“C’mon, honey, you have to show me more than that to get some beads!”
I was walking to my last bar for the evening, having thrown back a few Abitas and a Vieux Carré, when I turned onto Bourbon Street and suddenly found myself in the middle of a pre-Mardi Gras party, complete with three men throwing beaded necklaces to the drunken tourists willing to lift their shirts and bare skin.
“Come on, let me see them,” one man coaxed me in his thick New Orleans’ drawl. “I have a special gold necklace for you, sweetheart.”
So there I was, in the heart of the French Quarter, contemplating revealing my breasts for a tacky necklace I cared absolutely nothing about.
How does this happen? I blame it on the intoxicating atmosphere. There’s something undeniably seductive about The Big Easy. While strolling the cobblestone streets lined with the romantic French- and Spanish-fused architecture, breathing in the humid air filled with the luring scent of warm beignets and fried oysters atop freshly baked French bread, and being enticed by live jazz wafting onto the street from inside tiny, smoke-filled bars, one can’t help but embrace the city’s energy and unabashedly let loose.
Because of this, narrowing down the best bars was far more challenging than I expected.
When I sought out eat and drink suggestions for this trip, the responses came from every angle: While eating at a crawfish boil in the East Village, two neighboring women at the bar informed me they were from the Crescent City and rattled off a dozen or so places I must try, which I quickly scribbled on a napkin covered in hushpuppy grease and crawfish juice. Waiting on the subway platform, doing laundry at the Chinese laundromat, having a beer at my neighborhood pub — no matter where I went in New York City, someone would happily dish on their favorite happy hours, trashy Bourbon Street watering holes and noteworthy spots outside of the Quarter (no one calls it by its full name). I was armed with a lengthy list of where to find the best of everything from classic NOLA cocktails to who has the best po’ boy sandwiches. Even once I arrived, locals, squeezing in between bar stools with me, freely shared their own favorites (something New Yorkers often covet and hesitate sharing with out-of-towners). By the third dive and nearly 20 more suggestions later, I realized this wouldn’t be my last trip to this sexy city.
What’s that? You want to know if I showed my breasts for that “special gold necklace?” Let’s just say, when in the South, my inhibitions weaken. Read into that what you will.
I accidentally cut in front of the 40 or so people waiting in line outside of Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street before being sent to the back of the line. There’s a heated rivalry between Acme and its competitor across the street, Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar. There’s no line at Felix’s, and when people say they prefer it, not waiting is often the argument they pose for their choice. But, I stand by my choice, and within 30 minutes, I’m sipping on a cold Abita Restoration Pale Ale draft at the bar, followed by an Abita Purple Haze and some raw and char-grilled oysters. My bartender Pam fluidly manages this high-volume bar; greeting new guests, asking me and other guests, all by name, how the food is, and yelling, “Give me a minute!” to the cook calling out her name to pick up food, all without missing a beat. She’s worked at Acme for 13 years, which is many lifetimes when considering the high staff turnover in most bars. One local sitting next to me confides that most of the staff takes home about $100K annually. Though tempted to submit an application, I instead pay the bill and move on to Arnaud’s French 75 on Rue Bienville.Guests can wander up to the second floor where there’s a quasi-museum filled with encased historical artifacts and costumes from Mardi Gras festivities of eras gone by.
One step inside this reputable cigar bar — which, along with its renowned chief mixologist, Chris Hannah, has made several best bar lists, including those in GQ and Esquire magazines and is nominated for this year’s James Beard Awards for Outstanding Bar Program — and one feels transported back in time. Bartenders are clad in white cocktail jackets and black bowties. Guests freely puffed on cigars while seated at the antique bar or one of the couches located along the perimeter of the warmly lit room that feels almost like a parlor in someone’s house.
The space is quiet, a haven compared to the endless party-driven bars in the Quarter. I was fortunate enough to have my Vieux Carré prepared by Hannah himself. Guests can wander up to the second floor where there’s a quasi-museum filled with encased historical artifacts and costumes from Mardi Gras festivities of eras gone by.
After the speed bump that was the aforementioned bead-throwing along Bourbon Street, I finally made it Erin Rose on Conti Street, a service industry bar just off Bourbon Street. Having spent most of my life working in restaurants, this place is like coming home. Tattooed line cooks and weary waitresses saddle up for a cold beer and a shot after a hard day’s work, and there’s a feeling that you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to or you could just as easily chat it up and make friends with the strangers sitting next to you. This Irish pub is known for its frozen Irish coffee, and rightfully so.
I’ve tasted some amazing cocktails around the world, and this one I’m still dreaming about it, which is something to be said. And for food cravings, there’s a kitchen in the back that houses Killer PoBoys, a pop-up featuring modern takes on this NOLA staple. It started last year and went over so well it became a permanent marriage. The Jameson grilled cheese is solid, as is the Moroccan spiced lamb sausage po’ boy served with homemade Tzatziki sauce. Hands down, this is my favorite New Orleans bar.
Being so close to Bourbon Street, I was time to attack. Shark Attack, that is. This cocktail, I was told, comes with a show, though no one would give specifics, which only intrigued me. It can be found at Tropical Isle, a party bar reputed for its Hand Grenade, known as ‘New Orleans’ most powerful and perhaps most mysterious drink as the bar won’t reveal the concoction’s ingredients. I was advised to pass on the Hand Grenade and instead go with the Shark Attack. I could — and maybe should — tell you all about this eclectic show and a drink, but that spoils all the fun. Okay, okay, I’ll give you a hint: there are bells, whistles, and a bath toy involved. That alone should be worth the $7.50 tab.
By this point, I realized I needed some reinforcement to conquer this list, so I enlisted former colleague Ashley Roussel, a New Orleans’ native and the executive sous chef at Social Southern Table & Bar in Lafayette, to guide me. After she made the two-hour trek, we caught the tail end of happy hour at Lüke, Chef John Besh’s bistro located in the Central Business District. All of Besh’s spots offer a generous discount from 3 to 6 p.m. daily, so be prepared to wait for a seat. We took advantage of a six-dollar Cremant d'Alsace brut rosé (normally, $12) and gorged on three-dozen 50 cent Gulf oysters (with just the right amount of brine and creaminess), served raw on the half shell with Saltine crackers.
A short walk to Bienville Street brought us to Bar R'evolution, where we ordered two delicious beers from Texas brewery, Saint Arnold: Endeavor IPA, which is a well-balanced double IPA, and Bishop’s Barrel No. 5, a Scotch Ale. The bar is housed within Restaurant R’evolution, owned by award-winning chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto, so we had to try some snacks and paired the beers with savory sweetbreads, head cheese, and decadent duck liver mousse, all executed beautifully. Just when I was completely unable to think about eating or drinking anything else, the bartender suggested trying his take on a Boulevardier, prepared with orange liquor in lieu of vermouth. It was simply wonderful, and exactly what I wanted, without knowing it.
There was only one thing left to do: head to Frenchmen Street. What Bourbon Street is to tourists, Frenchmen Street is to NOLA residents. It’s where you’ll find the locals relaxing in their favorite haunts, listening to that night’s live brass band or jazz singer. The watering holes here are all straight-forward without frills, gimmicks, or half-naked women trying to lure passersby’s to come into that particular pub (sorry, boys). We opt for Three Muses, featuring the sultry sounds of Debbie Davis and her Gin Powered Ukele. Kelsey Leger, a cook at Boucherie, joins us, and while looking over the cocktail menu, Leger interjects.
“Get the Pimm’s Cup. They make the best in town,” she says confidently. Three arrive in a charming Mason jar glass, refreshingly bright and welcoming after a day of heavy food and drinks. All three are gone within minutes.
After getting a taste of how the locals do it on Frenchmen St., Roussel and I headed up into Mid-City and found a couple of bar seats at Katie’s Restaurant & Bar. In the middle of the bar sits a square glass jar labeled, “JALAPEÑO VODKA” and “$8 SPICY BLOODY MARY,” and it’s filled to the brim with vodka marinating in chilies, okra, olives, cocktail onions, and lemon. Though the Bloody Mary itself wasn’t as thick as I prefer, the jalapeño-infused vodka provided a long, warm finish that doesn’t overwhelm the palate. It went wonderfully with the char-grilled oysters, shrimp, and grits.
We finished just in time to kick off happy hour — or happy afternoon, given it’s 3-7 p.m. daily — at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, a more-than-a-century-old tavern that overlooks the Bayou St. John. Beer is the obvious choice here, with two-dollar domestics, and a three-dollar price for imports, crafts and local brews. For just one dollar more than the standard craft varieties, I chose the Abita Andygator, a Dopplebock-style brew that’s super drinkable, if not a little sweet, despite the eight percent alcohol volume. Its slight hops make it ideal for pairing with fried foods or a sandwich, and not coincidentally, Parkway is notorious for its overflowing fried oyster and shrimp po’ boy.
“The bread is too crispy,” noted Roussel after the first few bites. Before too long, we accidentally spill the house-made gumbo (made with alligator sausage and roasted turkey) on part of the sandwich. Problem solved. And what a delicious solution it was.
After getting pretty happy in those hours, I returned to Frenchmen St. to do some bar hopping and finally ended up at d.b.a., jamming to my first live brass band performance. Like its sister locations in New York, this spot is heavily focused on beers, be it craft (Rogue Dead Guy Ale and Brooklyn Sorachi Ace) or local (NOLA Irish Channel Stout and the Cocodrie IPA by Bayou Tech Brewery), while also offering a solid cocktail list utilizing local spirits. For five dollars, you can catch The Tremè Brass Band at 9 p.m. each Tuesday (they played well past 11 p.m. on the night I was there). If I lived in New Orleans, this would be my solid go-to spot on Tuesday nights.