The Return of Fat Harry's
Uptown's Favorite Carnival Hangout
On Sept. 2, just after Hurricane Issac blew through, an electrical fire gutted the beloved building, right, leaving its insides in tatters, below. The subsequent renovation, below right, had regulars counting the days until its reopening.
“There is nothing which has been yet contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” – Samuel Johnson
Sitting on Mardi Gras’ most prominent Uptown parade corner of St. Charles and Napoleon avenues, Fat Harry’s – or, Fat’s for short – was once the exclusive realm of Loyola Phi Kappa Thetas and Tulane Dekes. Through a span of 42 years, Fat’s has since developed an eclectic cast of veteran employees and regular patrons who call the place home. But for the past four months leading up to Carnival season, locals have had to make do without their favorite watering hole. On Sept. 2, just after Hurricane Issac blew over, an electrical fire gutted the beloved building, leaving its insides in tatters.
“I’m counting down the days till reopening,” bartender Ashley “Shelby” Hurst said in December. “I feel like a lost puppy.”
But before Fat Harry’s was Fat Harry’s, the prominent plot of property on St. Charles Avenue was Gerald’s Key Club and sometime before that The Corral, complete with hay barrels decorating the interior. Harry Begg bought Gerald’s Key Club in 1970 and gave the establishment its current moniker.
After a falling out with his business partner a year later, Begg sold the bar to Allen Ignatius Boudreaux Jr., a 21-year-old who would jump-start the trend of keeping Fat’s ownership within Loyola’s Phi Kappa Theta fraternity.
Another Loyola Phi Kap, Richard “Dickie” Unangst, first wandered into Fat Harry’s during his senior year in 1971. A two-sport varsity athlete, he claims he didn’t have much time for bars as an undergrad but was then taking a hiatus from baseball after a rough-and-tumble basketball season left him injured.
It was springtime, and the bartenders on shift recruited the athlete to help defend Fat’s honor in a softball challenge from the French Quarter crew at Cosimo’s Bar. A few months later, the bartenders remembered his athletic exploits and convinced him to take a part-time job at the door while studying at Loyola University’s College of Law.
“Listen,” Unangst laughs with a roar. “I’m 6 feet, 6 inches; 300 pounds. No one gives me any trouble.”
He bought the bar from Boudreaux in 1974 and set to work on renovations that lasted until this past fall’s fire. The crew installed the bar’s signature medieval double doors and outdoor dining tables, and ripped out the shag carpeting that covered the bar’s entire circumference. Whether or not the shag carpet’s wine color was the original hue of the fabric or the result of a few too many spilled beverages, will remain forever in the vault of Fat Harry’s legend.
“Everything was dark in those days,” Unangst says. “It was called wedding drinks – you learned how to drink at weddings. Everyone drank bourbon or scotch, no ‘white spirits,’ as they’re called today.”
In decades since, patrons moved on to the “Sex and the City”-inspired cocktails of the late 1990s, as former manager J.P. Martin remembers. “Whatever cocktail was featured on the show that week, that’s what the girls would be ordering, it was like clockwork – apple martinis, chocolate martinis, definitely cosmopolitans.”
Fat Harry’s location on the St. Charles Avenue parade route makes it a hot spot during Carnival. (Photos by Eddie Martin Photography)
Bud Light, two napkins: this is Dexter Stephens’ regular order and he is, by all accounts, the very definition of a regular – and has been since 2000.
He pretends to consider how many nights a week he spends at Fat Harry’s. “Eight? Oh, I’m sorry, there’s only seven days in a week! Seven. If I’m in town, I’m going to the bar. If I’m gonna be late, I give them a call or they’ll worry.”
Stephens speaks with an air of stern paternalism that’s comforting just as much as it commands attention. He eagerly coaches new hires in proper pour technique and introduces his fellow regulars as they meander into the bar.
“He’s a very integral part of making the girls and boys who work there feel comfortable,” Hurst says. “He makes you feel like you belong even when you don’t know anyone.”
“That’s part of my job description,” Stephens says. “Fat Harry’s is my living room, so I treat people at Fat Harry’s the way I would treat people if you came to my house.”
David Stidd grew up just a few blocks away on Milan Street and attended De La Salle High School. He still vividly remembers his first experience at Fat’s as a 6-year-old, accompanying his father to the bar and lugging a pocket full of quarters for the pinball machine.
“You know, you have a room in your house that you always go into to relax? Fat Harry’s is where I go to relax,” says Stidd, a regular since 1986.
A highlight of the year for Stephens and Stidd is Mardi Gras. Not only do they enjoy the parades, but also they give back to Fat Harry’s by acting as temporary employees, checking IDs and manning the door.
There is a laundry list of them, these Fat Harry’s regulars – young, old, black, white, here for a cold draft, free WiFi, infamous Jazz Burger or simply the comforting knowledge that if, at any moment or time of day (though not too long past 2 a.m.) they’re feeling alone, anxious or stressed, Fat Harry’s is around the corner and friends await inside.
Deborah Huling – “Mizz Debbie” to some, “Deb” to others – is the current owner. Mother hen to employees and patrons alike, the matriarch still remembers the night she kissed Harpo Marx at Fat Harry’s.
It was Halloween 1974. Debbie’s last name was Magnon, and Harpo was a costumed Fat’s cook named Carl Huling. Both were Loyola undergraduates and met for the first time that night at a Greek party. They dated for the next six years, with Debbie joining the staff as a waitress in 1975 and Carl overseeing her shifts when he took over as general manager. He proposed three times. She denied three times. Finally, in ’79, she felt ready and they put together a wedding in four months.
At the altar, Carl turned to his new bride to answer the priest’s question. “I do,” he smiled. “And you’re fired.”
Bar management conflicts of interest now resolved, the couple was free to celebrate their new union. A friend hosted the reception just blocks away from Fat’s and made regular booze runs back and forth to keep the party flowing all night. Carl purchased the bar shortly later from Unangst.
Relieved of her maintenance duties, Debbie nonetheless remained active in the bar’s affairs as Secretary-Treasurer. When, in 2010, Carl passed away from cancer, she took over the ownership role.
“Carl was such an icon in the business. It was natural but it was also tough [to take over],” Debbie remembers. “I was 55. It’s just hard at that age to learn a whole new life plan, but the management staff made it so much easier. They knew the place inside and out, where every screw and knob is.”
Regulars pay tribute to co-owner Carl Huling. (Photo by Eddie Martin Photography)
It Sounded Like Van Halen Out There
This past November, manager Joey Trippi would have celebrated his 42nd birthday and 20th anniversary of employment at Fat Harry’s – both events falling on the same day. But he’s far from an anomaly, with the majority of staff racking up years of experience at the bar.
“They’re good owners and good staff,” Trippi explains. “You ain’t gotta worry about anyone stabbing you in the back, like I’ve seen at other bars.”
Manager Chris Bradley is another decade-plus veteran, starting at the door in 2002 and taking a year off only when he broke his femur in ’10. Still basking in the afterglow of the Saints’ Super Bowl victory, Bradley slipped while dancing after the Muses parade at – where else? – Fat Harry’s.
“Everyone asked me why the hell I stayed after (Hurricane) Katrina, but something in my heart just told me I had to come back,” Bradley, a Memphis native, muses about his long stay in Louisiana. “Katrina wasn’t nothing compared to what we’re going through now, as far as the bar itself. We were closed for about a month during Katrina, and we’re on three-plus months now. If it wasn’t for Fat Harry’s and the people working there, I’d move back home.”
Trippi and Bradley were two of several stalwart staff members who returned to the Big Easy less than two weeks after Katrina to clean up the bar. The waterline ended across the street at Sacred Heart, so Fat’s didn’t sustain any water damage. The staff’s main task was to clean out the stash of aging chicken and hamburger meat that had been left to rot in the coolers.
What perhaps saved Fat’s from succumbing to the same fate as many other restaurants were Unangst’s medieval double doors. Looters raided the Copeland’s next door, leaving a battleground of spoiled food and feces in their wake inside the classic eatery. Vagrants and looters attempted to do the same to Fat Harry’s, but the wooden doors swelled shut.
As soon as the electricity came back on, the bar’s free WiFi made a return as well, sending dozens of insurance adjustors over to Napoleon and St. Charles avenues to enjoy a cold draft while emailing in their reports. Fat’s was one of the first businesses to open after the storm. With a limited staff in town, the post-Katrina months were a maelstrom of long hours and FEMA money.
“We had cold beer and cold sandwiches and everyone was happy as hell,” Bradley remembers about the post-Katrina crowd. “Everyone was getting their FEMA money so we were getting money hand-to-fist because we didn’t have any competition for about a month. One time we had to get the military to come in to get people to leave.”
The peak of the staff’s blistering Katrina pace was set during NOLA Fest, a Kermit Ruffins concert at the bar sponsored by nola.com. The party was broadcast over the Internet to demonstrate that New Orleanians were coming back to the city and here to stay. More than 3,000 people spilled out of the bar and packed the space on St. Charles Avenue between Napoleon Avenue and General Pershing Street that night, forcing the New Orleans Police Department to shut down the street. With only six staff manning the bar to aid a crowd that was nine people deep, they eventually stopped bothering to stock the bar and simply sold beer by the six-pack and by the case.
“It sounded like Van Halen out there,” Bradley remembers.
The dearth of other options in the city naturally drew a more racially diverse crowd. The surprise was when they kept coming after everything else opened up again.
“Carl was most proud of the fact that people who hadn’t come before Katrina were now becoming part of the Fat Harry’s family. It was a thing he said he was most proud of in his lifetime other than his children,” says Debbie. “My husband always said, ‘What a great job, your friends could be anything from a ditch digger to a brain surgeon.’ These are all the kinds of people who come into the bar and share their lives with you.”