On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of New Orleans, we pounded the pavement to find the local bars worth celebrating.
Picture yourself here: There’s a backyard party in the Bywater District every night of the week and everyone’s invited. Festivities start at 7PM at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits. The neighborhood joint doesn’t look like much from the outside, just a rundown brick façade on a largely residential stretch, but the scene is vibrant inside the wine-shop-meets-tapas-style-eatery-meets-music-venue. There are refrigerators filled with wines and uncommon beers and a staff that’s willing to help you find a selection that suits you. It’s bottle service of a different stripe: grab the bottle yourself, some glasses, find a spot at the bar or one of the tables in the garden-like patio, order a cheese or charcuterie plate, and enjoy the nightly live tunes.
Few cities are as well known for their long and wonderful cocktail history as New Orleans. It’s such a deeply entrenched part of the culture that in 2008 it became the first (and remains the only) city to have an official cocktail, the Sazerac, as established by a vote in the Louisiana House of Representatives. It’s also the city that originated the modern cocktail festival. Tales of the Cocktail, best explained as the Sundance of the spirits industry, started here in 2002 and has since inspired various other similar events around the country. New Orleans celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2018, and the city is throwing a party. Exhibits, festivals, concerts, and symposiums are happening throughout the year to honor the city's diversity and resilience. But we can't think of a better way to celebrate on any given day than to raise a cocktail to the city that's world-renowned for them.
Of course, no trip to this city, known the world over for its food, would be complete without a Pimm’s Cup and a stacked-high muffaletta at the historic Napoleon House, a restaurant in an elegant old-French-style building with a palm-lined courtyard and classical music playing on a loop, and the Oysters Rockefeller and a French 75 at the French 75 Bar, the classy watering hole located within the legendary Arnaud’s, one of New Orleans's enduring, venerated men-must-wear-jackets fine dining temples. But after you’ve hit those celebrated institutions, venture beyond to the spots favored by the locals who make the city tick.
TIKI AND MARGARITAS AND PISCO, OH MY
Not all of these bars are in far-flung corners of town. One of the most memorable, in fact, is in the heart of the Quarter, though it feels a world away, a universe unto itself. Latitude 29, which opened in 2014, is operated by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a noted tiki aficionado and historian who, quite literally, wrote the book on the tropical drink revival—five books, in fact. (They have titles like “Potions of the Caribbean.”) Located in the just-off-Bourbon-Street Bienville House Hotel, it’s a relatively compact, dimly lit bar with an outsize personality. While slushy Hurricanes in jumbo plastic cups might rule the streets (New Orleans has an open bottle rule, don’t forget), this wonderfully eccentric bar specializes in hyper-complex rum drinks served in island-style vessels with elaborate garnishes, including fire. Hawaiian-style fare is on the menu.
Tiki drinks are also the calling card at Portside Lounge, a spacious and delightfully kitschy hangout with an old-school neon sign hanging outside pointing you towards the entrance. There are porcelain tiki statuettes, drinks with plastic mermaids hanging from the edge of the glass, and a strictly enforced laid back vibe. DJs who spin island tunes or local bands liven up the scene.
But thematic drink lists in this town aren’t limited to exotic rum cocktails. The Catahoula Hotel, which offers compact bungalow-style rooms, is tucked away on a quiet road in the grid-like Central Business District, about a ten-minute walk from the French Quarter. In an area that doesn’t have many options when it comes to nighttime drinking, the Catahoula draws in-the-know imbibers to its sleek, high-ceilinged lobby bar for classic and creative drinks made with pisco, traditional Peruvian brandy. In the daytime, it doubles as a coffee bar.
And speaking of Latin America, the stunning Casa Borrega, in Central City (10 minutes by cab), is not to be missed. Opened and run by Hugo Montero, a local artist and Mexico City native, and his wife, the colorful cantina is located in a refurbished 1891 Greek Revival house and known for its authentic mole plates and tequila drinks, including a daily special margarita. There’s live music regularly.
Casa Borrega was one of the first businesses to open in Central City, a once vibrant then neglected commercial strip that’s in the throes of a renaissance. The Museum of the American Cocktail has called the neighborhood home since 2014; it existed in temporary locations for several years until then. MOTAC is actually part of the Southern Museum of Food and Beverage, an institution that spotlights a diverse array of regional culinary customs and folklore. It’s the kind of place that wouldn’t fit as naturally into any cityscape other than New Orleans's.
DRINKING IN NEW ORLEANS'S MUSIC SCENE
A few blocks down is another relatively new spot that stands as a living tribute to the other keystone of the city’s heritage: jazz. The Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, a performance venue that opened in 2015, is the homebase of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In addition to the orchestra, the venue hosts touring musicians, celebrity-studded benefits, kids’ programs, and a Wednesday night open mic. Regardless of whether there’s a show on, though, the building is something of a sassy community center, a popular local hangout with a lobby bar that serves coffee drinks all day and alcohol in the evening.
That classic brass-heavy New Orleans sound is, of course, as deeply woven into the fabric of the city as po’ boys and chicory coffee. You can hear it in shiny new concert halls, on street corners, where kids brandish musical skills that belie their young ages, or in an unassuming, well-worn bar, which some would argue is the freewheeling jazz musician’s natural habitat. This is, after all, the city that gave us Tom Waits, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, and countless other troubadours and musicians of the boogie-woogie nighttime. They made the kind of music that lends itself to lingering for long sessions in dark, unpretentious neighborhood joints, the kind where conversations with strangers is easy to come by.
Alas, some of the gloriously gritty watering holes have been lost to time and the elements, but a few do still stand, with pride, mostly in outer districts. The best known is probably Maple Leaf Bar, a club featuring local and touring musicians of an exceptionally funky stripe. When they’re not off touring the country, the legendary Rebirth Brass Band is the Tuesday house band. Locals come to hear their dependably blow-the-roof-off shows with something akin to religious devotion; music-obsessed tourists make pilgrimages to see them here as if it’s some kind of Mecca.
NEIGHBORHOOD BARS FOR THE AGES
A little less raucous but no less legendary is Saturn Bar. Overseen by the nephew of the man who owned it from 1960 until he passed away soon after Hurricane Katrina, it’s a bit of a time capsule, which is what the many regulars love about it. (Drinks have their own throwback aspect: the price!) Walls are strewn with fleur de lis tchotchkes, Saints paraphernalia, small game taxidermy, vintage neon signs, and colorful murals. This Bywater outpost dependably gets livelier as the hour gets later. There’s no elevated stage for bands, just a space at the end of the expansive room. But that doesn’t keep the performers, whether local or touring bands or DJs, from captivating a room, especially during the popular every-second-Saturday Mod Dance Party, when the bar becomes a no-holds-bar dance club.
Perhaps inspired by these landmarks, a new crop of bars have opened in the past few years that pay tribute to the city's all-inclusive, unpretentious soul. Twelve Mile Limit, which opened in 2010 in the largely residential Mid-City, is a perfect example. There's a jukebox, a pool table, trivia nights, and BBQ eats. Dogs are allowed. You can order a beer and a shot or a well-crafted cocktail, no judgement. Everyone's equal at a neighborhood joint.