. She likes to paint the gator’s nails red and bows on her head. Occasionally Knucklehead attacks the lawnmower when Butch is cutting the grass, but Miss Lou says Knucklehead recognizes her voice and she calls her pet off. “She’s halfway tamed, I guess.”

DeJean’s seen a slight uptick in interest in the bar following its appearance the show, but he doesn’t expect anything to change—change being a thing that Bayou Gauche and Fisherman’s Wharf seem satisfyingly resistant to. Directors and actors and showrunners will continue to swoon over their hometown, mining it for a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cinematic gold, and locals will continue to regard them with mild bemusement and perhaps a little pity. One senses that things might go on this way for eternity—the flipside of the “flat circle” of time that Rust Cohle spoke of with such doom and gloom on True Detective.

Down here, a flat circle sounds like a square deal. It’s Good Friday in Bayou Gauche and there’s going to be a party at Fisherman’s Wharf. Adams needs to change to oil in his tractor and mow the lawn. Someone will bring catfish, someone will bring crawfish, someone will bring crabs. “Any excuse for a party and food,” says Miss Lou. “We don’t need much. We have everything we need right here.”