BACCHANAL NEW ORLEANS

Bacchanal started as a hole in the wall, one-room wine shop at the corner of Poland and Chartres. It opened when the Bywater neighborhood was charming and dingy. Nothing much was around, except a military base not exactly a wine crowd. I was surprised when it opened and wondered how long it would stay in business. Living a few blocks away, I did my part to ensure its longevity. Today, Bacchanal is a massive complex, featuring a sprawling patio, upstairs bar, and first-rate kitchen. The story of Bacchanal is, in a way, a snapshot of my neighborhood after Katrina.

Chris Rudge, the owner, was a generous, affable proprietor, full of advice, always happy to share tastings and stories. He didn’t take himself (or wine) too seriously. He used to sell a bottle of Aubry Rose champagne with a guarantee that if you drank it with the object of your affection, you would get laid, and if you didn’t, you could bring the empty bottle back for a refund. Apparently no one ever returned with an empty, and I’m not telling what happened after I shared a bottle.

After Hurricane Katrina, when the levees failed and the city flooded, many local restaurants remained shuttered, and the closest open grocery store was seven miles away. But Bacchanal quickly reopened, and Chris offered his place to a local chef who cooked on a grill in his pickup truck parked on the patio. Truthfully, “patio” is a generous term for the gravelly concrete slab where we sat on rickety broken plastic chairs, balancing good food on paper plates on our knees and worrying about the future of our city. The wine helped.

The popularity of the patio grew, musicians began to perform on a regular basis, the kitchen thrived, and Bacchanal became a hub of community activity. Eventually neighbors alerted the city to the fact that Chris didn’t have a permit for anything besides selling and pouring wine. What was once a small wine shop had become a nuisance, and the city shut all of these other activities down. But instead of returning to being merely a wine store, Chris built out a proper kitchen adjacent to a beautifully renovated courtyard and got all the permits needed to become a venue. He later added an enclosed bar above the shop, where patrons dash during inclement weather.

The Bacchanal you visit today is far removed from the one where I first bought wine in 2004. The patio is the main attraction. Folks drink wine under Christmas lights and listen to live music. The kitchen is inventive and reliable. The wine prices have definitely gone up, and buying a bottle there is akin to buying one in a restaurant instead of a shop, but a restaurant/venue is what Bacchanal has become. Weekend nights can get crowded, and the local in me rolls her eyes at the lines of people elbowing their way to secure a table. But when I feel myself getting cranky, I remind myself that not that long ago, we wondered if anyone would ever come drink here again, and I get over my impatience. Chris died in his sleep in 2015, and those of us who had been his customers have mourned that loss. I know he was proud of what he created. Bacchanal is not the intimate neighborhood secret it was in 2004, but it still offers a true New Orleans experience of good food, wine, and music under the stars.

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