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Dine at the Bar

Depending on your outlook, the holidays are either winding down or continuing their relentless forward march toward Mardi Gras. In either case, fatigue is probably setting in on some level. I always know I’m starting to fade when
I sigh at the prospect of another sit-down meal requiring a focused awareness of the occasion and its specialness.

Sometimes the smallest change of scene can refresh one’s outlook, and after a month of sharing the spirit of the season until the cows come home, eating at a restaurant’s bar can be just the ticket. There’s a spontaneity to it, a breezy casualness that can be a much-needed balm during these hyper-social weeks.

Eating at the bar takes the quasi-performative quality out of eating out – you and your date won’t be staring at each other all night and when you do, you’ll be so close to each other you can murmur in one another’s ears (but only if you want to).
Above all, eating at the bar gives you extra incentive to try a new cocktail. New Orleans is bristling with brilliant mixologists, the breadth of which I couldn’t possibly do justice to here. Eating at the bar, especially on a slow Tuesday or Wednesday night, might afford you the chance to chat up the bartender and learn some secrets to use at home.

The bar at Wolfe’s on Rampart Street retains the restaurant’s former name, Peristyle, and occupies a separate space from the main dining room, giving it a hushed quality ideal for sampling one of the brilliantly original cocktails created by bartender Matt Palumbo.

On my last visit I tried the Secret Garden, a concoction the color and opaqueness of morning mist that tastes – no exaggeration – like the aroma of dew-drenched flower petals. It is made with the following: dry gin (Matt prefers the original Bombay, not Sapphire), a mere whisper of Parisian absinthe, Marie Brizard’s Parfait Amour, four splashes of Fee Brothers’ orange bitters and fresh squeezed lemon/lime mix. It is garnished with a few petals and the rim is coated with lavender-infused superfine sugar that suggested lavender much more than sugar.
Palumbo says that he picks his own garnishes out of French Quarter window boxes. Whether or not that’s true, I won’t soon forget the Secret Garden. The menu at Wolfe’s is unconventional when compared to its peers, with preparations that go far beyond typical upscale French-influenced fare.

Although its menu is somewhat less adventurous than Wolfe’s, Lilette is as consistently delightful as they come and its cozily proportioned dining room makes a great place for a bar meal. The bar here is small and there’s movement all around you, giving you the feeling of being a fly on the wall at a lively dinner party. I recommend starting your meal off with a Lillet Rouge cocktail, which is a mix of Lillet Rouge – a vermouth-like aperitif wine – prosecco and muddled orange, served in a tumbler on the rocks.

Once you’ve settled onto your barstool, the bartender will spread a crisp napkin before you to sanctify your place setting amid the elbow-nudging of the bar. Everything at Lilette is good, but I especially like the Hanger steak with marrowed wine sauce and frites.

Perhaps you’ve already been to Patois, one of the most-buzzed-about new New Orleans restaurants of 2008, but I’ll bet you’ve never eaten at the bar. Although the lighting is a little brighter in Patois’ dining room than I tend to prefer (I’m more of a Lilette level of light person come dinnertime), the space is open and fresh, and the food is fantastic. The sweetbreads at Patois win my vote for best in town: crisp but not overcooked, served with beluga lentils and an aromatic bacon reduction. And any restaurant that features a hearty rabbit entrée has the right idea. This iteration comes with smothered okra and greens.

My final favorite restaurant bar is at Dick and Jenny’s, where the Cheers-like casual atmosphere actually is better suited to bar dining than table dining in my opinion. The prosciutto-crusted Gulf Fish with Jack Daniels corn sauce is my favorite, but this is yet another sturdy menu where it would be hard to go wrong.

Dining at the bar isn’t ideal for parties of more than two, but that’s not the point anyway. The bar meal is for contemplation, intimate chatting and even silence. Few people dine out alone, but the one diner at the bar, enjoying his evening in uninterrupted, blissful silence, may be having the best meal of anyone in the restaurant.

Wolfe’s: 1041 Dumaine St.; 593-9535; peristylerestaurant.com
Lilette: 3637 Magazine St.; 895-1636; www.liletterestaurant.com
Patois: 6078 Laurel St.; 895-9441; www.patoisnola.com
Dick and Jenny’s: 4501 Tchoupitoulas St.; 894-9880; www.dickandjennys.com

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