The Sazerac Bar is special to a lot of New Orleanians, though it’s extra-special for one of my best friends, the journalist Keith O’Brien.

He had a first date there with a young medical student named Eva Lizer one December night in 2002, when the hotel where the Sazerac is located (then called the Fairmont) was all gussied up in its famous Christmastime decorations.

That first date went well, as did many others that followed, and in time Keith and Eva were engaged. By early 2005 they’d moved away to pursue their careers, telling us that maybe they’d move back someday. I doubted it then. They clearly loved New Orleans, but there’s a well-trodden path of people who begin their careers here, feel compelled to leave to advance them and dream of moving back but really only do so for occasional visits –– the odd Jazz Fest, say, or Mardi Gras –– as their lives form up elsewhere.

Still, Keith and Eva stayed in pretty close contact with New Orleans. Keith was on the scene here immediately after Hurricane Katrina, covering the disaster for the Boston Globe even before the National Guard arrived in force. Then they held their wedding here in March 2006, despite  –– or perhaps because of –– the harrowing circumstances in the city just seven months after Katrina. The city was the cradle of their romance, after all, and they are romantics. It was just too bad, I thought at the time of their nuptials, that they couldn’t stroll the lobby of the Fairmont during their visit and re-create that first date at its Sazerac Bar, which then was of course shuttered in its extended post-Katrina limbo. 

Well, earlier this year, Keith and Eva surprised everyone in our little group of friends by announcing their plan to move back to New Orleans, the city they love and where they fell in love. They’ve since bought a house Uptown and will be moving in just after Christmas. They have two young children now, and their careers are in high gear, so their life in New Orleans will naturally be much different than when they resided here last.

But what a nice turn that at least the bar where they launched their relationship is still there –– or rather, it’s back after a long hiatus. The Waldorf Astoria bought and renovated the old Fairmont, reopening it last year under the property’s historic name, the Roosevelt Hotel. The new owner’s restoration channels the glory days of luxury American hotels, the epoch of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and that’s a spirit the Art Deco-styled Sazerac Bar has embodied all along.

Of course, the hotel’s famous holiday décor is back once again this year, too, and now its block-long lobby is done up as an extravaganza of lights called the Waldorf Winterland. It’s part of a tradition dating back to the 1930s at this address, and it turns the lobby into a bona fide holiday attraction. There’s a constant flow of people, with locals in holiday togs and out-of-town relatives sweeping through the lobby to soak in the festive atmosphere. The Sazerac Bar makes a natural gathering spot along the way.

Maybe the return of a bar –– even a historic bar in a landmark hotel –– isn’t so momentous in a city with the problems ours faces. Our population is much lower, pervasive blight and crime persists, and storm protection systems remain unfinished.

But I’m convinced that often it’s the small things that bind this unlikely place together and that help bind us to it. They help make up our own personal New Orleans stories, and they speak to a sense of place we know is irreplaceable.

That first date at the Sazerac Bar is part of my friends’ New Orleans story, and it’s part of their life story. And, because I’m close with them, I feel entitled to claim it as part of my New Orleans story, too. It’s these stories that help animate our city and make it greater in our hearts than any statistics or national comparisons ever could on paper. Maybe that’s an illogical and romantic perspective, but then New Orleans never has been a great place for the strictly logical and the nonromantic.

So when Keith and Eva finally do move back to town in the waning days of 2010, I hope I can help them celebrate at the Sazerac Bar. Maybe I can get them their first Sazerac cocktail as New Orleanians again. Or, perhaps better yet given their family lifestyle these days, maybe I can just get them a babysitter.