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It's the Truth!
The recent demise of the Destin, Fla., location of Pat O’Brien’s, which followed the closure of the Memphis, Tenn., location, reminded me of the difficulty of transporting a culture.
Just about every town in America with at least one traffic light has a New Orleans-themed restaurant or bar. But duplicating what is here –– and not some faux image of what is perceived to be the “feel” of the Crescent City –– is not easy. We are a difficult place to capture when the surroundings are Dollar General Stores and fast-food drive-throughs.
And before you start writing to chastise me for being an elitist, check out the French Quarter neighborhood (yes, neighborhood because many people make their homes there, shop there, dine there, etc.), and see if there are outposts of discount stores or quick-service, stay-in-your-car franchise food outlets present.
The uniqueness of this place belongs right where it is, and that is in the place. The community attitudes that come with having such an important district in our midst carry over into other neighborhoods. And it is evident, even 30 miles away, that “something” special is in New Orleans.
Propagating this “something” around the country or even around the world is good for our community. But it is not just about plastic cups and plastic beads. It is not about plastic at all. We are not a stage set but rather an all-too-real place –– sometimes too real, but that is no doubt a topic for another columnist, rather than taking valuable room here when the point is about beverages.
We have more than 3,000 drinking establishments, and we serve, per capita, more alcohol than any other town in America. The bar that serves more alcohol than any other bar in America, the original Pat O’Brien’s, is here. Forget the per capita measurement.
Enter, at this appropriate moment, one Joe Gendusa, a true New Orleans native, both in terms of personal history and attitude. He is a fellow who always provides a broad smile and wonderful stories.
Gendusa leads, under the Gray Line Tours banner, a daily walking Original Cocktail Tour of New Orleans. In this case, thankfully, New Orleans is defined as portions of the French Quarter.
Yes, this is the tour from which you never have to fear boredom. At every stop, all of which are noted watering holes in our city, you can purchase an adult beverage. The Smithsonian tours will never be like this.
Gendusa puts together groups of not larger than 16 people and proceeds to lead the eager and thirsty members of this congregation to places that we all know, but he paints them in a different light –– though not completely different because for most of us, we like the light these bars are in.
Gendusa wants us to know the colorful, sometimes checkered, history of these places, sort of an “if these walls could drink and tell stories” kind of experience.
And the history of the bars in our midst is colorful indeed. How did they come to be? When did they come to be? What drinks are they noted for? What characters inhabited the premises? What notorious deeds took place within the taverns?
Interestingly, Gendusa does not limit his vast knowledge to just drinking stories. For instance, did you know that only three states in the nation have their supreme courts not in the capital city of those states? Name them. Answer: You already know one, and the others are California and Maine. All the other states’ supreme courts are in the capital cities of their respective states. This bit of trivia knowledge has nothing to do with cocktails, but it could gain you a drink from a winning bet made with other patrons in a bar. At least, that’s one tie-in.
Gendusa is quick to note that his tour is not just a “pub-crawl.” There really is a lot of history and great stories ensconced in New Orleans bars. I suppose that as the tour wears on, your abilities to assimilate dates and long-dead characters may diminish, but Gendusa is sharing the information, and your task is to take it in.
Gendusa likes to note that he is walking through history, not just seeing places or building details.
Is it a good tour? Trip Advisor, on which a lot of people rely to create their travel plans, notes that the Cocktail Tour with Joe Gendusa is No. 1 on the list of “250 Things Every Visitor Must Do in New Orleans.”
Gendusa says that he and Ann Tuennerman actually first concocted the idea for the tour and that Tuennerman’s fantastic summertime festival, Tales of the Cocktail, grew from the tour idea.
Gendusa says: “As far as I know, there is not another walking cocktail history tour in America or maybe anywhere in the world. I mean, what other city can tell this amazing story in such a confined space?”
He usually takes the group to five or six stops, depending on the folks in the group and their desire to enjoy the moments. One of the stops is always Tujague’s, 240 years old with a back-bar mirror that has never been re-silvered.
Joe also enjoys, depending on the group, stopping by Lafitte’s in Exile, the oldest gay bar in America. “They actually have a letter, dated 1966, from the federal government forbidding them to serve military service personnel,” Gendusa says. “After receiving such a stern notice, the management of Lafitte’s did the only thing they could do: They framed it and put it on display under a spotlight. I’m certain it had no effect on whether a soldier or sailor who wanted a drink could get a drink.”
There have even been guests on the tour who did not drink anything stronger than a soft drink. You don’t have to drink something alcoholic to get the full appreciation of Gendusa’s spirit and love of this city. He knows history, but he knows he plays an important part in its preservation by telling the stories that make this spot so unique.
Gendusa continues: “I never get tired of this tour. We are having a party in America’s Party Town.”
New Orleans Original Cocktail Tour sponsored by Gray Line
$24 per person. Drinks cost extra, but participants don’t have to order drinks.
Daily 4 p.m. until 6:30 or 7.
Inquiries from private groups are welcomed.
569-1401 or (800) 535-7786