Here’s some writer’s humor for you:
Q: How do you know when there’s a writer at a party?
A: Don’t worry, he’ll tell you eventually.
Accomplished writers who need no introduction – and plenty of others aspiring to get there – will be in town this week for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Your chances of running into one are pretty good, but to really up the odds a visit to the Backspace Bar should prove fruitful.
This new tavern in the French Quarter is a Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival sponsor and it hosts a pair of festival after-parties this Friday and Saturday night.
The choice of venue was not random. The Backspace Bar has a literary theme running all throughout the concept. Booze-related quotes from Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote and, inevitably, William Faulkner accompany the cocktail list, and a few menu items are named for authors (the Hemingway Cuban sandwich, Walt Whitman roast beef, you get the picture).
More compelling, though, is the ambiance. The tavern sports a clubby library look of bookshelves and leather armchairs, with little window benches up front and wall displays of vintage typewriters mounted over the bar’s stock of Grey Goose and Jameson. The lights are kept dim, which is good for atmosphere if not especially for reading, and the long undulating bar has a sort of tattered Art Nouveau design to it.
The drink selection here is simplistic but it works: Abita Amber and Blue Moon on tap, the normal brands on the liquor shelves and a few supermarket-variety wines that are at least fairly priced ($4 for a totally quaffable glass of merlot). This isn’t the place to come searching for the latest in craft cocktail trends or a pre-Prohibition drink recipe dusted off from the archives. But this seems like a sensible approach for the normal business that wanders in here. When I asked if I could get a glass of port, the barmaid looked at me like I’d requested kerosene; meanwhile, the bar can churn out a Red Bull and vodka in a jiffy.
But while the Backspace Bar might not be writing any new chapters in the story of New Orleans drinks, it does represent a promising development for its slice of downtown. Its address is on that peculiar first block downriver from Canal Street. This block introduces much of the visiting public to the French Quarter but it is not held to the regulations of the Vieux Carré Commission, the purview of which begins on the 200 block. So there are neon signs and tacky stores, little bodega-style businesses, the backend of a fine restaurant and the garish entrance to a sex shop. It can seem colorfully raffish one moment, gross and even menacing the next, making an altogether bizarre curtain-raiser for the rest of the Quarter that unfolds beyond it.
For someone in a literary mood, this is not a bad thing. Yes, your view from the window benches at Backspace Bar is dominated by the gray slab of the Marriott parking garage across Chartres. But down at street level, these perches also provide box seats to the comings and goings of the Quarter as people ramp up their night or weave back to their hotels.
Watch as bachelorette parties shuffle in with tiaras on heads, sashes over shoulders and eyes glued down to iPhone screens. See the brass button blazer set hurry on to dinner reservations and listen for the plastic rustle of beads as folks slinging souvenir cocktail cups sway back toward Canal. Between it all, your bartender makes a play on a pair of school teachers visiting for a convention and an under-fed stripper clacks past on the sidewalk in heels and undies, braying over her shoulder at the dude wearing chef pants and a gold tooth grin.
Backspace Bar has cultivated an inviting new space here, and it should be a great place to socialize after the literary festival events this weekend. But as you look around at the vintage books and typewriters in the bar, remember that the inspiration for that first line of your novel may just as well be sauntering past outside the door.
Here are the details:
139 Chartres St., New Orleans, (504)