Best Bars in New Orleans
For which our correspondent worked the beat in the name of research
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.
Bars in Hotels
Bar UnCommon at Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel. The über-modern décor belies the incredibly traditional talents of Chris McMillian, a bar man without equal in our city. Ask Chris for a mint julep and to regale you with the epic poem that accompanies the making of the drink. The video is in the Smithsonian. 817 Common St., CBD
Bistreaux at Maison Dupuy Hotel. The bar is a new concept in addition to the main dining room, Le Meritage. It features reasonably priced comfort foods with full bar service, including wines from the restaurant’s extensive selection. 1001 Rue Toulouse, French Quarter
Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. A long-time beloved staple for locals who usually shun gimmicks and themes, this bar has both. Sit at the revolving bar or around the piano and celebrity-watch, because there’s always someone of note in the house. 214 Royal St., French Quarter
The Columns. Technically this is the proper place for this bar to be listed. But for locals, the Columns Hotel is never a part of the deal. Sitting on the massive entryway to the hotel, under the oaks lining St. Charles Avenue, enjoying adult beverages is quite a pleasant way to pass an evening. 3811 St. Charles Ave., Garden District
Davenport Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The lounge – a high-end music club, home to Grammy-nominated trumpeter Jeremy Davenport – is the most successful venture into attracting locals. The stage is in the center of the room; the bar is one whole wall. M Restaurant is right next door. 921 Canal St., Third Floor Lobby, CBD
Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at The Royal Sonesta Hotel. The hotel has found a concept, in a large room off the lobby, which works. It offers live New Orleans music every night, and a bar serving fine cocktails, overseen by Tiffany Soles, New Orleans Magazine’s Bartender of the Year 2010. 300 Bourbon St., French Quarter
LePhare at Loft 523. How about a bar where nobody knows its name? this gem is located within the boutique hotel, featuring soft lighting and elegant design, with different nights designated to hip-hop, salsa dance lessons and a Ladies’ Night on Friday that provides free champagne until midnight. 523 Gravier St., CBD
Loa at International House Hotel. How cool can you be? Dark, quiet, and sexy, with craft cocktails created on-premise. A note from the regulars: Don’t tell anyone. 221 Camp St., CBD
The Sazerac at The Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel. Actually, this is a bar and a restaurant, but the bar is more famous. Not really where the Sazerac cocktail was invented, but the bar is the keeper of the drink’s flame. Warm atmosphere beloved by locals, particularly now that The Roosevelt has re-opened under its rightful name. 123 Baronne St., CBD
7 on Fulton at Wyndham Riverfront Hotel. Located in the restaurant of the same name, offering specially priced drinks all the time, with an extensive bar menu always available. 700 Fulton St., Warehouse District
Bars in Restaurants
A Mano. Chef Adolpho Garcia’s nuovo Italian restaurant in the Warehouse District also presents an excellent bar concept. Italian specialty drinks and beers, coupled with always-present marinating fruit in a large bowl, will challenge your ideas as to what you thought you were going to order. 870 Tchoupitoulas St., Warehouse District
Belli Baci Bar. Chef Duke LoCicero is at the bar when he isn’t in the kitchen at his wonderful Café Giovanni Restaurant. Luckily for him, the bar is in the restaurant and features plush décor and comfortable seating. 117 Decatur St., French Quarter
Bombay Club. The gold standard for martinis in New Orleans, the bar boasts a comfortable courtyard, “clubby” atmosphere and music on most weekends. Also a very fine restaurant. 830 Conti St., French Quarter
Buffa’s Lounge. Burgers and breakfast 24 hours a day. Have a few beers then toss some darts or shoot pool. Nothing pretentious, just like New Orleans. 1001 Esplanade Ave. and 1001 Burgundy St., same place; Faubourg Marigny at the border of the French Quarter
Capri Blu Bar. Inside Andrea’s restaurant, a broad selection of wine and cocktails are available, often to the accompaniment of Phil Melancon on the piano. Chef Andrea makes small plates of Italian specialties in the kitchen and sends them out. Mamma Mia! 3100 19th St., Metairie
The Carriageway Bar in The Court of Two Sisters. Small but sincere, this is a great bar to duck in, grab a Bloody Mary, then head back out to stroll Royal Street. It doesn’t get much more New Orleans than that. 613 Royal St., French Quarter
Dominique’s. Recently opened, Chef Dominique Macquet has made a major commitment to the New Orleans bar scene by investing in the correct personnel and making the bar area an important part of the new restaurant. 4729 Magazine St., Uptown
French 75. Founded originally as a men-only bar, now it’s open to everyone and is Arnaud’s homage to a great cocktail. Bartender Chris Hannah mixes classic drinks, as well as new standards. Try the drink for which the place is named, which by the way, was the name of a French 75 millimeter cannon employed during World War I. 813 Rue Bienville, French Quarter
Hermes Bar. Antoine’s revamped a space on St. Louis, moved the memorabilia collection from the Krewe of Hermes, and set up a bar that has become quite popular. Menu items from the restaurant, as well as all manner of beverages make this a new destination for young professionals. 725 Rue St. Louis, French Quarter
Iris. The move from Carrollton Avenue near Riverbend into the French Quarter has been exciting for both the restaurant and the bar. Excellent, fresh-made cocktails, sometimes crafted by New Orleans Magazine’s Bartender of the Year 2008, Alan Walter. 321 N. Peters St., French Quarter
Mandina’s. Most folks don’t think of this revered casual dining destination as a bar, but rather consider the bar a stop along the way to a table. But the bar is a real opportunity to hang. Eventually everyone you know, or everyone of any importance in New Orleans, will pass by here. A great place to make new friends, even if it’s only until your table is ready. 3800 Canal St., Mid-City
Meauxbar. Dining is important here, but the bar can stand on its own. Quite a cozy atmosphere and delightful wine offerings match well with what’s coming out of the kitchen. But as a beverage oasis, this place well qualifies. 942 North Rampart St., French Quarter
Mimi’s in the Marigny. Tapas-style cuisine along with DJ Soul Sister on Saturday nights makes this destination bar an important addition to the neighborhood. Darts and pool provide diversity. Not quite New Orleans, but not quite like anything else. 2601 Royal St. at Franklin Ave., Faubourg Marigny
Orleans Grapevine. Tucked away on Orleans Avenue behind St. Louis Cathedral, an excellent wine list and fine cuisine are served to the background beat of a player piano happy to take requests. Casual, comfortable and sophisticated. 720 Orleans Ave., French Quarter
Patois. When the restaurant is full, which is all the time, the bar is an excellent alternative. And the drinks here are well-crafted, creative and delicious – quite a combination. 6078 Laurel St. at Webster Street, Uptown
Rivershack Tavern. Camp surroundings in the ’burbs, and it works. Great burgers and plate lunches. Their barstools look like legs, and there’s a tacky ashtray collection as large as you’ll see anywhere, assuming you’re looking for that sort of thing. 3449 River Road, Jefferson
Tujague’s. A classic established in 1856, this is the second-oldest restaurant in town. The bar back’s mirror was made in Paris and shipped to Tujague’s when it opened, and still sits in place. The bar itself is cypress and offers French Quarter refreshments at their best. 823 Decatur St., French Quarter
Yo Mama’s. Maybe the best burgers in the city, and most certainly a popular French Quarter bar scene. Good drinks, cold beers and a friendly crowd. Sit at the bar, not the booths, even if you’re eating. 727 St. Peter St., French Quarter
Stand-Alone Bars, New Wave
The American Sector. It may seem odd to list this throwback to the 1940s, located in The National World War II Museum, under the heading “New Wave.” But it’s so retro that it’s back in style. Enjoy the Planter’s Punch, Singapore Sling and the Andrews Sisters on the soundtrack. 945 Magazine St., Warehouse District
Bouche. The bar features multiple seating areas, each one in a different environment; mixed drinks and wines by the glass or bottle; and food service. Upscale without the fuss. 840 Tchoupitoulas St., Warehouse District
Bouligny Tavern. Companion-piece to Lilette Restaurant next door, the living room setting is unpretentious and energized by the young Uptown crowd that have adopted this place as its own. Wines by the glass and excellent drinks, along with small-plate dishes, make for a pleasant and relaxing visit. 3641 Magazine St., Uptown
Capdeville. It is located on a one-block street and named for Mayor Paul Capdeville, 1900-’04, who probably deserved recognition with more stature. Near Lafayette Park and the Federal Courts, this modern tavern offers fine comfort foods and great drinks. 520 Capdeville St., CBD
Clever. A wine bar in a wine store: Cork & Bottle. Very clever. 3700 Orleans Ave., Mid-City
Cure. Leading the charge to bring an entire neighborhood back to life after the devastation of Katrina, the bar has also made it a part of its founding philosophy to serve only the freshest cocktails while creating new ones as often as possible. There is nothing quite like the inside décor in any other bar in the city. 4905 Freret St., Uptown
Delachaise. Maybe the weirdest shaped building on St. Charles Avenue, this wine bar/cocktail/imported beer restaurant combination offers multiple seating areas, even outside service. Check out daily wine specials, many by the glass, because when they are gone, they are really gone. 3442 St. Charles Ave., Garden District
Eiffel Society. The Eiffel Tower returns to service. New Orleans’ own piece of this French landmark is now open as a bar and a restaurant. Fresh ingredients and knowledgeable bar professionals are putting this place back on the map. Check out the gardens of vegetables and herbs surrounding the structure. You will be enjoying some of the crop in your drink or on your plate. 2040 St. Charles Ave., Garden District
Oak Wine Bar and Bistro. Confidently taking its spot on newly refurbished Oak Street, this wine bar is also a restaurant. The feel here, with the occasional musical group chiming in, is of an establishment appealing to the university and young professional crowd. 8118 Oak St., Carrollton Area
Salú. Comfort is the game of this tapas-style restaurant and bar combination. Inside and outside service, both bar and table, offer a lot opportunities to try well-made drinks and fine cuisine. 3226 Magazine St., Garden District
Swirl. Small wine bar in a wine store, Swirl. Also clever, but it’s Swirl. 3143 Ponce de Leon St., Mid-City (Faubourg St. John)
Sylvain. Bit of New Orleans, bit of New York. Craft cocktails created here dominate the comfortable indoor décor. Or you can choose to enjoy a pleasant evening on the French Quarter courtyard. Limited, but fine, cuisine is offered. 625 Chartres St., French Quarter
WINO. The Wine Institute of New Orleans is decidedly cutting-edge. More than 100 wines available by the glass, dispensed from computer-driven, self-service, go-at-your-own-pace machines. Choose your wine, then dispense a little, or dispense a lot. Whatever your credit card can stand. 610 Tchoupitoulas St., Warehouse District
Stand-Alone Bars, New Orleans Exceptional
Avenue Pub. Beers around the clock. Cask tapping, Saints and Hornets watching, improv on the balcony, trivia contests, whiskey nights and beer, beer, beer. All on the avenue. 1732 St. Charles Ave., Lower Garden District
Bar Tonique. Craft cocktails, including house-made infusions, and attentive, Southern-friendly customer service, are building this establishment’s reputation in an area of North Rampart Street trying to revive from years of neglect. 820 N. Rampart St., Tremé, edge of French Quarter
Beach Corner Bar & Grill. A great neighborhood destination, even if the neighborhood is famous for cemeteries that are right next door. Bucket beer specials, free food during football games, plenty of spirit(s), and great burgers. 4905 Canal St., Mid-City
Blue Nile. A music club masquerading as a bar. The blue and gold décor contributes to the joyous mood of the music affirms, both upstairs and downstairs. Check out the balcony overlooking Frenchmen Street. 532 Frenchmen St., Faubourg Marigny
The Bulldog. New Orleans’ answer to an English Ale Pub. Beers from myriad taps and refrigerators full of bottles of beer, alongside a kitchen that serves sandwiches, fries and comfort foods. Two locations, both with outside courtyards that are dog-friendly. 3236 Magazine St., Garden District; 5135 Canal Blvd., Mid-City
Check Point Charlie’s. Thirsty? Clothes dirty? Wanna’ hear live music? Hungry? Karaoke? Wi-Fi? Never closed, always open, and that includes the laundromat. 501 Esplanade Avenue, Faubourg Marigny, on the border of the French Quarter
Circle Bar. In a too-small building that actually sits on a corner of Lee Circle (geometry never comes into play in New Orleans), the bar serves fine drinks, once you get the bartender’s attention. Great late-night spot as you head home, but you’re sure to need just one more. 1032 St. Charles Ave., Warehouse District
Cosimo’s. Have a burger; play the jukebox; talk New Orleans politics. A neighborhood gathering spot, eclectic because the neighborhood is the French Quarter. 1201 Burgundy St., French Quarter
Crescent City Brewhouse. The first brew-pub in town, serving beers done in accordance with the German Brewing Laws of the 1500s. Good food, but the reasons to go are the beer and the jazz. 527 Decatur St., French Quarter
d.b.a. Incredible selection of single-malt Scotch, and amazing line-up of beers, all in a 120-year-old structure. Check out the cypress music room, or sit in the window and people-watch the happenings on Frenchmen. 618 Frenchmen St., Faubourg Marigny
Ernst Café. Oh, what 100 years of service can do for you. Loads of energy, especially when the Hornets or Saints are playing. 600 S. Peters, Warehouse District
Fritzel’s Jazz Club. While Bourbon Street isn’t the usual destination for locals, every once in a while you need a shot of traditional New Orleans jazz. 733 Bourbon St., French Quarter
Funky Pirate. Big Al is center stage, and you won’t be able to miss him, both for this music and his presence. Drinks can be lethal. 727 Bourbon St., French Quarter
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Local urban legend pegs this as the oldest operating bar in the United States, and there doesn’t seem to be much argument. Built in the early 1700s, Lafitte’s is beloved by ghost hunters, pirate-lore lovers, and folks from the neighborhood. the piano bar is popular, but brigand Jean Lafitte would probably not approve. 941 Bourbon St., French Quarter
Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant. Parties tend to overflow the building and suddenly a bar crowd becomes a block party crowd. But there’s always a crowd. 701 Tchoupitoulas St., Warehouse District
Napoleon House. In a town filled with historic structures, this structure actually became famous for what didn’t happen. The plot to rescue Napoleon from exile and bring him back to New Orleans never got off the ground before word of the emperor’s death reached the mayor and his fellow plotters. Ever since, the bar has taken the name of Napoleon (but never hosted him), while serving its most famous cocktail, an English concoction (Pimm’s Cup), in a true New Orleans atmosphere. Classical music and surly waiters complete the scene. 500 Chartres St., French Quarter
One-Eyed Jacks: Actually a music venue in an old theater setting, the bar on Toulouse Street is usually filled with devotees of Goth, hip-hop and followers of “new” music, which is pounded out from the stage inside. New musical acts every weekend assure new clientele at the bar. 615 Toulouse St., French Quarter
Pat O’Brien’s. In a class by itself, Pat O’s has been slinging hurricanes since way back when. (1933, at the end of Prohibition. It was a speakeasy before then.) Tourists absolutely have to visit the place, and locals usually tag along, always enjoying, but never admitting it. It sets the standard for patio drinking and twin-piano entertaining. The bar itself is always packed. 718 St. Peter St., French Quarter
Pravda. The name means “Truth” in Russian, which explains the red décor, walls plastered with Soviet propaganda and the full line-up of vodkas. Also, many absinthes are available; there’s no easy explanation for that, except that they’re fun. 1113 Decatur St., French Quarter
Saturn Bar. Live music and a rockin’ jukebox sit in surroundings that seem odd even for St. Claude Avenue. The décor seems like it can’t work together, but is just fine here. 3067 St. Claude Ave., St. Claude
Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. Completely off the wall, Christmas lights remain on the walls all year long. Saves a lot of time in December. Some food. 7612 Oak St., Uptown
Snug Harbor. A New Orleans jewel, featuring incredible music, mostly great jazz from renowned local artists. Sometimes when the music room is full, you have to sit at the bar, but there are video screens broadcasting what’s happening in the other area. You won’t miss a single sweet note. 626 Frenchmen St., Faubourg Marigny
Three Muses. It is new, but seems like it’s been here forever. Excellent bar, fine cuisine from Chef Dan Esses and music all the time. The space is very small and tables are at a premium. 536 Frenchmen St., Faubourg Marigny
Vaughan’s Lounge. Kermit Ruffins every Thursday, New Orleans music on the jukebox and cold beer are all here to support a sagging overhang that should have fallen years ago. It probably never will. 800 Lesseps St., Bywater