If there’s one thing you can still rely on in this fast-changing age of ours, it’s clockwork. The famous, spinning, carousel-themed bar – and namesake – at the Carousel Bar isn’t powered by clockwork exactly, but sitting at it sipping a drink can bring the gears and mechanisms of an old reliable timepiece to mind.
You and your barstool and your drink and your neighbor, they all turn at the slow, steady, certain pace of clock hands – though in this case they’re all moving counterclockwise. A complete revolution takes 15 minutes. Matching rounds to revolutions has long been a serious pursuit at the Carousel Bar, and 15 minutes is accepted as a reasonable amount of time in which to polish off a drink, provided you don’t have too many distractions.
These days, though, there are quite a few more distractions here, especially if you haven’t visited the Carousel Bar in the last few months. Located in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone, the Carousel Bar has been serving drinks since 1949, and over those decades it’s seen its share of renovations. Still, this latest round, completed over the winter, seems like a dramatic one. The famous spinning carousel is about what you remember – and rigorous field trials by this correspondent confirm that its pace is unchanged. But all around the bar, things are different.
The rest of the lounge here is brighter, significantly more modern and much larger. In space annexed from the Monteleone’s former Hunt Room Grill restaurant, there’s now an entire second bar – a more conventional, stationary one, which will probably be a relief to those who like the Carousel Bar’s look but can’t stomach the ride (they’re out there, believe me).
Some of the changes – or the sum total of them all – may not please everyone who has nostalgic or even just fixed memories of the old place. Ensconced in its deep, high-backed booths, under the outdated but still-charming fiber optic twinkle-pattern ceiling, it was easy to feel sealed off in this windowless room of before, as if you’d found some hidden lair that happened to be in the heart of the Quarter. There’s no more of that. Now, this room is going much more for a center-of-the-action vibe. Coffee tables, sofas and armchairs give it a cocktail party feel here, flat screens bring the game in there and through the many large new windows you can see Royal Street traffic cruising past as people on the sidewalk peer in. It’s definitely an attractive place, but if you turn your back on the carousel it could also be a hotel lounge just about anywhere.
Thankfully, there is now a much more robust music program here too, and it’s one that sets the sense of place firmly in New Orleans. The grand piano was a centerpiece of the old Carousel Bar, where some talented local players did everything from American songbook standards to the occasional college fight song. Now, there’s a stage at the back of the room and a roster of local acts five nights a week. The Luther Kent Quartet performs tonight (and early on Friday), Eudora Evans and her band are up on Thursdays and Lena Prima, the singer and daughter of New Orleans music legend Louis Prima, is there on Fridays and Saturdays. The George French Trio with the always-sultry Ellen Smith take the Tuesday spot (see the whole schedule here).
And of course, up front, the old carousel bar itself keeps turning. Even on a quiet night with no music you can find people there, just as always, measuring its 15-minute circuit with sips through their straws.