Some Bourbon Street clubs employ barkers to all but drag unwitting pedestrians into their bars, where three-for-one drink offers, sweet liquor in plastic test tubes and similar promotions await their drinking dollar.
And yet, a few blocks away on North Rampart Street, it’s easy to walk right past Bar Tonique without noticing it, a situation that in some cases probably suits both would-be patrons and the bar just fine. Bar Tonique isn’t for everyone, after all, and a room full of clamoring drinkers would likely short-circuit the whole operation. It is a small, sedate place with dim lighting, brick walls, design-savvy style and fresh flowers along the bar top. Most of all, though, it promises a memorable and rewarding experience for those who approach cocktails with a culinary sense of adventure and exploration, and respect the fact that such an experience cannot be served by the bucket.
Bar Tonique is one of a growing number of local bars centered on the craft cocktail movement. Such places eschew the typical shortcuts of pre-made bar mixes and they don’t even stock the most popular mass market liquor brands. Their bartenders are devotees of the movement, and they happily trade higher-volume, higher-paying shifts elsewhere for the chance to geek out over the finest ingredients for patrons interested in the heritage of the cocktail.
But this is no elite enclave. Rather, Bar Tonique occupies a unique niche as a neighborhood watering hole for regulars who happen to be more interested in finely crafted cocktails than beer bargains. The bar keeps very late hours and as such has become an after-work haven for some in the French Quarter’s service industry. It’s proximity to the finally-reopened Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts brings a sharply-dressed pre- and post-theater crowd, which can be relied upon to clear through the bar’s supply of champagne. On any given night, the clientele perched around the horseshoe-shaped bar and lounging on the white leather banquettes could include a few Quarter denizens, off-shift kitchen staff from a nearby restaurant, a romantic couple and a few tourists who did enough homework to ferret the place out.
Which brings us back to the matter of Bar Tonique’s discrete outward appearance. A small chalkboard sign on sidewalk is about all to advertise its presence. A large and thirsty crowd just will not jibe with the precise, labor-intensive, sometimes time-consuming style of cocktail served here, so the bar relies on a self-selecting clientele of cocktail enthusiasts and curiosity seekers.
The bartenders specialize in classic and largely forgotten cocktail recipes, updated or in some cases reinvented with the bar’s own new twists. Their ethereal version of the gimlet is made with gin, elderflower liqueur and fresh lime, and locally-produced Old New Orleans Rum, maraschino and lemon make up the Saint Claude.
The bar uses fresh-squeezed juices as mixers, but that’s only the start. Tonic water and even ginger beer — the sharper cousin of ginger ale – is made in-house. The bartender’s workstation is stocked with what looks like a chemistry set of jars, squeeze bottles and sundry containers. Most drinks are sweetened with organic agave nectar rather than sugar.
None of this is to say the drinks here are too fancy or highfalutin to get the job done. Quite the contrary, these cocktails pack a positive wallop, and yet, thanks to their balance and composure, they slide down very gracefully. These cocktails take time to prepare, and you should take a bit of time to drink them.
Bar Tonique is at 820 N. Rampart St., and the phone number is 504-324-6045.