Loa are the spirits of Haitian Voodoo. They are kind of like Catholic saints, serving as intermediaries between humans and the Creator. Each has his or her own personality, chants and songs, likes and dislikes. Taken as a whole, however, they form a harmonious group that intercedes between heaven and earth. Loa the bar is also a mixture of styles and personalities that also mesh together into a beautiful, even spiritually cohesive whole. The bar itself, located in the back of the space, is a kind of altar, covered in statues of holy figures that traverse religions. There’s Buddha next to the Virgin Mary, who sits across from a Greek god. This aesthetic hodgepodge echoes throughout the space and produces an effect that my friend Allison described as “Louis XVI meets Pottery Barn.” The glassware is equally mismatched, though consistently lovely, and all of it feels borrowed (stolen?) from someone’s grandmother’s china cabinet. Everyone looks good holding these glasses, especially when doing so in the soft glow of dozens of candles. The flickering gleam not only illuminates the patrons and statues but imbues the acolytes/bartenders with a somewhat holy air.
This mingling of seemingly incongruous elements is most fully realized in the cocktails served here. Alan Walter oversees the bar program, and his vision is one that is defined by exploration and experimentation. Loa offers one of the most thoughtful cocktail programs in the city. The flavor combinations are adventurous, often pushing the envelope of what might work together, but they never feel haphazard. Many of the ingredients are made or infused in-house, often utilizing herbs from Alan’s garden. The bar is rarely busy, which means that bartenders have time to chat with you, making suggestions or explaining ingredients. If you are a solo traveler and want to learn about your drink, it’s a good place to be. If you are out with someone special, though, or even a good friend with whom you need to catch up, Loa also fits the bill. The lighting is muted, and the sofas are plush and far enough apart so that you are never on top of another duo. It’s a place that encourages you to slow down, which, in this 24/7 bustling world, is one of the most sacred acts I can think of.
Fresh herbs for drinks at Loa RUSTY NAIL
Each Thursday they donate 20 percent of sales to a different non-profit in their Cocktails for a Cause series
Some bars are notable for their history. Others for lush surroundings. Still others gain fame because of carefully crafted drinks. The element that most defines a neighborhood bar is the people who go there and the relationships formed there. For many, the people at your local bar become another kind of family. In visiting the Rusty Nail recently, my friend Erica pointed out an example of this connection. One of the Nail’s regulars is Frank. I learned that Frank used to come here with his elderly dog, Omar. Omar even had his own dog bed near the bar, where he would curl up and sleep as Frank chatted with patrons. When Omar died, The Rusty Nail put a tribute to the dog on their Faceblog page, and customers posted their condolences. Today, Frank gingerly balanced a sleeping puppy on his shoulder as he sipped his glass of merlot. Frank’s new puppy, Louie, was being trained in proper bar behavior (sleeping and not causing trouble), and patrons would occasionally come by and pat his head, with the familiarity of family.
In addition to these connections, what draws Erica back to the Nail (and what I also appreciate) is that no matter what you are in the mood to drink, you can get it. The rotating beer taps feature local and regional brews. The recently updated cocktail menu offers drinks with bitters made in-house. And unlike most neighborhood bars, the Nail has an admirable wine list.
Then, of course, there’s the back patio. Unlike less manicured courtyards in New Orleans, the paving here is even, none of the chairs are broken, and large fans are strategically placed to keep things cool, even on a sweltering summer night. Three TVs offer patrons easy viewing of football, NBA playoffs, or, tonight, college baseball. Also, this evening, the Swampy Science Club has set up in the back, offering a free lecture on particle waves (always easier to understand when drinking).
The Rusty Nail often hosts organizations and charity events in addition to trivia nights.
The front entrance to the Rusty Nail
My favorite part of the bar, though, is one most folks might not notice. On a wall off to the side, near a section of the beer taps, is a gallery of photos. Some are of the family who owns the bar, some are bartenders, some are patrons. It is not a huge section, not in the way that some bars absolutely cover a wall with snapshots. Instead it is more like the refrigerator in your kitchen, with its collage of images of friends and family. Unlike at so many bars, where every component of your experience is curated, this provided a nice view into a personal moment for the employees. If you are at the Convention Center, the Rusty Nail is a mere three blocks away. Well worth a stop.