Louis Armstrong raises his Dixie. A few feet away, Alfred Hitchcock cradles a Dead Guy, and Bela Lugosi, silver screen star of Dracula fame, is across the room showing his Evil Eye. Meanwhile, by the pool tables, Jacques Cousteau hoists a Kingfisher, and Jimi Hendrix lifts a Purple Haze.
These famous names are a few examples of the gallery of small caricatured statues of dead celebrities displayed on the walls of Cooter Brown’s Tavern and Oyster Bar. Each statue poses holding a beer –– from the local Abita Brewing Co.’s Purple Haze to Kingfisher from India and Dead Guy from the Oregon microbrewery Rogue Ales.
There are more than 100 of the caricatures ringing the walls of the Riverbend tavern, and each holds an actual beer bottle whose brand name, label or lore has some significance to the celebrity’s fame. That’s a lot of boldface names gathered in one place, but it says something about Cooter Brown’s that the variety of beers they tote does not even come close to covering the selection of brews available here.
At the latest count, the bar stocks 400 beers, with 42 brands on tap and the others in bottles and cans lined up behind one glass cooler door after another like some refrigerated collection in the Library of Congress.
The selection was built up one beer at a time, gaining momentum, as beers are wont to do. But that seems to be a pattern for Cooter Brown’s, which has been transformed over the course of more than 30 years in business from a simple watering hole to a destination for sports fanatics and beer aficionados all over the city.
From a single television mounted in the corner of the room, Cooter Brown’s has evolved to today’s array north of a dozen modern plasma models. With a collection of pixels worthy of mission control, these large, flat-screen televisions seem to be tuned to different sporting events whenever anyone anywhere is pitching, dunking, intercepting or goaltending. From a seat at the long, communal, beer hall-style tables, the potential for sports intake seems limited only by patron’s ability to keep up with multiple games at once.
Cooter Brown’s first opened in 1978, taking over a Riverbend spot that had been called Hucks. The late 1970s –– and most of the 1980s –– was not a great time for American beer, and initially Cooter Brown’s served the relatively modest selection of beers available to local barkeeps at the time. But as distributors began laying hands on more imports and the domestic microbrewery industry took off, Cooter Brown’s own selection grew in stride, adding a bank of taps here, another cooler there. Today, the beer menu spans from La Binchoise, an exotic Belgian artisan ale, to Miller Lite.
Cooter Brown’s has no windows, which is a bit of a shame because it is located right at the very fulcrum of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, where the tracks, the nearby levee and the river itself just over its brim take a dramatic northward turn. There are some tables outside on the sidewalk, however, and even outdoor televisions to watch games al fresco.
The food menu has grown from simple bar fare to include boiled crawfish (in its winter-to-spring season), spicy boudin links and sandwiches with names such as the Coonass Special –– an unlikely combination of fried meat pies, provolone and roast beef gravy all stuffed into a poor boy loaf. Cooter Brown’s oyster bar is also distinctive, serving until just about closing time, a moving target that depends on the crowd from night to night but nonetheless makes excellent raw oysters available until at least 2 a.m.
As football season revs up, all eyes are sure to be on the flat screens, except, of course, for the statues eyeing each other above it all.
Cooter Brown’s Tavern & Oyster Bar
509 S. Carrollton Ave.