You might still be making plans for New Year’s Eve at this point, but prudent partiers should have more dates on their radar screens for the first few days of 2012. That’s because New Orleans, always football-friendly, is about to turn into a football festival.
The last regular season Saints game will be a home nooner on Jan. 1, just as Michigan and Virginia Tech fans begin pouring into town as their teams compete in the AllState Sugar Bowl on the night of Jan. 3. Less than a week later, downtown streets will be filled with dueling legions adorned in LSU purple and gold or Alabama crimson as these two teams face off in the AllState BCS National Championship game on the night of Jan. 9.
Tickets for these games will be hard to come by, especially the big college bowl games. But participating in the attendant revelry is easy, provided you’re the type of person who likes to wander between festive destinations in the midst of a charged-up crowd of proud, competitive fun-seekers (and if you live in New Orleans, this is practically a given).
Using past bowl games as guidance, downtown should be swarming with people, and this year in particular there are a few new highlights around the Dome for people who didn’t happen to arrive in their own RV for tailgating.
Most significantly, the massive Hyatt Regency hotel is finally back in business at the very doorstep of the Dome, and with it comes a new bar. Those who remember the old Hyttops sports bar inside the pre-Katrina edition of this hotel may remember how to get here but they’ll have a hard time recognizing the space once they arrive.
The bar is now called Vitascope Hall. The name is an obscure reference to an 1890s-era movie house along Canal Street, but this bar is not remotely retro. It’s as sleek, modern and tricked-out as any lounge you’d expect to find on the other side of a velvet rope in Vegas – albeit with more local flavor on the drinks list and the bar food menu.
Vitascope Hall; Photo by Ian McNulty
Television screens abound – over the bar, at sofa-lined booths, in private nooks. And while some of them are devoted to interactive media games (you can download an application for your smart phone to vote for the next song the bar should play), most will be tuned to the games as the time and crowd dictate.
There is a small but decent wine list, though Vitascope Hall devotes much of its drinks attention to craft-style cocktails and an unusual beer format. Stocked with specialty liquor brands, bitters and fresh juices, this is a hotel bar designed to go far beyond the cosmopolitan – all the way, in fact, from the Place d’Armes cocktail (rye whiskey, house-made grenadine, citrus and mint) to a vodka-and-sparkling-wine punch serving six. On the beer side of things, local breweries are well represented on tap. In addition to a mug-shaped pint, you can get the stuff drawn off into 96-oz. chilled towers equipped with their own taps and intended to sit atop your table for self service to last through a few offensive drives.
Something similar is at work at another major new addition to the downtown sports bar scene. But if Vitascope Hall channels some of the Vegas vibe, this other place, Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar comes straight from a Baton Rouge template.
Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar; Photo by Ian McNulty
It’s part of a sprawling, block-long sports bar and restaurant complex that also includes Happy's Irish Pub. Both are expansions of Baton Rouge-based concepts that opened in September at the corner of Poydras and South Rampart streets, within strategic proximity to the Dome and New Orleans Arena. They took over the former home of a Smith & Wollensky steakhouse, but like the revamp of the Hyttops space for Vitascope Hall, it’s hard to recognize the old setting once you get inside (note that on the busiest days, getting inside might actually entail a $10 cover charge).
At Walk-On’s, the main room is covered with enough big, flat-screen TVs to fit out a stock exchange. The focal point is an elevated bar where, in addition to still more TV sight lines, there are large booths supplied with their own self-serve beer taps. Customers seated at these booths pour off their own drafts while the beer dispenser keeps a running tab.
Just next door, though sharing the same address, Happy’s is a bar in line with a Hooter’s concept, though this one subtracts Hooters’ flimsy premise of food. For this particular twist on the world’s most elemental sales pitch, waitresses and barmaids uniformed with a Catholic-schoolgirl-gone-bad look of short skirts and midriffs serve enormous mugs of beer to patrons along the bar, at deep booths and outside in a courtyard facing Poydras Street.
Maybe your buddies from Baton Rouge have a clutch tailgating plan in the works, maybe you have your tried-and-true favorite downtown watering holes to visit, or maybe you scored tickets to the Dome. But if you’re wandering around the football fest at bowl time in the days ahead, there are new options calls to keep in the playbook.
601 Loyola Ave., New Orleans, 561-1234
Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar
1009 Poydras St., New Orleans, 309-6530
Happy's Irish Pub
1009 Poydras St., New Orleans, 304-9236