Imagine someone – like me – who hasn’t been to the Avenue Pub in a while, visiting again these days.
His memories of the place are hazy but in general involve late night scenes of cheap drinks, greasy hamburgers and a diverse-to-edgy crowd of Uptown people on their way home from a night out in the French Quarter and service industry folks cutting loose after their night shifts. His sense of the place is that it’s a fairly standard 24-hour New Orleans joint, well-loved by a coterie of regulars, periodically visited by others seeking a drink in the wee hours, packed to the gills by random revelers during Mardi Gras parades and generally passed up any other time.
So, then, the feeling on this more recent visit is a surprise — giving way to delight — to discover a sea change has occurred here. A wall behind the bar now sports a broadside of new taps bearing exotic imported and high-end domestic beer brands. Chalkboards suspended overhead artfully advertise each in careful and creative script. Eager and keen tipplers sit at the bar sampling and debating the merits of each beer, or pore through the bound list of beer choices as if selecting dinner from a menu.
In a startlingly short time, the Avenue Pub has been transformed from just another neighborhood joint to a destination for beer fanatics. It’s now a place where people who geek-out on beer have plenty to talk about and many decisions to parse as they sample the drafts and the growing bottled beer selection and as they plot the next round.
Polly Watts took over ownership of the bar after her father, the longtime proprietor, passed away. She began making changes to the place, and by last fall a major campaign to make the Avenue Pub a craft beer hub was underway. The effort goes beyond simply ordering more and different beers. For instance, the bar’s behind-the-scenes draft beer apparatus was reengineered to use a new system that mixes nitrogen and carbon dioxide for each beer, all designed to speed the diverse array of craft beers from kegs to glasses with the optimum carbonation and the proper head and bubble structure.
The bar’s Web site lists the impending new beer arrivals like coming attractions at the cinema, albeit one specializing in indie flicks and foreign films. Among the exotics to show up in July: Celebrator Dopplebock from the Munich brewery Ayinger; schwarbier black Bohemian lager from the central German brewery Köstritzer; the strong, and aptly named, Belgian ale Delirium Tremens; Oregon’s seasonal orange honey wheat; and the hop-heavy Leviathan Series Imperial IPA from Boston’s Harpoon Brewery.
But this is no exclusive realm for beer hobbyists. The bar still pours the familiar mass-market domestics and mixes whatever standard cocktails customers call for, and there are beer pitchers and happy hour specials. The bar stays open 24-7, and much the same eclectic lot of New Orleans drinkers still drop in to meet friends, watch a ballgame or simply get hammered while the customer in the neighboring bar stool agonizes over whether to make his next beer a draft of Lazy Magnolia’s sweet potato stout or a bottle of Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter.
The Avenue Pub’s changes aren’t limited to beer. The second floor of the historic Uptown building has been renovated as a party room, and the broad balcony overlooking St. Charles Avenue is open on Friday and Saturday nights.
Just as before, bar-and-grill standards like burgers and fried jalapeno peppers are served around the clock here, but in another recent twist the Avenue Pub has become the new home for J’Anita’s, the casual café formerly found nearby on Magazine Street. At lunch and dinner, proprietors Craig and Kim Giesecke take over the bar’s small kitchen to serve a menu of brisket sandwiches, grilled red fish with feta and bacon, a burger with caramelized pears and balsamic reduction, smoked cheese plates, homemade guacamole and specials like lamb chops over grits.
It’s much more interesting and of higher quality than the normal bar food standbys. That proves to be in quite happy synchronicity with the Avenue Pub’s vastly overhauled beer program, and its new identity as a bar where quality counts.