Some may read the headline and relate it immediately to a physical condition that sometimes follows a night of way too much fun. But it actually refers to a rediscovered (at least, we've rediscovered it here) phenomenon of the dining and party scene.
We have in our almost 300-year history always had places that dispense fine adult beverages and places that create excellent dining experiences. Our reputation as a wonderful place to live and a terrific place to visit is practically built on these two premises. Even back in the early days of the village, certain establishments met the requirements of the local citizenry by offering drinks, food and, in some cases, beds.
Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Tujague’s can all trace their origins to moments in our history when the overall demands of working folks were met with hospitality of the highest order. And so New Orleans’ working class was accustomed to heading to a particular place for a very early morning pre-work beer or cocktail, then returning to the same establishment for a mid-day round of beverages and lunch. Then in the evening, after work, the real task of drinking and catching up on the news of the day began. After that, it was upstairs and to bed, preparing for exactly the same routine the next day.
The entire day (and night) took place within the same structure.
Therefore the current rise of the "grub pub" is not really new, only updated. We seemed to have lost the concept for a while. It’s back, albeit without the convenience of living quarters above the restaurant or bar.
In a grub pub, the first emphasis is on the products and talents of the bar. You can usually find a large number of beers on tap, some of them quite special and from far afield. The bartender is a true mixologist, capable of turning out a solid, well-balanced cocktail, no matter what your pleasure.
The dining menu is not complicated and not meant to stand on its own. It works within the context of the bar, not intruding into that space for attention but rather supplementing what’s going on with the drinks. In the modern grub pub there are chefs – not merely cooks – who have created an established menu, enhanced by one or two daily specials. They apply their culinary faculties to everything from finger food to delicate sauces. The point of differentiation is that the dishes that come out of these kitchens are of a higher order poor boys or plates of fries.
There is nothing wrong with those items, by the way, and I’m happy to enjoy them with a cold beer in a frozen mug. But the places that serve them are truly not in this category.
The wine lists in grub pubs are sturdy but not overwhelming. Again, the main emphasis is on cocktails and beers. Grub pubs also tend to be a bit on the fancy side, which is the reason some of the proprietors prefer the term "gastropub." Fine wood trim and with decorator-grade lighting provide an air of comfort and status. The prices of the beverages, and the food, are also reflective of that upscale pattern.
Robert LeBlanc, an alumnus of Loyola University and a fierce proponent of the notion that New Orleans can do better if it just puts its mind to it, is in the forefront of the pub movement here. He is bringing to the city something we never had before….really: places and spaces that are convenient and comfortable, providing quality drinks, fine cuisine, and perfect settings for meeting friends and friends-to-be.
Sylvain and Capdeville are prime examples of this new movement towards casual-yet-upscale; both of these places are in Robert’s empire.
Sylvain (625 Chartres St., just a half-block from Jackson Square) is special, and not just because it reflects New Orleans, but also because it brings us something new. It is not smoke-filled, not greasy, not even touristy. It is comfortable and inviting. Sean McCusker, Robert’s partner in the venture, is a constant presence. He keeps the place firing on all cylinders. (We all know the level of service and quality of product is different when the boss’ eye is fixed on the operation.)
The cocktails at Sylvain are professionally constructed and the guys and girls behind the bar want to please. The classic Sazerac is a treat. Then there is a valid variation on the Sidecar. Even the Manhattan seems to fit into the French Quarter setting, and a "Fuzzy Nudge" incorporates house-made ginger syrup. You don’t see that very often.
Over at Capdeville, it seems the burgers have gotten a lot of press, and those that I have tried (notice the plural) have all been excellent. This New Orleans interpretation of a classic British pub makes one of the best Pimm’s Cups in town. Obscure references abound in the form of a Persephone’s Fall, Dietzen’s Whisky Smash, Hat Check, Lady in the Dark, and Jack’s Black Lemonade. (The latter is easy to decipher as it incorporates an infused Jack Daniel’s whisky which has seen blueberries, sugar and fresh lemon.)
Capdeville is named both for the street it is on (at No. 520), a one-block connector between Camp and Magazine streets, and a former mayor of our town, a one-termer (1900-1904 – which may explain the one-block street). What a former one-term mayor of New Orleans has to do with a British pub concept is up for discussion.
Another fine destination, assuming drinking and light food fare are your goals, is Bouligny Tavern at 3641 Magazine St.
It’s like sitting in someone’s living room, assuming the décor is left over from the 1960s. Lava lamps complete the experience. Chef John Harris continues to keep watch from his acclaimed restaurant, Lilette, which is right next door, and there is a definite crossover in the food department.
As for drinks, here the wine list is a bit more progressive than at other Grub Pubs, but mixed drinks can steal the show. Fizzes, spritzers, tonics, and Prosecco all add bubbles to the fun. Then there are punches, sours, and juleps for good measure and to assure you receive your daily intake of sugar.
These concept destinations offer you the opportunity to try something not-quite-new (but certainly different) in a city renowned for grand dining and grand drinking. You now have the choice to go in-between.
Another advantage is that you can enjoy a progressive evening, hopping from place to place, picking up a plate of food here and a drink there. Just be certain to have the requisite designated driver because in the aggregate, you could hit your alcohol quota and not really even be aware.
And while night-caps are standard fare in our city, a trip to central lockup should never be part of the program. You will not like the food fare, or the drinks, or the company.