It’s one of those clichés that happens to be true: when we get together to eat in New Orleans, the conversation reliably steers to the last meal we had or the next one we’re already anticipating. This week, however, that script might be changed up a bit to focus more on the last and next cocktail and the bars to find them.
This week marks the return of Tales of the Cocktail, an annual gathering for craft cocktail culture and the people turning its wheels. This year, its tenth anniversary, the event is expected to see some 20,000 attendees, including bartenders from around the country, cocktail experts from around the world and liquor makers and other bar suppliers from across the spectrum. It might be the biggest and most important event of its type anywhere right now.
Much of the programming takes the form of seminars, sessions and marketing demos for industry insiders and serious cocktail enthusiasts (most of it requires tickets, though there are some free events too). But with so many cocktail people in town, the local circuit of bars, lounges and restaurants plugged into the trend will be on fire this week. Like Jazz Fest visitors with busy nighttime itineraries of bands to catch, the Tales of the Cocktail crowd will surely be exploring in force outside of the event programming.
Here’s a rundown then on hotspots where you can catch up with the local craft cocktail scene during this week of its glory:
813 Bienville St., (504) 523-5433
Arnaud’s Restaurant was opened in 1918 by a French wine salesman who preferred to be called Count Arnaud, despite having no legitimate claim to nobility. The French 75 Bar came along much later, but with its tobacco-colored woodwork, brass fixtures, beveled glass and white tiling the space melds easily with Arnaud's overall motif. It's the kind of place where men who wear hats will find hooks on which to hang them, and where waiters and bartenders wear tuxedoes. More recently, it’s become an essential stop on the craft cocktail circuit thanks to Chris Hannah, the bartender whose passion and exacting standards for cocktail preparation have made him the de facto public face of the French 75.
4905 Freret St., (504) 302-2357
Cure made a bold announcement when it opened in 2009, transforming a rundown electrician’s shop into a gleaming cocktail lounge stocked with fine liquors, serving small plates and staffed by skilled craft cocktail bartenders. It announced that Freret Street was going places, and it presaged the restaurant row that has boomed here since. More to its own mission, Cure also announced that New Orleans could do the cocktail scene with as much style and innovation as the bigger cities. This year, Cure was one of the nominees for a national “Outstanding Bar Program” award from the James Beard Foundation and, separately, its co-owners Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal were named “ambassadors” of Tales of the Cocktail. If there’s an unofficial Uptown headquarters for Tales of the Cocktail, then Cure has to be it.
Hotel Modern, 936 St. Charles Ave., (504) 962-0911
The same team behind Cure more recently opened Bellocq, a stylish lounge tailor-made for people interested in the what’s new – and, at the same time, what’s very old – in the world of drinks. While the precisely crafted drinks at Cure channel the golden age of cocktails, the drinks at Bellocq are their prequel. The specialty here are libations that pre-date the modern cocktail, especially cobblers, an archival mixed drink, popular in the 19th century, made from various combinations of wine, liquor or liqueurs with fruit, herbs and other additions. The overarching idea is a revival of old drinking categories and styles, and it’s one in synch with a growing trend in other cities.
820 N. Rampart St., (504) 324-6045
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. On any given night the clientele perched around the horseshoe-shaped bar could include a few Quarter denizens, a romantic couple and a few tourists who did enough homework to ferret the place out.
12 Mile Limit
500 S. Telemachus St., New Orleans, 504-488-8114
This is probably the sleeper of the whole scene. Tucked away on a Mid-City side street, it was previously a neighborhood dive. It’s still not much to look at from the outside, and you must ring a buzzer to get in, but this outward scruffiness might actually recommend the place for Tales attendees who have reached their threshold for hotel lobbies and the arm-pumping antics of professional networking. There is more of a permanent happy hour vibe here, and alongside Texas-style barbecue the kitchen even serves dressed-up tater tots in cake pans. At the bar, Cole Newton and his crew mix creative drinks at prices substantially lower than 12 Mile Limit’s more prominent peers.
International House Hotel, 221 Camp St., (504) 553-9550
Loa has been a downtown hotspot for a long time, initially as the stylish hang for entrepreneurial types and the city’s tiny-but-determined pre-Katrina tech sector. Today, it has cocktail cred in spades. That’s because it’s now the place to find Alan Walter, one of the city’s most creative and craft-centered bartenders. He’s the guy who made the bar at the restaurant Iris a cocktail destination, and he’s now giving Loa the same treatment.
The Swizzle Stick Bar
Loews New Orleans Hotel, 300 Poydras St., (504) 595-3305
Part of the Brennan family’s Café Adelaide, the Swizzle Stick Bar was an early entry in the New Orleans craft cocktail push, coming along late in 2003 before many people even used the term “craft cocktail.” Lu Brow, the Swizzle Stick’s “bar chef,” has made sure the cocktail list has kept up with the times, though easy-going, well-made rum drinks, punches and New Orleans classics still seem like the drinks of choice around the nicely appointed room.
3641 Magazine St., (504) 891-1810
Chef John Harris opened Bouligny Tavern right next door to his restaurant Lilette in part to take some of the pressure off the small bar in his dining room, which would get crowded with people waiting for tables. In quick order, however, Bouligny became a drinks destination in its own right. If you want to feel like you’ve dropped into the world of Mad Men for a moment – in terms of style, not necessarily the marital drama – this stunningly handsome room is the place to do it.
Ed. Note: The e-mail newsletter for July 25, 2012 mistakenly identified Tim McNally as the author of this article. We apologize for the confusion.