If Cane & Table down the street is where James Bond rubbed elbows with the hoi polloi of the Caribbean underworld, then El Libre is the rum bar where he meets his local contact. Set under the banner of the Cuban flag, this joint serves up big flavored drinks that belie its tiny size. Bar manager Konrad Kantor describes it as a space that evokes Cuban nostalgia combined with a New Orleans appreciation for well-made cocktails and sandwiches. This is quite a set of shoes to fill in a town that claims the Sazerac, the muffaletta, and the po’ boy.
Bartender Bazil Zerinsky pours a Daquiri at El Libre
Kantor says the size of the venue actually determined the concept, one hashed out after several rounds at Latitude 29, a place that surely had some subconscious influence on El Libre’s ultimate incarnation. El Libre pours twenty-five rums and not much else, nudging people to try classic Cuban drinks like a traditional daiquiri or mojito. Kantor does keep orgeat syrup on hand to make a mean Mai Tai not exactly Cuban, but delicious nonetheless. Guests can head upstairs to some very tiny loft seating, but I preferred to hang out at the bar, chatting with the very amiable Kantor. His commitment to his craft is evident, and in a bar with such a limited menu, every detail matters. For instance, he makes all of his grenadine and changes the flavors seasonally. In winter, the pomegranate base is spiked with orange zest, cinnamon and cloves. In summer, the flavors change to lime and orange flower water. A lot of people claim to dislike rum, but Kantor believes that’s because they had a bad experience with it. I agree with this assertion, remembering one very unfortunate night at Pat O’Brien’s that put me off rum for years. Kantor and his crew are trying to win folks back to the rum camp. If the comments from the lively bachelor party who took over the upstairs one night was any indication, they are succeeding. There’s not much room for decor in El Libre, but the little wall space boasts a cardboard cutout of Ernest Hemingway as well as his quote: Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual. A good motto for life. A good motto for a bar.