Here’s to the New Places
Our local bar scene has definitely received a facelift.
New Orleans is often called a city of neighborhoods, but it’s also a place made up of inside places. The patina on the inside of Napoleon House says as much about the city as the view down Royal Street. The labyrinth of dining rooms at Antoine’s says as much as a walk down St. Charles Avenue. And anyone who knows the French Quarter well knows that real life occurs behind the gates, through the porte-cocheres and in the courtyards. A big part of the way we experience the city is from the insides of places.
In some cities, the insides are much more important than the outsides. For instance, in Dublin, the exterior cityscape is austere. But enter a pub, and you can be welcomed into a devoutly ornamented temple to Dionysus. It’s as though all of the city’s creative energy went into providing the ideal settings for drinking whiskey and dry stout.
Similarly, the insides of bars say a lot about New Orleans. And those insides are changing.
Step back in time a bit. Until recently, going to a bar in New Orleans meant walking into a cacophonous, smoke-clouded space. It had an unfinished cement floor, dingy from decades of ashes and spilled drinks. The walls were wood-paneled. Beer signs provided most of the lighting — as well as the artistic flourishes. The bartender, a fading veteran wearing Sansabelt pants, needed to know how to make only about a dozen drinks. Past the bar, people were playing pool and darts. I can’t speak to the women’s, but the men’s room was grimy and covered with graffiti. The trough-like urinal was filled, for some reason, with ice. The juke box twanged out “Cissy Strut.”
Today, you are just as likely to find yourself in what by comparison would be an antiseptic environment. There’s no smoke. It’s not very loud. The music is trendy, the décor trendier. There’s actual art on the walls. The bartender, a bearded millennial, knows a vast repertoire of specialty and artisanal cocktails, many of which you order from a menu. There might not be a pool table. There’s definitely no urinal-trough ice. If “Cissy Strut” or any other Meters song is playing, it’s in an ironic way.
Part of this change owes to higher standards. In the words of Brooks Graham, an architect who has designed a number of local bars and restaurants: “Cocktails are becoming more and more complex. … It’s the return of the 1950s, early 1960s fascination with cocktails.”
We want classy cocktails, and we want a classy, modern atmosphere to go with them. Loa in the CBD was the spearhead of this movement. The nouveau-voodoo watering hole dates back all the way to the pre-Katrina years.
But today the classy cocktail movement is evident in a wide variety of places. Treo in Mid-City gives Tulane Avenue’s gritty rep a decided kick in the rump. Latitude 29 in the French Quarter takes a mod-tiki approach. Bar Tonique on Rampart has a Francophilic feel. Bellocq at Lee Circle draws inspiration with a polished Storyville bordello theme. Cure on Freret has the cocktail aficionados Uptown covered. The list goes on.
Say what you will about the change in our drinking places, but it has two distinct upsides: First, you don’t leave with your clothes reeking of cigarette smoke. Second, there’s little danger of hangovers because, when paying craft cocktail rates, who can afford to overindulge?
Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.