Thanksgiving is a time to partake in holiday traditions, but not all those traditions necessarily fit the Norman Rockwell image of the prayerful family gathered around a roasted turkey. For plenty of people without close family ties in the area, the Thursday feast might resemble something more akin to Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving, with friends pitching in a green bean casserole, a bottle of Beaujolais or a Hubig’s pie to help fill out a casual holiday table.
For years, if I wasn’t traveling to visit my scattered family for Thanksgiving, my own tradition called for an evening at Pal’s Lounge for drinks and repeat visits to a bar-top potluck cornucopia.
Pal’s is a small bar with a big heart, though it certainly comes from a different page of Americana than Norman Rockwell archetypes or even the Peanuts gang. Found on the corner of two side streets in Faubourg St. John, Pal’s resides in an old shotgun house converted in generations past for use as a corner store. It was later a barroom called Yvonne’s, though things here changed drastically when new owners took over in 2002. Boarded-up windows were opened, a blue-and-gold paint job appeared inside and out, and the previous clientele of daytime drinkers was quickly outnumbered by a crowd skewing toward tattoo-tough and pinup-girl-sexy.
There are plenty of totems of hipster pop culture here (not least of which is the closet shrine to vintage Playboy pictorials that doubles as the men’s restroom), but the Pal’s scene seems to have evolved into a much more diverse corps of regulars these days. They use the place as a neighborhood clubhouse, pre-dinner rendezvous spot and after-hours hang. The jukebox might ring out with Elvis, followed by the Cars, followed by Black Sabbath. The sounds of heated air hockey competition ricochet from the rear game room, while hope springs eternal before the busy video poker screens. The bar hosts periodic yard sales and craft sales on the sidewalk or under its big picture windows.
But to my eyes there is no clearer sign that people here feel at home than the frequency with which regulars bring platters and slow-cookers and catering pans of food to share with the bar. Pal’s sets out free red beans and rice on Mondays, as per local tradition, and on Tuesdays sells grilled chicken tacos for a pittance, but on any old evening at all it’s common to find a massive portion of grilled meat or seafood pasta or jambalaya provided by a generous fellow patron for the taking.
So some years back, when the owners decided to host a Thanksgiving bar feast, it was no surprise that the buffet tables quickly filled with countless potato side dishes, stuffings and desserts brought in by the regulars. A tradition was born, and it has grown ever since. Once again this year, Pal’s will provide the turkeys and hams, while anyone is welcome to contribute a side dish or some other edible and join the feast, which begins around 3 p.m.
Pal’s is near the Fair Grounds Race Course, a Thanksgiving destination for countless locals, and the proximity means a lot of people make a circuit on the holiday between family meal, horse track and this small neighborhood bar. It’s common to see people walk into Pal’s dressed in smart togs after a day at the races or an early Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house, ready now for post-prandials with friends and the neighborhood crew.
Since my own holiday orphan days in New Orleans, I am grateful to have found a place at my future in-laws’ Thanksgiving table. Still, in my mind’s eye, the communal bar banquets look as nostalgic as any Rockwell canvas. So even after a few plates of turkey with the family, I always save room for Pal’s.
Pal’s Lounge, 949 N. Rendon St., 488-7257