After spending 3½ weeks working on a movie in New Orleans, I persuaded Brian to let me do a recap of my experiences here—because there were a lot of good ones! During this time I was able to visit 27 establishments; certainly not every bar in New Orleans but a good, obsessive chunk nonetheless.
In movies, once you reach a certain level almost everybody is capable of doing the job. The decision becomes: Whom do I want to spend 16 hours a day with? I’ve come to realize that a similar thing happens with bars. Once you reach a certain level, everybody is making good drinks. The question becomes more about where do you want to spend your hours? And with whom? At many places I felt that the bartender made (or ruined) the entire experience. Sometimes my enjoyment of the venue was contingent upon the time of day, or my mood at the time, or how busy the bar was, or what I ordered (or misordered), or any number of things. But most of the time how I felt about the person behind the bar became paramount.
For this reason, sometimes a restaurant or bar review doesn’t seem fair. So much of it might be luck, or timing, or something else. It’s hard to say that these are conclusively the best places in New Orleans, necessarily—only that these are the places where I consistently had the best time. Then again, maybe that is the only metric that matters.
Reportedly anchoring Freret Street’s revival and New Orleans burgeoning cocktail scene, Cure became my favorite place to visit here. Going early consistently got me the full attention and witty banter of non-surly bartenders like Alice and Braden. Perhaps if I went later Cure would be slammed and unfriendly, but I always enjoyed my late afternoon tenure there. You should head to Superior Seafood on St. Charles for a dozen happy hour oysters at 4pm, then brave the nightmarish road work on Napoleon up to Freret when Cure opens at 5pm. Enjoy one of their dozen seasonal cocktails like the Sunday Shoes (Spring 2015: tequila, crème de noyaux, citrus, heavy cream) or a Cure classic like the Whiskey Sinister (Monkey Shoulder, Maurin Cherry Quina, Cream Sherry, Angostura), and observe the attention to detail they take when making your drink! If you’re feeling adventurous, try one of their “obscure classics” or reserve cocktails, all far from the spring break element of Bourbon Street.
2. Barrel Proof
My first week in New Orleans I stayed at a hotel in the Warehouse District across from the convention center. Probably the closest watering hole was the Rusty Nail, but I elected to walk a little further under the 90 Overpass to Barrel Proof on Magazine. I was rewarded with a dark establishment open late with a very long bar to sit at and knowledgeable bartenders willing to answer my questions. What else can I say? This soon became my favorite neighborhood hangout. The tasty French Truck Coffee Truck is right across the street—usually closing right when Barrel Proof opens—so you can make an entire afternoon out of it if you aren’t going late at night. Try the Lower Garden (a variation on a classic rye Manhattan) or a Scofflaw before diving deep into their immense whiskey inventory.
3. Cane & Table
I passed by this place across from the French Market two or three times before finally zeroing in on the address and heading inside. Know that the lines of people on the sidewalk are waiting to get into the neighboring venue, not here. But that’s okay with us. Skinny, long, and dim, with a charming courtyard out back, Cane & Table is all about the rum. Try out one of their numerous innovative originals like the Smoak & Plank (Mezcal Vago, Carribean spices, and cherry bounce) or do what I did, which is work your way through Proto-Tiki Cocktails section, where you can find weird and wonderful libations resurrected from a century ago, like the Flu Cocktail or the strange and delicious Shanghai Cocktail (Smith & Cross pot-still rum, Herbsaint, lemon, and grenadine). If they aren’t busy, ask for a taster of their fantastic homemade falernum. Cane & Table is a civilized place open until midnight on weekdays and 2 A.M. on weekends—and if you close the place out Café Du Monde is only a couple of blocks away for a caffeine and sugar pick-me-up. Touristy, sure, but as my local assistant put it: “As long as you’re going to eat fried dough [beignets] you might as well have the best.”
4. Maurepas Foods
Maurepas Foods, a newish restaurant in New Orleans’ rapidly gentrifying Bywater area, is probably better known for its food, but their cocktail program is no slouch either. These days you know a cocktail place is serious if they are rocking a punchbowl, and focused bar manager Paige Chauvin brings the passion with drinks like the I’ll Have Another (her reimagining of an Old Fashioned with bourbon, kümmel, pine liqueur, and cassis) and the Spanish Harlem (mezcal, spice, lemon, and a big floater of malbec). Maurepas feels more adult than some of its neighbors, and when you get to be my age, that’s generally a good thing! But if you are still thirsty for a late-night scene after you are done sampling Chauvin’s creations, walk a block toward the river to Oxalis for a whiskey and then call it an evening.
When the most radically innovative bar in New Orleans is located in a CBD hotel a couple of blocks off Canal you know all bets are off. Hotel guests approach with drink tickets and pause with a lost look in their eyes once they have a look at the unorthodox menu. The drink list changes daily, and might include things like the Jerry Hall (Yellow Chartreuse, rose petal, piquin chili peppers, cava) or include ingredients like Banane du Bresil, Spanish moss, Muscadine juice, genepi, strawberry-rose and pepper syrup, toasted wild birdseed syrup, saffron syrup, or tobacco bitters. Manager Alan Walter’s charming bar is filled with a harvest of herbs, countless bottles filled with tinctures and infusions and shrubs and syrups and other science projects, and some of the most interesting glassware I’ve encountered. He also seems to encourage the same creativity from his bartenders, like the enthusiastic Brian Adee, who made me the wonderfully long and strong Remington (mezcal, Benedictine, sage, and grapefruit radler (half pilsner, half grapefruit soda)) something I didn’t even know I wanted until I had tasted it. Loa seems to be off the radar for many locals, and that’s a minor tragedy. And if you’re staying at the International House Hotel, for God’s sake use those drink tickets.
Gregarious head bar chef Abigail Gullo’s sublime Charbonneau’s Way (rye whiskey, Bitterman’s Amere Sauvage, lemon, maple syrup, with an absinthe rinse and fresh thyme) and Gullo herself were more than enough to land SoBou in the top 5, but I made the mistake of returning on a weekend when they were slammed. Like many French Quarter bar/restaurants, SoBou is also connected to a hotel, the W Hotel, and that night at least the crowd skewed young and dumb. The drinks were good, but it was noisy and crowded so I returned to Loa instead. So come early to SoBou, and come often.
7. Latitude 29
Latitude 29 was recommended to me by Loa’s Alan Walter on my last night in New Orleans. I had not even heard of it and no intention of going, so when I had a unexpectedly fantastic time there it felt like that most New Orleans of things, a lagniappe, a little extra bonus thrown in for goofs. Not to be confused with Tiki Tolteca a couple of storefronts down in Felipe’s Taqueria (who make a mean margarita it is said), I arrived at tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s tiki bar down right before closing. A raucous lesbian non-couple at the “far left end of the bar” engaged me in some spirited, hilarious chat about the history of riot grrrrls (they were in town for Sleater-Kinney) while a bartender in a coonskin cap served me a legit Navy Grog (Sinatra’s favorite tiki drink), complete with an ice cone and a straw through it. It was one of those increasingly infrequent and wonderful “How did I get here?” moments, this time in an incongruous French Quarter tiki bar called Latitude 29. What more can you ask for in life?