Best Bars in New Orleans

For which our correspondent worked the beat in the name of research

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Roman guy walks into a bar ...

And so, after a fashion, begins hundreds, if not thousands, of jokes. The truth of the matter is that’s exactly where the entire idea of a “public house” began – with the Roman Empire, whose citizens evidently were more social creatures than we now depict them. Yes, they also liked arena “sports” and gathered in large numbers for bloody spectacles in towns throughout the Empire. All was good, unless you were a Christian; then, not so good.

But credit Romans with creating the taberna, a Latin word – taverna, in Greek – meaning “shed” or “workshop.”

That is where the first open-to-the-public drinking and feasting sessions took place, away from the residence and around back.

The fine art of operating a tavern was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire until about the 13th or 14th century, when two old Roman provinces, Caledonia and Britannia – Scotland and Great Britain, respectively – resurrected the idea of a place where everyone knows your name.

Taverns aren’t necessarily pubs, but in today’s democratic societies we don’t make hard distinctions between a private drinking place and a public drinking place. Those concepts began to break down in the early 1800s when tavern and public house operators sought to circumvent many laws and regulations, some of them dating back to the 1500s, which governed tavern hours, defining when consuming alcoholic beverages was allowed. The laws encouraged many taverns to also be restaurants and to offer accommodations. At this point, they were no longer simply taverns, but full-service hotels operating under a different set of laws. In these legal circumstances, “guests” were allowed to avail themselves of the house’s hospitality whenever they wished. Even then, visitors were considered valuable additions to the local economy. (See: New Orleans.)

The taverns were centers of community social life, and became scenes of political discussions and even upheaval. It is historically correct to note that the entire American Revolution was planned throughout the Colonies in the public drinking houses where a British presence wasn’t welcome. That revolution stuff was a nasty and thirsty business.

One of the first travel writers in America was General George Washington, although he hadn’t planned to be. While traveling through Connecticut he discovered that the locals discouraged travel on the Sabbath. He settled into the tavern/boarding house, Perkins Tavern in Ashford, Conn., and noted, “which by the bye is not a good one.”

Today, lodging and the food service aren’t the main functions of most bars and taverns. It is all about the beverages.

But the trend is changing, and food is more ubiquitous than ever. Again, laws enter the picture. The inclination toward food service alongside bar business is no doubt due, in part, to this generation’s harsher laws about being intoxicated in public. Driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol isn’t tolerated, and penalties are harsh everywhere. Noshing, dining and snacking are ways to keep the party going without quickly falling prey to the effects resulting from drinking alcohol. Even refraining from purchasing a bar’s products, as in designated driver programs, isn’t considered bad form; it’s encouraged, and rightly so. Many bars will serve designated drivers free soft drinks and coffee during their stay.

Bars became known as such in the early to mid-1800s because of a new service innovation. Every tavern had a high “table” on which the manager completed the establishment’s paperwork and accounting. That raised table was used to serve the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of space in the fastest time. Up to this time, all service was done at tables. Table service took time, and as taverns became more popular there was a need to provide quicker service. That part of the story still sounds familiar today.

The bar was a great innovation because the person in charge of the bar, the “bar tender,” was right there facing customers as soon as they seated themselves. Pints of ale, punch and grog could appear quicker, and the patron could immediately begin consuming the potion, then be on his or her merry way – or have another … whatever.
In the first century after the founding of the village of La Nouvelle Orléans, matters here were decidedly European.

The style of the day in France was mirrored here, even to the love of fine wine and interesting spirits, such as absinthe and cognac. New immigrants, such as Antoine Alciatore, opened their mixed-use public houses, never desiring to be only fine dining establishments but rather full-service tourist facilities, offering accommodations, casual but quality dining and, at the heart of it all, refreshments of the decidedly adult variety.

Drinking establishments in New Orleans are integral. One of New Orleans’ most notable gifts to civilized society, the concept and the reality of the “go-cup,” is prized by visitors and demanded by locals. New Orleanians don’t have to slurp down excellent beverages just because they’re moving on to another spot, or calling it a night. Along those lines, New Orleanians never really have to call it a night at all, since drinks are available around the clock.

Both of those prized freedoms, walking around with drinks and no “last call,” are greatly missed by locals whenever they travel outside of the political boundaries of their hometown.

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