The Best Bars in New Orleans
Alex Pasquariello has the scoop on NOLA’s latest sips and Old School classics, just in time for the Super Bowl
With Super Bowl XLVII sliding into the Big Easy this week, the game that’s synonymous with light beer and potato chips will be played out in the country’s citadel of the drink, where the bartenders are superstars, a pour is a work of art and every sip has a story.
Don’t get us wrong — it’s not that New Orleans’ raison d’être is imbibing, but this ever-evolving port city molded by French, Spanish, Caribbean and American slave cultures, is inextricably intertwined with booze.
After a flood wiped out the nascent French colony in 1719, just a year after it was founded, the first business to open in the swamp was a wine shop. The cocktail was invented here in 1838 when Creole pharmacist Antoine Peychaud opened a Royal Street apothecary prescribing a concoction of cognac and bitters.
In June 2008, The Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed the city’s official cocktail the Sazerac (rye whiskey, bitters and absinthe) after a protracted debate with proponents of the Ramos gin fizz (gin, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, sugar, cream, orange flower water, and soda water). Today, liquor is on sale 24-7 in grocers, drug stores and gas stations, you can wander the streets drink in-hand so long as it’s in a plastic cup, and drive-thrus sell frozen daiquiris (it’s not an open container until you put the straw in).
In the last five years, a new breed of mixologist has migrated south and the cocktail, fine wine and craft brew scene has reached new heights. For your Big Easy bender, leave the light beer, yard-long Hurricanes and those frozen daiquiris to the tourist hordes and follow our guide to the city’s bartender-driven drinking renaissance.
New York City expats Katie Darling (Brooklyn’s Clover Club) and Ryan Gannon (Manhattan’s Spotted Pig) are among the stars behind the bar at Bellocq, a hip Lee Circle hideaway attached to Hotel Modern. A sip here is a trip in the way-back machine to the heady pre-cocktail, ice-is-new days of the early 19th century when the cobbler — fortified wine (sherry, vermouth or port), sugar and citrus pieces shaken with ice — was all the rage. Start with the Bonal Gentiane-Quinine cobbler: tonic wine, grapefruit zest and sugar shaken and served over ice in a tin mug with a grapefruit spiral garnish and hollow wheat stalk straw.
Patrick’s Bar Vin
Gregarious Belgian Patrick Van Hoorebeek was the city’s top maître d' at the legendary (but shuttered) Bistro at Maison de Ville, and he remains the Big Easy’s bon vivant at his eponymous wine bar, opened in a quiet alcove in Hotel Mazarin in 2011. Sipping a Bordeaux in the leafy courtyard by the gurgling fountain (ok, it’s a urinating cherub), it’s easy to forget you’re just a half block from Bourbon Street. Inside, a fireplace, red leather armchairs and wine lockers set a sophisticated stage; this is the HQ of Mardi Gras organization Krewe of Cork and many of the city’s biggest oenophiles store their bottles here. Put your trust in Patrick and order his “Best Kept Secret” a rotating selection served by the glass for $5.
SoBou draws sophisticated drinkers-cum-foodies south of Bourbon (get it?) by pairing mixological magic by Brooklyn refugee RyeGirl (née Abigail Deirdre Gullo, formerly of Red Hook’s Fort Defiance) and eats by the culinary team behind NOLA’s legendary Commander’s Palace. Sidle up at the bar and start with her Taylor Bird Sazerac (a Pernod absinthe rinse with cognac, Sazerac rye, bitters and a twist). Say “hey,” and RyeGirl just might sing you a song (she’s got pipes) or mix up an off-menu elixir like the Seven Stages of Hell, a staggering (and secret) combo of liquors from the countries her grandfather served in during World War II.
Royal Street Inn
Stumble into the dark, smoky recesses of Royal Street Inn’s R Bar on a sunny afternoon, ask for the special, and barkeep Lara Desmond will hit you with a High Life and a shot of bourbon before you can say, “Tchoupitoulas.” Do yourself a favor, though, and take the time to sample the bar’s local brews on tap including NOLA Brewing’s Hopitoulas IPA, which combines six malts and six hops for a piney boutique and just enough citrus top notes to go down easy. The brewery started in 2008 by a team of New Orleans natives led by Kirk Coco has been churning out the city’s best suds out of the Irish Channel nabe since 2008.
Foodies will direct you to this year-old eatery in a Bywater warehouse for chef Michael Doyle’s locavore spin on Southern grub (like goat tacos with pickled green tomatoes and cilantro harissa), but it’s worth the trip just for “Chief Intoxologist” Brad Smith’s inspired cocktails. The Minneapolis native reaches into the pantry for ingredients for drinks like the “gent and the jackass,” which uses smoked paprika syrup, basil and peach bitters to magnify bourbon’s bite, while the “Jesus H. Christ” mixes gin, cardamom and habanera with lemon and peach. Whether you’re supping on the shrimp hot pot (with andouille, kimchi and mushrooms) or enjoying a liquid dinner, wrap it up with the millionaire juice (a bourbon milkshake) served with fresh-baked cookies.
Day drinking? Kick off your bender at this French Quarter institution on the corner of St. Louis and Charles streets — it opens at 11 am, the perfect time for a refreshing Pimm’s Cup (although we don’t know if legendary bartender Paul Gustings works that early). The 200-year-old building was the home of Nicholas Girod, New Orleans mayor from 1812 to 1815; he famously offered his abode up as a refuge to the exiled Le Petit Caporal. Napoleon couldn’t make it, but his bust is perched atop the cash register, though it’s unlikely he’d approve of being associated with a drinking establishment known for this Anglophile fave mixing a splash of lemonade with Pimm’s No. 1.
The Spotted Cat
New Orleans’s musical roots run as deep as the Mississippi River is long, and the sounds of jazz, blues and brass bands fill the city’s streets year-round. The sonic soul of the town is funky Frenchman Street where The Spotted Cat is the place to jam into the wee hours. Owner-slash-barkeep Jenni Garret serves up suds by local brewery Abita — sip on a smooth Abita Amber or a hopped-up Jockamo IPA and let it all hang out to tunes by bands like St Louis Slim & the Frenchmen Street Jug Band and Sarah McCoy’s Oopsie Daisies. Pop in on Wednesdays around five for free swing dance lessons — you’ll need the tutorial if you hope to hang with the regulars who jump, jive and wail in the front rows.