Chances are very good, if you grew up in New Orleans, one of the true rites of passage into adulthood was having a memorable “first drink” at Pat O’Brien’s Bar.
Chances are even better that if you were a visitor to New Orleans, Pat O’Brien’s was a “must-stop” kind of place, and taking home a souvenir hurricane glass was absolute proof that you indeed had visited New Orleans and you patronized her most famous bar.
Either way, a visit to Pat O’Brien’s was not merely something to do; it was something you simply had to do to commemorate a life moment.
This year, Pat O’Brien’s celebrates 80 years of serving untold hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors alike with one of the drinks so closely associated with New Orleans that to be here and not order a Hurricane from Pat O’s is unthinkable.
To understand how Pat O’Brien’s came to play such a big role in New Orleans hospitality, you have to head back to the passage of the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1933. Prior to that, Mr. O’Brien operated a speakeasy establishment at 634 St. Peter, one block towards the river from the current location. It was nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that it operated during a time when purchasing a drink from a bar was not the law of the land. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, hey, this was New Orleans and such technicalities bothered no one, not even the Feds who had bigger fish to fry in Chicago, New York, and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
A stand-alone bar serving drinks to thirsty citizens was not high up on the enforcement charts. So, when Prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, it was truly nothing for Pat O’Brien’s Bar to become legal. Although, he did rush it a bit by opening two days before Prohibition was officially repealed. Pat simply opened the doors and removed the guy who asked for the password for entry. Also a better grade of booze was now available through legal channels.
In 1942, Pat O’Brien and his partner, Charles Cantrell, decided to go upscale and moved the bar to a multi-room building at 718 St. Peter. That building was built in 1791.
Bit of a side note here: The original Pat O’Brien’s Bar, 634 St. Peter, became the studios of noted French Quarter photographer, Johnny Donnels, who worked and sold from the shop for more than 50 years until his death in 2009 at the age of 84.
Pat and Charlie, whose names still adorn the sign on the front of the building at 718 St. Peter, expanded the business into compartmentalized themes long before this was done in the industry. There would be, of course, a Main Bar, a Music Bar, and, because this was New Orleans, a Courtyard Bar, rich with tropical plants and various seating areas.
The bar was a success, not the rip-roaring success it is today, but it was doing good business and the owners were still learning what the new space could do. Pat and Charlie did want to serve quality drinks and they put in an order for good bourbons, scotches, gin and the like to the liquor distributor.
They were told they could get what they wanted in the way of spirits but they had to buy 50 cases of rum from the Caribbean to earn the right to also purchase their desired spirits. The rum was ordered by the distributor and it was not “moving” out of the warehouse and into the market as fast as the distributor’s owner would like.
Pat O’s had a good business and they needed the products so the deal was consummated. Now they had a lot of rum, too.
Pat and Charlie had heard of a drink in the Caribbean Islands called a Hurricane. They felt they could create such a drink in New Orleans, using the mountain of rum they had just purchased, and putting the concoction into a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. If they were looking for a signature cocktail, suddenly they had one. If they were not looking for a signature cocktail, suddenly they had one, and they also had the spirits they wanted in the first place.
From this point on, it all took off. These guys were on a roll. They created the concepts of the dueling twin pianos, the flaming fountain, and the tapping trays. Locals and visitors alike loved these new features and by the early 1950s, Pat O’Brien’s was the must-do destination bar it has remained to this day.
In the late 1970s, Pat and Charlie brought into ownership some long-time and trusted staff and sold the bar to the Oechsners. George Junior was now in charge, and soon his son, Sonny, was involved. Today the granddaughter, Shelly Oechsner Waguespack, is vice president.
The family theme, which is so New Orleans, runs throughout Pat O’Brien’s. Alvin Babineaux, a Cajun by way of South Texas, has been a 40-year fixture, following in the steps of his mother, who played piano. Alvin plays the tray, which requires no explanation because everyone has experienced the happy musical moments at Pat O’s.
Patricia Morgan-Williams, a Charity Hospital baby and someone who has spent 46 years at Pat O’Brien’s, has her own worldwide following as she handles her joys behind the bar. She likes to point out that our visitors are amazed by the 24-hour nature of New Orleans (most of them previously only attributed that time frame to New York City) and our civilized attitudes because we offer go-cups.
There are others in the organization who are multi-generational and long-time members of the employee group.
This is the New Orleans part of the story. In a neighborhood today renowned for music and laissez-faire attitudes, entire families for generations have been serving one of this town’s signature drinks. It’s not what you expect in today’s franchise-filled, I’m-selling-and-moving-away, who-cares business environment.
Pat O’Brien’s is celebrating 80 years in a family way. They think we are a part of their family because we have all been in their establishment. We think they are our family because we go there and feel at home.
There's not enough of that left in the world. Happy 80th Birthday, Pat O’Brien’s.