Tim McNallyThe Fates have been kind to us.
Oh sure, Nature hasn’t been so great lately, the Saints were a bit of a disappointment and while promises of “smooth streets soon” are hanging out there, so far all we’ve seen is a Pothole Killer that’s trying hard but isn’t making the ride to anywhere an overall delightful experience.
Yet we’re still here, in this wonderful, quirky, frustrating place. Even now, millions of people are thinking about coming, or are ready to come, to our little corner of Bliss on Earth and experience, just for a few days, what we get to enjoy 24/7.
Under this broad category of being a New Orleanian Wherever We Go (which often includes clothing that only works here, cuisine that we find no place else, coffee and laws that are actually enforced instead of winked at), comes that most important Crescent City Birthright: Bars.
There are times we have to leave. Demands of commerce, pleasure, curiosity or just plain “I’ve got to get out here for awhile,” bring about an aligning of stars, cars and airplanes, placing us someplace else, where, in fairness to that place, we want to explore and learn but we have to stay within ourselves, being true to who we are and where we are from.
In that spirit, and as a valuable public service, I am pleased to present a few suggestions of “Watering Holes New Orleanians Can Settle Into While They’re Away From Home.“
New Orleans. Let’s start here to give you an idea of the types of places herein recommended.
Napoleon House must be considered one of the most historic and intriguing bars in America, if not the world. It is a world unto itself. It is true that the building, the home of Mayor Girod, was repaired and spruced-up in the early 1820s to welcome the Emperor Napoleon, as soon as a group of loyal citizens rescued the Emperor from his imprisonment by the British on the remote island St. Helena.
Napoleon died before the kidnapping plot was carried out but the home has been named in his honor ever since. He probably never even knew of its existence.
The ambiance carries the day and many a visitor has wished “If only these walls could talk.” Classical music is always in evidence, with a nod to modernity. Formerly turntables were used, with scratchy LPs selected by patrons. Today, a CD player behind the bar serves the same purpose.
An unambitious menu is offered with decent sandwiches and jambalaya, all served by waiters who could care less. The bartenders are responsive to drink requests, but not overly so. Truly only in New Orleans.
The signature cocktail here is the Pimm’s Cup, a perfectly refreshing drink, well-suited for New Orleans hot, summer climate.
The bonus is that when the French doors facing rue St. Louis are open, the tables provide the ideal setting for airy discussions and overhearing the carriage drivers’ educating visitors with the spiel of “This is Napoleon House and this is where Napoleon lived when he lived in New Awlyuns.”
Napoleon House, 500 Chartres St.; 524-9752, www.napoleonhouse.com.
Chicago. Chicago is one of those towns like New Orleans: Old, with a lot of character and characters, good food, good drink, good friends, winning and losing sports teams and a whole lot to enjoy.
The neighborhood bars of the City of Broad Shoulders are also like ours with conviviality and genuine feelings – even from Bears’ fans – all over the place. But to pick one bar of note, and we must, Nacional 27 is a gem.
The Latin beat isn’t incongruous with this urban landscape and the tapas, the jazz, the beauty of the cocktails and the surroundings all make this spot delightful.
Almost 25 rums and 10 tequilas form the basis of a cocktail menu that will challenge your creativity – and ultimately your capacity.
The food has been getting rave reviews for years, with Chef Randy Zweiban creating an imaginative and adventuresome Nuevo Latino cuisine. Yet, you can linger at the bar, snacking on tapas, enjoying cocktails and digging a place that doesn’t seem to quite fit in, yet celebrates its existence.
Nacional 27: 325 West Huron, Chicago, Ill.; (312) 664-2727, www.nacional27.net.
Boston. The bar you expect in the place you expect it. What a concept!
Eastern Standard is just that in Boston. Cozy-up in the Ann Corio Lounge and Porch. Hang at the Bar. Say “Hi” to Jackson, the bar manager, or Erin, the wine lady. Jackson loves to tell stories of the place and the drinks. He is quite the expert on all things Boston.
Want to feel really at home at the bar? Try a Pelican, a Vieux Carre, a Sazerac or a Mint Julep. Then ask Jackson for the back-story.
The big problem with Eastern Standard is leaving. You just won’t want to.
Eastern Standard: 528 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Mass.; (617) 532-9100, www.easternseaboard-boston.com.
New York City. The issue in New York City isn’t finding a place where you’ll feel at home, the issue is choosing from literally hundreds of such neighborhood bars.
PDT stands for Please Don’t Tell and is located in the not-too-often tourist-visited section known as East Village. Before you can enter, you step into a phone booth to speak easy with the bartender, usually Jim Meehan, who uses a video camera to determine if you’re a worthy addition to the scene. It’s not as bad as standing behind a red rope but close.
Once inside, behave and enjoy. Signs warn “Don’t Hit on Women You Don’t Know” and the cozy atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that Crifdogs, the place New Yorkers go for hot dogs and hamburgers, is right next door. You can order from Crifdogs and your order is passed through a window into PDT.
Jim Meehan is a master mixologist, a joy to watch and to enjoy the results of his craft.
PDT, 113 St. Mark’s Place, between Avenue A and 1st Avenue, west basement door. (Reservations are recommended and may be necessary); (212) 614-0386; http://urbandaddy.com/nyc/624/PDT_New_York_City_NYC_Nightlife.
Miami. I’m not really certain how the South Pacific relates to South Florida’s Atlantic coast but if any place could pull it off, it’s Mai-Kai.
New Orleanians of a certain age fondly remember the Bali-Hai at Pontchartrain Beach and in the Mai-Kai full-kitsch mode is in effect, with Tiki-culture on display everywhere your eyes wander. And wander they will, just to drink it in.
Kern Mattei has done it all here, including some darn good food, and a Polynesian stage review. Oh yes, if you’re into “camp,” you’ve arrived at its headquarters.
The drinks are exactly what you expect and more. Full plastic-toy-animal-and-umbrella-in-fruit juice-and-rum treatment, all made with the freshest ingredients and blended to yummy perfection. If it’s beer you want, you can try some other crazy place on crazy South Beach but for fun and island adventure, Mai-Kai more than fills the Tiki-bill.
The Mai-Kai Restaurant, The Polynesian Restaurant: 3599 N. Federal Highway, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; (954) 563-3272, www.maikai.com.
Tampa. With your kind indulgence, we’ll detour a bit from our cocktail journey and visit a spot that offers wines – a lot of wines – to fine diners.
Bern’s Steak House has been a culinary institution in this institution-starved city since 1956. Steaks are the thing here, sold in the usual cuts but in the thickness you choose by taste and pocketbook.
Yet, whenever the subject of Bern’s comes up the discussion centers on the wines available. They have a book. If you’re the type that has trouble settling on a wine from an extensive list, this may not be the best place for you; you could be here for days.
More than 6,900 unique labels, of which more than 5,500 are red wines and over 1,000 whites. Over 200 sparkling wines and champagnes with many wines available by the glass, going back to the 1973 vintage. You can even purchase the wine list, in book form, as you settle your bill.
Bern’s Steak House: 1208 South Howard Ave., Tampa, Fla.; (813) 251-2421, www.bernssteakhouse.com.
Destin. We know the fine, white sand, the sometimes ridiculous traffic, and the pace of life in Destin. We have all been to Destin and each of us has our own way to “doing” Destin.
But what most of us have missed is a beach bar. A funky place where your feet are in the sand, the breeze is blowing in your hair and fine beverages are dispensed. Maybe to your surprise, for a long time, Seascape Resort has provided such a place.
Right on the Beach in Miramar, Whale’s Tale beach bar is just the spot to grab a drink while enjoying the sun setting into the Gulf. Then comes applause from the patrons and back to drinking.
Whale’s Tale serves light resort fare (translation: not so good), in the upstairs portion but downstairs on the beach is a good bar with willing bartenders serving honest drinks and cold beer.
What else can you ask for while enjoying the finest beaches in at least 49 states?
Whale’s Tale, Seascape Resort, 100 Seascape Drive, Destin, Fla., 32550; (800) 874-9106, http://www.seascape-resort.com/ResortWhalesTail.aspx.
San Francisco. It’s been 10 years since Absinthe set up shop in the Civic Center area of the City by the Bay. This clubby bar and restaurant destination isn’t as manic as New Orleans’ Old Absinthe House but you’ll like it just the same.
The cocktail menu, all made with absolutely the freshest of ingredients, range from the usual, Mojito, French 75, Sidecar, Sazerac; to the exotic: Ginger Rogers, Perfect Pair, Dry Country Cocktail and the Galapagos, inspired by San Francisco’s favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut.
Then there are the derivative drinks: the Uptown Manhattan, the Rosarita, La Florida Daiquiri, and the Brazil 66, Absinthe’s version of the Capirinha.
Lightly dine at the bar with a great menu or tuck yourself away in a corner of the wood-lined dining room. It is a great bar in a great neighborhood with talented people behind the bar and in the kitchen.
Absinthe Brasserie and Bar, 398 Hayes St., San Francisco, Calif.; (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com.
Los Angeles. Like most major cities – thankfully except ours – after the workday downtown areas look a lot like the desert outside of Las Vegas – buildings are in the area but people aren’t.
The quintessential American urban area, Los Angeles, is trying to revitalize their downtown and Seven Grand is an important part of the process.
Here is a “man’s bar” frequented by ladies. Images and statues of multi-pointed Bucks dress up the mahogany theme and there’s a feeling that maybe you should be paying club dues just to enter. But the place is friendly and fun, with not just a Ladies’ Night but a Broads on a Bender Wednesdays, featuring Maker’s Mark specials. Happy Hour is Pub Hour, etc. You get the idea. Welcome to L.A.! Still, the drinks are really well made and hanging with the locals, who are from everywhere in the world, is a kick.
Seven Grand, 515 W 7th St., 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, Calif.; (213) 817-5321, www.sevengrand.la.
Houston. To complete our quick tour of American Watering Holes, we go to one of Houston’s best restaurants. That isn’t an oxymoron, especially when Café Annie is involved.
Since New Orleanians believe in the concept of drinking and eating (we’re funny that way), Café Annie is the place to be in the Bayou City for Margaritas, enjoying great cocktails and white tablecloth Mexican fare.
Located in the ritzy Galleria area, Bar Annie is a relaxed space that provides liquid libation in an informal, yet attentive, setting. This being Texas – and they won’t let you forget it – there are burgers and barbecued beef. And there are also wood-grilled meats and fish, chili con queso and several soups every night.
The Bar is a beehive of activity dispensing Margaritas, cold beers and the freshest of cocktails. Imagination and innovation isn’t the strong suit here. Yet, if you have a favorite concoction, they’ll make it as well as anyone can.
Café Annie, 1728 Post Oak Blvd., Houston, Texas; (713) 840-1111, www.cafe-annie.com.