Describe the best bar...

I have a deep and abiding love of bars of all stripes, in all of their grit and glory. My enthusiasm is equally robust for low-rent bars (Specs' in San Francisco, The Pacific Inn Pub in Seattle) as it is for posh hotel bars (Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, The Sazerac Bar in New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel) and everything in between.

One type is not "better" than another; to get the full experience, you have to commit to taking advantage of what each place has to offer. I drink an Old Fashioned at Clover Club in Brooklyn, and drink Coronas while eating $1 tacos on the porch at The Sire in Riverside, California. I love both places for very different reasons; the only thing they have in common is that they have successfully crossed the boundary that separates places that merely sell drinks from what can generally be termed a good bar.

So how can you recognize if you are in one of these magical places? Here are a few things I look for in a bar that makes me think, "This is a great joint," and some examples of places that I've found in my travels.

Who goes there, and why? How do people interact with the bartender? With each other? If the bar is full of people who clearly know the place well, chances are it is the center of a strong community. This usually means that the people are loyal to the bar, and the bar is loyal to its people, which is a very good sign. The sadly defunct Liquor Store Bar in Tribeca was a perfect example of this. The Old Brogue in Northern Virginia is another.

Anyone can sign a lease, apply for a liquor license, and open their doors. What distinguishes really good places from those that are drab and ordinary is often a passion on the part of the owners or staff for something very specific. Maybe there are 40 beers on tap. Maybe the jukebox is stocked with every British Guitar Pop band from 1960 to 1980. Maybe they offer every expression from every distillery on Islay.

It takes real bravery and an honest love to tie the success of your bar to the public's interest in whatever your passion happens to be, which can make the experience of going to these places special for regulars and strangers alike. I was once in a bar called La Boheme Tavern in Seattle where they would immediately turn off the music if someone, anyone, pulled out a harmonica. I was told, "You can always rock a harp at The Bo." Brilliant.

Historic places like The Blue Bar in the Algonquin Hotel in New York feel special because of the people, like Dorothy Parker, who used to frequent them. Unique places like The Bigfoot Lodge in Glendale, CA (with its "Smokey the Bear" theme) or The Chart Room in New Orleans (which is so dark you can't read the bottles behind the bar) are just bizarre enough to feel like a blacksmith's puzzle that needs to be figured out.

Visionary spots like Preux & Proper in Los Angeles and Macao Trading Company in New York will humble you with their scope, beauty, and attention to detail. Atmosphere can come from something as simple as a really cool lamp or something as grandiose as a thirty-foot mural of the Absinthe Fairy.

My favorite bars are distinguished by the fact that they do a lot of things very well. Great music, good vibe, delicious cocktails, friendly service, cool room, great graphics. These multifaceted spots are places I think of as the rock stars of the bar world—they are able to be many things to many people.

Employees Only in New York is a gorgeous room with great spirits, but most importantly, they know how to show people a really good time. Rye in San Francisco, Royal in Hollywood, and Cure in New Orleans are places that get almost everything right. Sometimes you walk out of a bar at the end of the night and think nothing more than, "That was really cool." Cherish these joints, if you find one.

Original Post

Fun Facts About Mardi Gras

There’s so much more to our Carnival season than “Throw me something, Mister!” Here’s five facts about Mardi Gras you might not already know.

1. Mardi Gras as we know it started in Mobile.

Mobile was established as a French colony by Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville, in 1702. The first parade in Mobile was held in 1703. As control of Mobile shifted from the French to the British, French colonists began to form secret organizations they called “mystic societies.” The Cowbellion de Rakin Society began in 1830. Men from these societies spread over to New Orleans, and the first “modern” Mardi Gras celebration here took place in 1835. The Mobile-style of Carnival didn’t stick in New Orleans; through the 1840s and 1850s, Mardi Gras had become so rowdy and violent, city government was ready to abolish public celebrations.

Mobile came to the rescue of Carnival in New Orleans in 1856. Joseph Ellison, a businessman from Mobile, and a former member of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, joined with five colleagues to form the Mistick Krewe of Comus. They staged a Mobile-style parade in 1857, and that started New Orleans Mardi Gras as we know it.

The success of Carnival in New Orleans gives many in Mobile a huge inferiority complex. New Orleanians, however, don’t really concern themselves with the issue, as a rule. In New Orleans, we know Carnival is a celebration for friends, family, and neighbors, so it’s OK if they do what we do over in Mobile.

2. “Black Mardi Gras” is as old as “White Mardi Gras”

That African-Americans celebrated Carnival along with white folks in New Orleans is not huge news, but many are unaware of how early the black community organized into parading groups. After Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to New Orleans in 1884 and 1885, many local African-Americans began to “mask Indian” for Mardi Gras. As the “Mardi Gras Indian” groups grew in popularity, black men formed different groups, or “tribes,” who then worked hard to outdo the costumes of the others. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition has contributed what is essentially the soundtrack to the Carnival season.

Not only did African-Americans “mask Indian” for Carnival, they also paraded on floats, costumed more like the white parading organizations. One group, the “Tramps,” took to the streets for the first time in 1901. By 1909, the Tramps had grown to the point where they formed a more-organized parade. They chose the African Zulu tribe as their theme. William Story was their first king, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club has become one of the most influential organizations in Carnival.

3. Not all parades have “Kings” or “Queens”

The Carnival krewes that put on parades usually designate one of their number as “king,” and that member leads the parade that year. Since most krewes are male-only, the members will also choose a group of women from their daughters and granddaughters, naming one of the ladies queen. The other women become her court. The women’s krewes often do the same. Some krewes, like the Krewe of Bacchus, name a celebrity as their king.

Not all krewes have a “king.” The Mistick Krewe of Comus designates the annual leader of their parade as “Comus”, the Lord of Misrule from John Milton’s 1637 masque, Comus. The krewe’s leader is not “King Comus,” he is simply “Comus”. The Lord of Misrule carries a jewelled chalice, rather than a sceptre, and remained masked for the entirety of the krewe’s parade. Comus is still anonymous to the general public, even though the krewe no longer parades, only holding their bal masque, on Mardi Gras night. Carnival has another “Lord of Misrule” – that’s what the Twelfth Night Revelers call their “king”.

Other krewes that don’t have “kings” include Proteus (the monarch assumes the persona of the god of the sea), the Knights of Babylon style their leader as “Emperor Sargon”. The Knights of Momus are led by Momus, god of Mirth, and the Krewe d’Etat, keeping with their satirical style, are led by a “Dictator”, whose officers ride a “banana wagon”.

4. Women are just as important to Carnival as the men.

The wives and mothers of men in Carnival organizations have always held great influence in those organizations, going all the way back to the beginning, with the founders of Comus. As the krewes began to name queens and maids, along with choosing a king, the women naturally were closely involved in those choices. By the turn of the 20th Century, many women wanted complete control of the decisions of the krewe. The Krewe of Iris, an all-female krewe, held their first bal masque in 1922, and continue on to this day. Women began their own parades in the late 1940s, and that tradition has continued to this day, most notably with the Krewes of Iris, Muses, and Nyx.

Women have always played a significant role in “Black Mardi Gras.” The Mardi Gras Indian gangs were run by “Chiefs,” and those smaller gangs came together as tribes, led by a “Big Chief.” The wives and girlfriends of the Indians wanted to participate as well, so “Squaws” and “Queens,” even “Big Queens” began to make the walk with their men.

The tradition of walking/marching clubs is as old as the parading krewes. In the early 20th Century, African-American woman, particularly the women who worked in the red-light districts of Storyville and “Black Storyville,” would don baby-doll masks to hide their identities, enabling them to be wild on Mardi Gras Day. A couple of groups of African-American women have revived the “Baby Doll” tradition in recent years, returning us to the early days of Creole/Traditional Jazz.

In addition to the Baby Dolls, women have decided not to be denied when it comes to marching in Carnival parades. Groups such as the Pussyfooters march along with the men’s groups in a number of parades each year.

5. The Carnival bal masque is still an important part of the season

Visitors to the city do not often see the more private side of the Carnival celebration, the balls put on by various krewes. Many of the parading krewes hold tableaux balls, which double as debutante cotillions. The members of the krewe formally present their daughters and granddaughters to society at their ball. Some krewes, such as the massive Krewe of Endymion, changed from holding a bal masque, to a huge blowout bash in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome they call their “Extravaganza.”

Still, the tableaux balls go on strong. A number of the Carnival balls, such as those held by Twelfth Night Revelers, Rex, Comus, and the Knights of Momus, are designated as “official” debutante balls, but other organizations still present the young women of their families at their own events. They are quite the big deal, and, for the most part, are private affairs. Non-members can get invitations to the balls, but they aren’t open to the general public. The lavish costumes of the krewe and their ladies, along with the formal dress of the guests, formal music, and elegant lighting make attending a Carnival ball an exciting experience.

Original post

Cocktails In New Orleans

Cocktail culture in New Orleans is more than a way of life — it’s basically medicinal.

That’s right, medicinal. Since the invention of the cocktail, people in New Orleans never looked on it as anything sinful, bad, or evil. The first cocktails were created for their medicinal benefits. Alcohol has been a go-to drug for physicians and pharmacists for centuries, so it’s only natural that eventually they would begin to experiment with combinations of herbs and alcohol that could improve their patients’ health.

In the 1830s, Antoine Peychaud, a pharmacist, developed an infusion of Gentiana flowers and alcohol, similar to Angostura. He called his infusion “Peychaud’s Bitters,” and sold it as a patented/branded medicine, to cure anything from an upset stomach to the hiccups. Peychaud’s pharmacy on Royal Street did well, and he would entertain friends in the shop after closing time, switching from pharmacist to mixologist after work. He would mix his bitters with other drinks, such as absinthe and brandy. He continued to refine the proportions until a proper cocktail was born.

Peychaud’s cocktail is widely regarded as the first cocktail invented in America, but he did not give the drink its well-known name, the Sazerac. The name comes from “Sazerac de Forge et Fils” brandy. In the 1840s, a local coffee house, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, located in Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, picked up Peychaud’s bitters and his cocktail. The owner of the coffee house, Sewell Taylor, decided to use only Sazerac de Forge et Fils in the drink, so people began to ask for the “Sazerac Cocktail.” By 1850, Taylor saw more potential in importing the brandy than owning just one bar. He sold the coffee house to Thomas Handy, who moved the bar to Royal Street, changing its name to the Sazerac Coffee House.

Handy understood the popularity of Peychaud’s Bitters and the cocktail that featured them. He bought the rights to the bitters. Handy also switched the primary ingredient of the Sazerac from brandy to rye whiskey, mainly because of the phylloxera blight that hit French vineyards in the late 19th Century. Handy’s business expanded, and his company began to bottle the Sazerac, selling it as a pre-made drink. The recipe of the drink changed again around 1912 when absinthe was banned in the United States. The Sazerac Company switched the drink to various anise-flavored liquers, settling on Herbsaint in the 1930s.

While the Sazerac is a New Orleans invention, bartenders were mixing brandy with sugar and other additives since the early 1800s. Since day drinking is as old as the city itself, restaurants would mix brandy with whole milk and sugar, serving the Brandy Milk Punch with brunch, or as a light libation in the afternoon.

Absinthe was a common ingredient in New Orleans cocktails other than the Sazerac. New Orleanians of French descent imported absinthe to the city, as well as brandy throughout the 19th Century. In 1806, two merchants from Barcelona, Pedro Front and Francisco Juncadelia, constructed a building at 240 Bourbon Street to house their import/export business. Their business thrived, and locals would gather to buy imported supplies and groceries, as well as to drink brandy and absinthe. By 1815, the Lafitte brothers were reputed to be regulars at the “Absinthe House,” so much so that legend tells it that Jean Lafitte met with Andrew Jackson and W.C.C. Claiborne there, Jackson looking to recruit the gunners among Lafitte’s privateer crews. The import-export business was converted into a full-blown bar in the 1870s, and is now known as “Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House.”

Peychaud wasn’t the only New Orleanian who experimented with absinthe in cocktails. The bartenders at the Absinthe House, looking to liven up straight pours of the anise-flavored liquor, began to mix it with mint, sugar, and soda water, and the Absinthe Frappe was born. Absinthe has a chequered history, owing to the efforts of various late 19th Century temperance movements. Liquors similar to absinthe remained popular in New Orleans, and when the formal ban on absinthe in the U.S. was lifted in 2007, a number of French and Swiss brands re-appeared on store shelves and behind local bars. One of New Orleans’ contributions to the national trend of small batch and artisan distilleries is Atelier Vie, makers of Toulouse Red and Toulouse Green absinthes, as well as their award-winning Euphrosine Gin #9.

New Orleans is known for more than brandy-based and rye-based drinks. During Prohibition in the 1920s, Benson Harrison “Pat” O’Brien operated a lucrative bootlegging operation on the Gulf Coast. He opened up a speakeasy on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets in the Quarter, as a retail outlet. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the speakeasy became a legal bar, and business boomed. O’Brien took on a partner, Charlie Cantrell, and the bar never looked back. In 1942, they moved the bar from the corner to its present location in the 700 block of St. Peter, between Bourbon and Royal Streets. About the same time, O’Brien created what became the bar’s signature drink. While O’Brien didn’t argue that his cocktail was “medicinal,” it certainly helped boost the spirits of many workers in New Orleans who made PT Boats, landing craft, and seaplanes in factories around the lakefront.

The World War II years saw a shortage of whiskey coming into the United States from Scotland and Ireland. With Great Britain at war, it wasn’t practical to ship Scotch to America. When the U.S. entered the war, the distilleries making bourbon whiskey were re-purporsed to help the war effort. O’Brien spotted this trend, and created a cocktail based on rum, which was in good supply, coming up from Cuba and the islands. After tinkering around with different combinations of lemon juice and passion fruit juice, O’Brien hit a particularly tasty combination for the drink’s base, and the Hurricane was born. The Hurricane is a popular rite of passage for locals and visitors alike.

The last two years have seen a trend in restaurants and bars towards craft cocktails, ranging from classics to new creations from imaginative mixologists. Some of these cocktails are variations of long-standing classics; for example, many restaurants and bars offer interesting takes on the French 75, the classic champagne-and-brandy cocktail created by Arnaud’s Restaurant. Some of the local mixologists use liquors not normally associated with New Orleans, such as tequila. Either way, they all contribute to a vibrant and exciting local cocktail scene.

If you’re coming to New Orleans in July, be sure to check out the Tales of the Cocktail event from July 16-20, held in the French Quarter.

Original Post

New Orleans Hit List

 So many attractions in New Orleans have such wonderful history!

Here you will find some of our favorite historic hot spots in the city where the sense of history is special and palpable. If these walls, streets and sidewalks could talk, they’d share stories of fascinating characters and events going back hundreds of years. Discover where you can go to be connected to some of New Orleans’ most interesting history.

The St. Charles Streetcar Line

They’re not the oldest thing in the city, but the 1923-vintage arch roof streetcars are one of the most visible symbols of New Orleans. Get a day-pass from the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, and ride the same streetcars that writers and musicians have written about for generations, from Tennessee Williams to the Doobie Brothers. Riding the St. Charles Avenue line from Canal Street to the terminal at S. Claiborne Avenue is one of the best ways to see the city.

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop

Arguably the oldest bar in New Orleans, this building dates back to 1772, making it one of the few French-built buildings that survived the great fires of 1788 and 1794. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was reputedly one of the gathering places for pirates such as the Lafitte brothers and Dominique Youx, when they came up to the city from Barataria Bay. Today, the bar is a regular stop on French Quarter walking tours. Whether you’re on a guided tour or just wandering the Quarter on your own, come down to Bourbon and St. Phillip streets for a taste of pirates, scoundrels, and adventure!

Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone

Located at 214 Royal Street, the Monteleone is steeped in New Orleans history and tradition. The hotel, in operation since 1886, opened a revolving bar in the lobby in 1949. The Carousel Bar seats 25, and opens out to the larger lobby bar. Enjoy a cocktail and just imagine what it was like to wait for performers to finish up their sets in the Swan Room next door, or for literary greats like Faulkner, Eudora Welty, or Truman Capote to come in for a nightcap.

St. Louis Cemetery Number One

The city’s oldest cemetery, located just north of the French Quarter, at Basin and Conti Streets. The cemetery, opened in 1789, is the resting place of many famous and infamous New Orleans, as well as thousands of less-well-known people. The cemetery is reputed to be the burial place of “voodoo queen” Marie Laveau, in addition to Etienne de Bore, sugar cane planter and New Orleans’ first mayor. The city’s first black mayor, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, also rests here. In the back of the cemetery is the “Protestant Section,” an area set aside for non-Catholic burials.

Frenchmen Street

Located in Faubourg Marigny, the city’s first subdivision, Frenchmen Street and the surrounding neighborhood were originally part of the Marigny family plantation. Bernard Marigny subdivided the plantation and sold the property off as residential lots. Frenchmen Street, from Esplanade Avenue to Washington Square, is home to a number of restaurants and music clubs, such as The Blue Nile and Three Muses. The neighborhood was one of the focal points of the HBO series, “Treme,” and continues to be popular as a “more-local” alternative to the French Quarter.

City Park

Originally part of the Allard Plantation, City Park in Mid-City provides New Orleanians with a vast amount of green space, along with a number of recreational facilities. The park includes historic outdoor architecture, such as the Peristyle and Popp Bandstand. City Park also features the New Orleans Museum of Art, the New Orleans Botanical Gardens, tennis courts, softball diamonds, golf courses, miniature golf, and a driving range. The park is also a great stop to get traditional cafe au lait and beignets at the Morning Call Coffee Stand.

Antoine’s and Tujague’s Restaurants

Enjoy classic Creole-French cuisine in New Orleans’ two oldest restaurants. Antoine Alciatore opened his namesake restaurant on Rue St. Louis, between Royal and Bourbon, in 1840. Madame Begue opened the restaurant that’s now Tujague’s in 1847. Antoine’s is well-known for its magnificent private rooms, as well as the two main dining rooms on the first floor. There’s also the Hermes Bar, where you can stop in for a cocktail and appetizers, as well as live music on the weekends. Tujague’s, located on Decatur Street, across from the French Market, serves classic New Orleans cuisine, along with their signature boiled beef brisket as a small-plate course between appetizer and entree. The bar at Tujague’s features a large mirror that was imported from France in the 1850s. Even if you don’t have time to stop for a full meal, check out the bars at both restaurants for a flashback into antebellum New Orleans, Creole-style.

The “Red Streetcars”

Prior to the Great Depression, there were over 200 miles of street rail trackage in New Orleans. Of the last two streetcar lines in the city, the Canal Street line was discontinued in favor of bus service in 1964. In 2004, streetcars returned to Canal Street. The red-painted “VonDullen” streetcars (named by local streetcar historians after their chief designer, Elmer VonDullen), now run the 4.3-mile route from the river to the cemeteries, as well as along North Carrollton Avenue to City Park. While the ride may be modern (the VonDullen cars are air-conditioned and have modern propulsion systems), they still give the rider a sense of what it was like at a time when street railways ruled the city.

The Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt Hotel

While the Hotel Monteleone attracted musicians, artists and writers. The Roosevelt Hotel on Canal Street was a nexus of power and politics. Legendary Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey P. Long maintained a regular suite in the hotel, and would often conduct business in the hotel’s bars, particularly the Sazerac Bar. The bar is named after the drink considered by many to be the first cocktail ever invented. Every September, the bar celebrates 1949’s “Storming of the Sazerac” – the first time when women were allowed to drink in the bar (other than Mardi Gras Day).

Armstrong Park

Located in Faubourg Treme, just north of the French Quarter, Louis Armstrong Park is part of the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, operated by the National Park Service. Armstrong Park includes several landmarks of early jazz, most notably Congo Square. Also known as Place Congo and Place de Negres, Congo Square was an early gathering point for African slaves, free peoples of color and their descendants.

The Garden District

The Anglo-Americans that came to the city in numbers after the Louisiana Purchase were not warmly welcomed by the French-Spanish Creoles who lived in the French Quarter. They also didn’t like the old city’s architecture, so they moved further up the river, where they could build traditional English-style homes, with front lawns rather than interior courtyards. A walking tour of the Garden District, which is the neighborhood bounded by Louisiana, St. Charles, Jackson Avenues, and Magazine Street, is a great way to relax on a lazy afternoon.

Original Post