NEWPORT - In the warmer months, when day fades into night, Newport comes alive. Its labyrinth of lanes such as Thames Street, Broadway, and America's Cup Avenue fills with tourists and locals headed to taverns, restaurants, and live music clubs.
"You never have to walk far to get a drink. Newport is a verywalkable city," said Jim Gillis, entertainment writer for the Newport Daily News.
Besides its great night life and beaches, the city hosts the acclaimed Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival, along with other fests featuring classical music and international film. The city's year-round population of about 30,000 often swells to 100,000 in the summer, Gillis said.
The pace picks up starting on St. Patrick's Day. I went in April and already the clubs and bars were drawing crowds. And, indeed, be ready to walk, because nearby parking isn't always easy and you will be mounting countless stairs since many clubs are two or three stories high.
The best live music venue is the Newport Blues Cafe (on Thames Street, which runs along Newport Harbor), a three-story former bank. Instead of saving money, you'll spend it here because this is a festive place, drawing a hedonistic, mixed-age crowd. It doesn't book many blues acts anymore. Rather, it hosts classic-rockers such as Eddie Money, the Average White Band, and a raft of tribute acts such as Dirty Deeds (covering AC/DC tunes), and Jovi (covering Bon Jovi hits).
I caught an eccentric act there called Erik Narwhal & the Manatees. The leader sang crazed blues-rock in a Screamin' Jay Hawkins style, and even wore a skull necklace and cape. A highlight came when he changed Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" to "Werewolves of Newport," delighting the crowd.
A half-block away are two other clubs. Bustling One Pelham East has picture windows through which you see dancers bouncing off each other because it is so jammed. The Boston band Brickyard was pumping out covers of "everyone from Johnny Cash to Tool," as singer Brian Locker said later. "We play many Boston places like the Purple Shamrock and the Green Dragon - and they party in Newport very similar to people in those clubs," he said.
Up the street is the Rhino Bar & Grille, with a crowd on the younger side and billiards in the back. Jim Birkhead, who was performing there with his band, Lazy Dog, said, "It's a lot easier to get here than to go down to Cape Cod sometimes." His group dishes rock, blues, and reggae. Rhino has another club room across the hall manned by a DJ. The crowd was even younger there, but the excitement was palpable.
Newport gets additional buzz from the action on the quays jutting into the harbor. Across the street from the Newport Blues Cafe is Bannister's Wharf, a busy, shop-laden street where in 1813 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was greeted upon his triumphant return from the battle of Lake Erie. The wharf boasts the elegant Clarke Cooke House, an antique, four-story building that has a world-class restaurant and several bars. The ceilings are low, and the ambience is upscale. Guests in recent years have included Ted Turner and Richard Gere. The bowtied maitre d', Geoffrey Sullivan, formerly worked at Locke-Ober in Boston.
The Cooke House, named for an 18th-century Newport merchant, gets so active in the summer that as many as 10 doormen monitor the front entrance. There's a formal dining room called the Sky Bar, and a downstairs dance club called the Boom Boom Room, which has undergone renovations. Its red-and-white-striped walls give it a candy-cane look. DJ Billy Bradford spins nostalgic '70s and '80s music on weekends. Oh, and did I mention there's a sushi bar, too? The Cooke House seems to have everything.
For the most part, though, Newport is a city of small taverns. A favorite of mine is Celtica Public House on Long Wharf near the Marriott and Wyndham hotels. It's a laid-back retreat and has cozy couches by the window. A sultry Stevie Ray Vaughan tune was playing when I entered. The bar also offers karaoke and has the Guitar Hero game every Saturday so you can "release your inner Hendrix," as the sign says.
If history draws you to Newport, you must see the White Horse Tavern, one of America's oldest tavern buildings, dating to 1652. It was run by a former pirate in the early 18th century. It's small with exceptionally low doorways, but has a classic ambience with fireplaces.
Nearby, on Broadway, are more taverns. "Broadway was pretty dead for years. People used to race through it to get to Thames Street," said Gillis. But it has blossomed with some cool places such as Spark (which offers four-course dinners for $25 Tuesday-Thursday through summer), 180 Degrees (which Gillis said used to be a dive), Pour Judgement Bar and Grill (how can you not like that name?) and the Fastnet Pub, a friendly nook with a pool table and the Red Sox on TV.
It's not just Newport's downtown that hums, either. Head down to First Beach and sample the refurbished Tickets Sports Bar and Grill, one of the most comfortable sports bars around. And across the street is the tiny but atmospheric Flo's Clam Shack, which has a nautical-themed bar upstairs.
Another night life nexus is around the International Tennis Hall of Fame. There's the complex of La Forge Casino Restaurant and Crowley's Pub. There are dining tables that overlook the Hall's grass court. And the pub, established in 1880, features cocktail pianist Dave Manuel, who does a great version of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." It's a fitting song to sing in this beautiful city.
Steve Morse, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at email@example.com.