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Cocktails in Christmas Land at the Sazerac Bar

The recently revived Sazerac Bar seems these days a bit like the character of Rip Van Winkle, the old colonial farmer who awoke from a magical slumber of 20 years to find a different world than the one he knew before his unnatural nap. The Sazerac Bar was out of circulation for four years during its unscheduled post-Katrina hibernation, and though today this downtown classic seems the same as it ever was, the world around it has changed a bit in the interim.

For one, there’s a new public interest in –– or at least awareness of –– its namesake, the great old New Orleans Sazerac cocktail. Thanks in large measure to campaigning by promoters of the annual Tales of the Cocktail event, the Sazerac has received much greater publicity in the last few years. It also has benefited from the tighter public embrace of all things distinctively New Orleans since the Katrina catastrophe. In the way that fleur-de-lis symbols now appear everywhere from kitchen tiling to jewelry, the Sazerac turns up on specialty drink lists all over the city.

The other big change, of course, concerns the hotel that the Sazerac Bar calls home. The bar is open again because the Waldorf-Astoria bought and renovated the old Fairmont Hotel, which had been closed since Katrina. The new owner’s restoration channels the glory days of luxury American hotels, the epoch of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and it has even returned the most famous name of the historic hotel property. It is once again the Roosevelt.

Fortunately, very little had to change to restore the grandeur of the Sazerac Bar. Just as before, the bar gleams with classic art deco style. The graceful contours of the long African walnut bar blend smoothly with curvaceous walls, etched glass and plush furnishings. Murals of New Orleans street scenes by Southern modernist Paul Ninas add nice color and yet another historical touch to the room. It all makes a very elegant setting, and the crowd that has turned up at the Sazerac since the bar’s reopening earlier this year seems in sync with the debonair ambiance. There always seems to be a true mix of well-heeled out-of-town hotel guests and nattily dressed locals perched at the bar or ensconced in the coves of deep sofas and armchairs under the murals.

Most order from the bar’s specialty cocktails list, which of course leads off with the Sazerac and includes the bar’s other historic specialty, the frothy Ramos Gin Fizz. The prices on this list are punishingly high, which comes with the territory for upscale hotel bars but is still important to know going in. The Sazerac is the relative bargain of the bunch at $10, while a simple Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer) will set you back $13. I’ve had Sazeracs here on some recent visits that were excellent –– balanced, sharp and distinctive –– and I’ve had a few on different visits that were murky, syrupy flops. It all depends on which bartender fields your order and perhaps how busy the room is at the moment. But it’s a bit surprising that the Sazerac Bar does not yet produce its celebrated namesake consistently.

This month in particular, the Roosevelt and the Sazerac Bar are likely to be busier than ever. Continuing another venerable hotel tradition, the Roosevelt’s long lobby, an ornate channel spanning the entire block from University Place to Baronne Street, has been transformed into the type of holiday winter wonderland New Orleanians usually see only in the movies.

The tradition goes back to the 1930s when the original Roosevelt was first decorated with masses of palmetto leaves at Christmas time. The tradition evolved through the next several decades but was discontinued in 1966 as a fire hazard. Redesigned with safer materials, the display returned to the hotel in 1994 during its Fairmont stage and continued until Katrina shut the whole place down in 2005. It was previously called the Angel Hair Christmas Lobby, after the fleecy snowy-white batting used to create a door-to-door tunnel through the lobby.

The display has been thoroughly reengineered by the new Roosevelt, which now calls it the Waldorf Wonderland Lobby. Blooms of bone-white birch branches, all decked with lights and ornaments, give a more contemporary and design-savvy look than before. Together with dozens of flocked Christmas trees and other decorations running through the opulent lobby, it still produces a stunning interior and an interesting downtown holiday attraction.
And just as before, many of the people making a stroll through the lobby end up at the Sazerac Bar, looking for more literal holiday spirits after taking in the lights and displays.

123 Baronne St., New Orleans, 648-1200


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