Donna’s Bar & Grill Closes

The last mainstay of live local music on North Rampart Street has closed its doors.

Donna’s Bar & Grill, which has been the home of brass bands for almost 20 years, is closed forever.Donna's: Home of New Orleans Brass Bands

“We’re done. We turned in our license,” said Donna Poniatowski, for whom the club was named.  “When we went to city hall to turn in the license—which is something you’re required to do—the lady who accepted it even told me, ‘You know, now  there won’t be any live music on North Rampart Street.’” Donna’s right to present live music was grandfathered in when the city prohibited new Mayoralty licenses (that allow live music). The other establishment that was grandfathered in was the Funky Butt, which closed prior to Katrina.

Donna and Charlie in 2003 at Donna's

Donna and her husband, Charlie Sims, opened Donna’s because of their love for local music. Charlie cooked for crowds of people who loved his red beans and rice and barbecue, and in recent years Charlie ran the club. Donna has been teaching for several years since Katrina, full-time, at schools in Florida, and commuted to and from New Orleans. She told OffBeat in June that while the club took its usual summer hiatus, she was returning home for good because she’d managed to get a teaching position at the University of New Orleans. “I was on my way to New Orleans to sign the contract, and that’s when the [teaching] cuts were made by our ‘wonderful’ governor,” she said. Charlie, who’s now 75, experienced some serious health problems earlier this year.

But according to Donna, the main reason they decided to shut down the club is because of the condition of the building. “The building is in horrible shape,” she said. “We rent the property and couldn’t see investing thousands of dollars into a building that wasn’t ours. With all the rain we’ve had this year, the roof leaks and the ceiling is about ready to fall in. We just couldn’t see putting money into a building we didn’t own. We’ve had so many problems over the years, and the landlord just wasn’t interested in keeping up the building. So while it was a hard decision to shut down Donna’s, we just decided it was not in our best interests, given Charlie’s health and the condition of the building, which is just getting worse. We just couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over the business, either. I asked Charlie if he wanted to try to find a new location, but his health problems and the fact that I’m in Florida was too difficult,  so we both decided that we’re done,” she said. “We’re going to relax and enjoy each other’s company!”

Interestingly, the Funky Butt, which is owned by the same landlord (Cahn Enterprise), closed for the same reason. Sammie and Shanekah Williams were operating the Funky Butt prior to Katrina, but decided to close the business because the building was “falling apart” and needed a totally new HVAC system, which the landlord would not replace. Just prior to Katrina, the Williamses were trying to relocate the Funky Butt to Frenchmen Street, but Katrina squashed that effort.

After Katrina, another operator attempted to reopen the Funky Butt as a music venue but was prevented from doing so because he could not get the proper licenses to allow live music. The same will now apply to any operator who’d want to reopen Donna’s as a music club. So it appears for now—unless the city steps up to the plate and revamps the zoning on North Rampart Street—that music on the historic  street that runs next to Armstrong Park and Congo Square is a thing of the past.

From our standpoint, this appears to be a serious problem for the music scene in New Orleans and for the attempts to re-establish North Rampart as a street that permits and honors local traditional music. We’ve discussed this issue many times online and in the pages of OffBeat, and suggest that the property owners on North Rampart and in the historic areas of the city need to be held accountable for their neglect of their properties.  It may not be unlawful to let the interior of an historic property fall into ruin—as long as the façade appears to be intact; it may not be unlawful to enter into a lease with a tenant who can’t afford to make structural repairs to a building that produces income and supports the city’s cultural health and economy. But both actions seem to us to be morally reprehensible and, in fact, ultimately damaging to New Orleans’ historic nature and to the city’s culture.

It’s still hard to believe that a city like New Orleans, known for its music, would not take proactive action to create music venues dedicated to indigenous music, such as jazz and brass bands. Are we a music city or aren’t we?

  • Perrier Lounge

    This is very sad news! Donna's (Charlie and Donna) were a major force in providing a place for the brass band revolution to flourish. Many , Many thanks to Charlie and Donna for all the hard work and effort they put in over the years. Most restaurants dont give you the kind of good down-home food that Charlie and Donna put out for free (BBQ Chicken and rice) Much Respect.

    Staff of Perrier Lounge
    New Orleans

  • The Flying Nun

    This is a sad day for New Orleans. It seems like so many of our institutions– Parasols, the Mother-in-Law, etc.– are falling away. God bless Charlie and Donna for carrying on like they did. Here's to hoping that someone steps in and saves this beautiful place.

  • Mike

    Very sad to hear this . But as anyone who has been to the club in the last 10 years knows that, after Charlie got sick, someone else was running the club. The quality of music has been in steady decline for the last 2 or so years .Last year during Jazzfest I passed by on a weekend night, the club was very empty and a 2nd rate blues band was palying Mustang Sally .Talk to any of the people who used to play there and they all said the same thing . Money got funny. So I can't help but think that not having good Brass Bands like they used to helped hasten the demise of the club..
    Sorry to see it go but I think they themselves should share some of the blame.

    • Pre-Katrina citizen

      Who has been in NOLA the last two years? It’s still recovering from Katrina. Many sounds and voices are gone permanently. While quality may be down, it also gives a chance for new people to maybe make it. And if money got funny– well, understandable if they had to pay medical bills and all the upkeep of the place.

      • Mike

        First of all , I think many people have been tp New Orleans in the last 2 years . The festivals are more crowded than ever ( Jazz and French Quarter ). While true that many sounds and voices are gone a good many still remain , and are very loyal to the city. As far as Charlie getting sick and upkeep bills,everything seems to go up except Musicians pay. So, to then take away what little pay they were making and have them play JUST for the tips ,I can see why most of the bands decided to move on. A club that advertises itself as a Brass Band Headquarters with no Brass bands is what helped kill the club.

  • Eugenia628

    I am so glad that I have some Donna's memores in the recesses of my brain.. No more red beans and rice on Monday night? No more brass band hang out? Bad enough that one could no longer go between Donna's and the Butt…Oh I so miss Rampart Street…
    Visiting Nerw Orelans is just not going to be the same!!

  • Gnf

    That is truelly sad!

  • WWALK

    I GOT MY FIRST BREAK AS SINGER AT DONNA'S LAST YEAR SITTING IN WITH THE HOUSE BAND. I WILL NEVER FORGET THE THRILL AND EXCITEMENT OF THAT MOMENT.WHAT A WASTE . THE FOOD WAS GREAT AND THE PEOPLE AND MUSICIANS WERE EVEN GREATER. ” WIL WALK “

  • brassbandlove

    If Donna's would have advertised the sale of her business in something as simple as craigslist, rather than just word of mouth, I'm certain that someone would have stepped up before that grandfathered license slipped away.

    • Lindsey_cronin

      They would have the same building issues….

  • former butt employee

    The same landlord owns a bunch of abandoned and blighted historical buildings all over the French Quarter. This person is a multi-millionaire and could care less about New Orleans culture. To rent from Cahn (pronounced con) he has his $1000 an hour lawyer present a lease that is totally unreasonable and pretty much un-doable for an small business owner. The lease includes: paying all property taxes, insurance, rent and repairs to property including plumbing, heating, air and anything else you could possibly imagine. He basically writes a check for the building and collects from hard working small business owners with dreams of running a jazz club or venue. All green for rent signs along rampart and decatur and some along frenchman are owned by the same slum lord! The city needs to step up and demand this man take responsibility for his property. He probably owns a quarter of the quarter. There will be more clubs closing soon. No small business owner can afford to step into a building with rotten plumbing, no a.c and a leaky roof and fix these problems before even opening. not to mention market value plus on rent, ridiculous insurance and licenses! These buildings are going to be empty for a very very long time unless the city steps in and forces this spoiled brat to clean it up.

    • Janramsey

      It's too bad that lessees (who sign these stupid leases) don't look beyond their dream of owning their own small business and realize what they will be responsible for. The same thing happened to Marisol's on Esplanade post-Katrina. The operators–who didn't own the building–signed a lease that made them responsible for taxes and insurance! I'd encourage every small business owner to READ THE FINE PRINT on leases. If the landlord won't budge on making structural repairs, HVAC, plumbing and electrical or requiring the tenant to pay taxes and insurance, then I would look for another location. Slumlords own property for one reason only–to suck as much money as possible out of unsuspecting tenants. While what they do is not illegal, it's definitely immoral and it's damaging to the cultural and architectural fabric of this city.

  • Tulane Alum

    So sad. New Orleans is the only city I fell in love with… I'm not a city person. It's culture is dying. I shan't be returning unless it reclaims its identity

  • mike wallace

    now that's a damn shame.

  • Lindsey_cronin

    This is so very sad to hear and sadly too common. Our Music, Architecture and food is a huge part of our way of life. Property owners are seemingly not as involved with our city as our lovers are:(

    I bar tended at a bar on Toulouse and Chartres, Kueffer's, that closed in 2004 because of the same reasons. For too may years the bar owner put money in a building because of her love of it and her business, but finally had to let it go. She could not afford to keep up someone else's property. She closed her other bar on Toulouse in 2007 because the rent kept going up, yet no upkeep was being done.
    Local establishments are going to the wayside (as well as our historical building) because of greed!

    Good by Donna's, And much love to the two of you. Enjoy each other! I, as many other, have many fond memories of the Brass music in your club, I will miss shakin' it!!!

  • Steve_lbi

    Oh no! Donna's was on the top of my list for my return to town in November. This is horrible news. The laws need to change, places like Donna's should be made historical building and restored.

  • UptownRay

    The city needs to bring back live music to North Rampart! The new mayor and police chief seem like a breath of fresh air compared to the incompetence and selfishness of their predecessors, but it is gradually alarming me how they are trying to 'suburbanize' and sanitize New Orleans. We are not Jefferson Parish! The city needs to actively PROMOTE live music, including safe dives like Donna's. There need to be MORE live music permits, not less! Let your city council person know!

  • cindy Ridgway

    Very depressing and its obvious that the landlord does not care at all!!!!Donna's was a mainstay. However one thing I noticed about NOLA is the fact that the musicians get treated far better in Europe then here.

  • Skulldigproductions

    This is absolutely HEARTBREAKING and HORRENDOUS…made my day a little sadder…

  • gammy miller

    We are devastated to hear this news. One of the reasons we come so often to New Orleans (and not just at Jazz Fest) was to go to Donna's. It was my kind of heaven on earth and we will miss you, Donna and Charlie. Our love to you, Gammy and Kenny

  • friday1

    Wonderfully written (though bittersweet) article.

  • Relaps

    The situation is a shame.

  • Murf00666

    To have music venues across the street from Armstrong Park, some of the most hallowed ground in the city. I work on North Rampart St. and think everyday how much the city would benefit from clubs returning to the street and showing the world how important this area is, while we, of course, get to enjoy it!!

  • Andygalbiati

    I CAN’T SAY ENOUGH ABOUT DONNA, CHARLIE (“UNCLE HOMEY”, to me) AND ALL OF THE GREAT TIMES THAT HAVE BEEN HAD IN THAT LITTLE JOINT. IT’S ONE OF THE PLACES WHERE YOUNG MUSICIANS WERE ALWAYS WELCOME TO CUT-THEIR-TEETH SITTIN’ IN W/ THE BIG BOYS. ONE NIGHT I WAS PLAYING THERE & HARRY CONNICK JR SAT IN W/ BOB FRENCH’S ORIGINAL TUXEDO BAND. THE WILD MAGNOLIAS & THE DIRTY DOZEN PLAYED THERE SEVERAL TIMES, TOO. DURING JAZZ FEST, IT OFTEN WASN’T UNUSUAL FOR WINTON MARSALIS & MEMBERS OF THE LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA TO PLAY THERE. FOR ME, DONNA’S WILL ALWAYS HOLD A TRULY SPECIAL PLACE IN MY HEART ‘CAUSE THAT’S WHERE I WAS ADOPTED BY MY LOCAL MUSICAL FAMILY, NAMELY THE ALGIERS BRASS BAND, WHO I’VE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD WITH. GOOD TIMES, GOOD FOOD & GREAT MUSIC.

  • Zhu Jinsong

    It is a sad news for me and my 10 years old daughter. We’re family from Shanghai China. We visited Donna’s during 2010 Mardi Gras period. We love the music and my daughter said this is the best cheeseburger her eated in her life. Today I try to wrote something about our holiday in New Orleans and find that Donna’s was closed about 4 month ago. It is not so easy for a Chinese family to visit New Orleans again but I belive the music will forever…It anyone can tell me how to get contact with Donna and Charlie, please help to leave a message to me at zhu.jinsong@live.cn. My daughter prepared New Year Card for Charlie…thanks a lot. Jason from Shanghai China.

  • nyc girl

    wow, so so so so sad to hear this. i was hoping to take my future husband there on our honeymoon 🙁

  • Bettymck33

    Highlight of our visit to New Orleans 5 years ago. Sad to hear it’s gone.

  • Bettymck33

    Highlight of our visit to New Orleans 5 years ago. Sad to hear it’s gone.