A French Quarter Nook at French 75

The holiday season is my favorite time to be in the French Quarter. The Old World architecture and the narrow streets seem especially evocative. Strings of lights curl around wrought-iron balconies like ivy, carriageways are framed in green flocking, and some gas lanterns even wear red Christmas bows as their orange flames flicker away against brick and reflect on flagstone paving.

More than just the décor, though, there is a festive mood among the people drawn to the Quarter this time of year. Friends take time to gather for Reveillon dinners, and colleagues partake in extended holiday lunches. Shoppers rove around local shops with gift lists, and groups converge for such annual events as the Patio Planters’ traditional caroling in Jackson Square. Squint just a bit, and the warm sentimentality of Christmases past can seem very much alive in the Vieux Carré.

I suppose that’s why when it’s time for a drink during one of these jovial holiday larks, the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s seems custom-cut for the job. It’s but one chamber in this rambling French Creole restaurant’s maze of rooms and corridors, though it serves double duty both as an area for diners waiting for tables and as a stand-alone destination for drinks. 

The restaurant was opened in 1918 by French wine salesman Arnaud Cazenave, who preferred to be called Count Arnaud though he had no legitimate claim to nobility. The French 75 Bar came along much later, but its elegant tobacco-colored woodwork, brass fixtures, beveled glass and white tiling meld with Arnaud’s overall elegant motif. It’s the kind of place where men who wear hats will find hooks on which to hang them and where women will be addressed politely by waiters and bartenders dressed in tuxedos.

The bar was named for a hard-hitting champagne and cognac cocktail, which was in turn named for a hard-hitting artillery piece, the French army’s 75 mm field gun of the First World War. These days, French 75 Bar customers are more likely to order such distinctive New Orleans cocktails as the Sazerac, the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Vieux Carré. Others, though, may come here to answer more exotic yens. That’s a tribute to the growing reputation of Chris Hannah, the young bartender whose passion and exacting standards for cocktail preparation have made him the de facto public face of the French 75 Bar.

Hannah is the kind of bartender who brings his own homemade syrups to work with him to mix drinks just so, and he’s even done archival research to help revive almost-lost drink recipes. He concocts his own cocktails and frequently works out custom recipes with patrons on the spot. But you’ll still get no guff from him if what you really want is just a glass of chardonnay. A drink is still a drink here, and the French 75 is still a restaurant bar, not than some cocktailian lair.

The French 75 is a narrow space that is kept attractively dim, and while it’s clearly advertised with a neon sign hanging outside, the place feels a bit hidden and discrete beside its Bourbon Street neighbors just a few paces down the block. Even as a cordial Christmas spirit dresses the French Quarter, that clanging, ringing midway takes no holidays and pulses away as bright and loud as ever. But stop just short of all that, push open the door to the French 75 Bar, and you’ll find an urbane cloister and a drink for any mood.

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