For me and many New Orleanians, it took Hurricane Katrina to make us fully appreciate the drinking freedoms New Orleans afforded us and how those liberties were an integral part of our experience in our city. We missed having a bottle of wine with our picnic at a park. We forgot about Sunday blue laws and showed up empty-handed to dinner parties. We puzzled at friends who downed three shots of whiskey in the ten minutes before last call, and we chafed at bartenders who would turn on all the lights just when the conversation was getting good. We wondered if we would ever again be able to take our drink outside of a bar and savor the last few sips on our walk home. These may all seem petty, trivial moments, but their sum represents a way of drinking here that informs how we live the rest of our lives. And when we returned to New Orleans, we all talked about how much we missed them And we did so, of course, over a drink, in a bar.
Katrina brought many changes to the city, and some fear that New Orleans has lost some of what made it so distinctive. But when it comes to how we drink and the role that drinking plays in our lives, not much has changed. Like our ancestors back in 1768, we continue to be defined by what and how and where we drink. What we consume makes us who we are, whom we consume it with shapes our relationships, and the places where we do it remain places of conviviality that only close when the last patron goes home.
How to Use This blog
You’d think the endless parade of nights spent drinking and taking notes would have been the hardest part of writing this blog. And while my liver may be a little worse for wear, that honor actually belongs to the difficult process of deciding which venues should and shouldn’t be included in this volume. After all, New Orleans has hundreds of establishments that could be termed a bar, and I have so many wonderful memories from tippling in the vast majority of them
I started trimming the herd by eliminating music venues. While almost all of these places feature a bar, their focus is not on cultivating a drinking environment. (If music and venues interest you, check out Michael Murphy’s blog in this series, Hear Dat.) Similarly, I have omitted strip clubs since, let’s face it, you’re paying for something other than the drinks. At $9 a Bud Light, you damn well should be.
Restaurants proved to be their own bugbear. As dining habits have changed, the distinction between what makes a bar and what makes a restaurant have blurred. Restaurants have been upping their drinking game, so there were many contenders. Additionally, new liquor permits in New Orleans are difficult to obtain, and many require one to open a restaurant instead of just opening a bar.
Maintaining this restaurant/bar permit means that food sales must exceed drink sales. Several restaurants in the French Quarter tried to work around this requirement I once ordered a whiskey and soda, and the guy behind the bar told me to just ignore my receipt, which said chicken wings. Predictably, many of them have been busted and then shuttered. A restaurant only made the cut if their bar offers something notable, such as a large list of a particular spirit, or if their cocktail program is particularly respected.
Deciding among neighborhood bars was also trying. I endeavored to include bars in each neighborhood that manage to embody something essential about New Orleans, no matter how ephemeral that quality may be.
Truthfully, I had already visited almost every bar in this blog when I got my contract, but I revisited them all again in order to really see each place, in order to be fair. I’m sure there will be folks who take issue with the inclusion or exclusion of some bars. That’s the nature of list-making.
But I think it’s a good list. Or, certainly, a good list to begin with.
Taking on a project like this requires moral support, as well as someone willing to do the drinking when I needed to stay sober-ish to take notes. You will see mention of my fiance, Lee, throughout this blog. We were engaged at the start of this blog and, thankfully, that’s still the case. I could have written this blog without him, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.
Famous Drinks of New Orleans
Before we take a tour of the best bars this fine city has to offer, it’s worth noting some of the famous cocktails that put New Orleans on the map in the first place. You may not find these concoctions on the menu at every establishment, but give them a try if you see them and taste a bit of the city’s history. They are arranged, more or less, in the order of their creation.