Chuck Taggart is a dedicated cocktailian and native New Orleanian now living in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
“You’re kidding, right? Where do we want to drink? We’ll be drinking all day! People will be thrusting liquor and cocktails into our hands morning, noon and night! There’s the Carousel Bar right in the hotel and hundreds within stumbling distance! I think we’ll be fine for drinking!”
Okay, jeez … well, you’re right, of course! That said, the Carousel gets understandably crazy during Tales, and there are several destination bars that you’ll want to patronize if at all possible, including some marvelous cocktailian establishments that have cropped up in the last year or so. There’s also one in particular that has risen like the phoenix … well, a sodden phoenix that drowns rather than burns.
That one would be the venerable Sazerac Bar at the newly-reopened Roosevelt Hotel. This bar has a long history in New Orleans, back to when it moved to the Roosevelt (later called the Fairmont) in 1949, and for nearly 100 years before that in its previous incarnations stretching back to the Sazerac Coffee House (“coffee house” being a euphemism for saloon) in Exchange Alley. Sadly, during its later years a good bit of the sheen came off this great bar — the banquette seating was removed, television sets were added (ugh), and a number of the bartenders took shortcuts in making the bar’s signature cocktail which lowered the quality considerably. Then came that awful day in August of 2005 when the passage of Hurricane Katrina, followed by the failure of the levees and floodwalls, which inundated the city and shuttered the hotel for almost four years.
I am pleased to report that both hotel and bar are open for business. I haven’t been yet (three more days and counting as I write!), but some of my friends have, sitting at the beautiful bar in front of the gorgeous 1930s-era Paul Ninas murals, sipping Sazerac cocktails and being “very happy,” in the words of one. Step back into New Orleans and cocktail history, and do not under any circumstances miss a visit to the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, 123 Baronne St. If you visit between July 9 and 11, you can catch clarinetist Tim Laughlin, one of the city’s best jazz musicians (and my old high school classmate) performing in the bar at 8pm.
Part of me is more excited about going to the Sazerac than any other bar in the city, but truth is … I have been there before, many times, although of course it’ll now be better than it ever was since I began going there. That said, there’s one other bar that I’m just as excited about, and this one I’ve yet to visit at all. Cure opened in late February of this year, the latest cocktail-centric bar in the city, with native New Orleanian Neal Bodenheimer at the helm. Many of us know the drill at a great bar — fresh juices, housemade ingredients, creative originals and a deep knowledge of the classics — but they’ve been a rarity in the Crescent City so far. Places like Cure are making that less so. (Here’s Neal talking about the ideas behind his bar.) It’ll be a bit of a haul, as Cure is Uptown, 4905 Freret St. at Upperline; you’ll want to hop in a cab. Note the house rules on the website — no shorts for gentlemen after 8pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (it’s a classy jernt).
On the edge of the Quarter is another cocktail-centric bar that’s an easy walk, and although Neal is no longer involved since he opened Cure he did design their initial cocktail list. That’s Bar Tonique, 820 N. Rampart St. between St. Ann and Dumaine, which opened last August. Comfortable banquette seating, subdued lighting, a great collection of spirits, house-made tonic and cherries, and I’ve heard they’ve got a good crew of bartenders. Very much worth a visit.
Most of you already know these next two places, but just in case … the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s Restaurant, 813 Bienville St. in the Quarter, is a warm, comfortable space attached to one of the city’s grand old Creole restaurants. Chris Hannah, one of NOLA’s best, is behind the stick there, although as usual we can’t vouch for his schedule during Tales. Have him fix you a classic, or one of his originals like the lovely Bywater cocktail. Over in the CBD at the Père Marquette Hotel at 817 Common St. is Bar Uncommon, presided over by the legendary Chris McMillian, a walking, shaking and stirring compendium of cocktail and New Orleans history and undoubtedly the greatest maker of mint juleps you’ll ever see. It’s a joy to be at the bar with Chris and I urge you to seek him out, although again his schedule is likely to be full with Tales events. If you see either of these gentlemen during Tales, ask them if you’ll get a chance to see them behind the stick that week. Chris McMillian you’ll recognize from the video link above; Chris Hannah says, “I’m the bald guy with glasses.”
A few other places worth mentioning, all within a block or so on Decatur Street: Pravda is at 1113 Decatur, has a lovely courtyard with tables, and a fairly wide selection of French and Swiss absinthes with proper absinthe service. There are some classic dives in the same block — Molly’s at the Market at 1107 Decatur is a longtime favorite of late-night Quarter drinkers. The Abbey at 1123 Decatur is “probably the diviest,” says my friend Michael. “You truly never know what will happen when you go in there but it is nearly always memorable.” The next block has Aunt Tiki’s at 1207 Decatur, which does have tiki decor but isn’t exactly what I’d call a tiki bar (not if you’re used to the likes of Tiki Ti, for instance). It’s in a space formerly occupied by a dive bar called The Hideout. ”Expect lots of tattoos and piercings, loud jukeboxes, and you’ll probably have to dodge the gutter punks begging on the sidewalk,” says Michael, “but it provides a side of New Orleans that you can’t experience anywhere else.” Great jukebox, too.
In the food post last week I mentioned restaurant Iris in the Bienville House hotel and their long, comfortable bar presided over by “spirit handler” Alan Walter. Just a reminder to check that place out, and a half a block down from Bienville House toward Canal is a little place we’ve become rather fond of over the last couple of years, Attiki Bar and Grill at 230 Decatur. Good Mediterranean food as well as huge fried soft-shell po-boys (for nine bucks!), friendly staff and truly killer Bloody Marys from a house-made mix. Last year we taught them how to turn a Bloody Mary into a Red Snapper by substituting gin for vodka (which I’ll take over a plain ol’ vodka Bloody Mary any day of the week). They were fascinated and enthusiastic, and started recommending them to their other customers. (As I said, good people.) All that plus free wi-fi.
Those places, plus everything else, should keep you busy. Just don’t blame me for your liver fatigue!