Turning Afternoon into After Hours in the Quarter

When is it officially after hours? In December, in New Orleans, it can come much earlier than normal.

That explains the long-running local ritual of the Friday holiday lunch. This is traditionally a gathering of friends and colleagues, of course, a little time out from the routine to celebrate the holiday season. But with a little advance planning and the collusion of flexible work schedules, it also can lead seamlessly into happy hour and maybe even tumble directly into dinner.

In other words, the New Orleans holiday lunch is an opportunity to turn the afternoon into after hours.

Granted, this is an indulgence, and it’s simply not feasible for people who need to be at their jobs at specific hours. But just because something is impractical doesn’t mean it’s unpopular, and if you visit the French Quarter on any of December’s remaining Fridays you’ll see countless people merrily participating in this ritual.

There’s no rule against simply capping a fun lunch with a cup of coffee and heading back to work. Many would regard this as the responsible course. Many others, however, beeline it from the lunch table to their French Quarter barrooms of choice, and during this holiday those choices follow their own logic of ambiance, proximity and perhaps even history. 

For instance, even locals who studiously avoid Bourbon Street the other 11 months of the year find themselves drawn to the corner of Bourbon and Bienville, specifically to the Old Absinthe House. It’s about 100 steps from the door of Galatoire’s (more for those walking sideways after lunch) and even closer to Arnaud’s. The after-lunch party that brews here proves positively magnetic for people with loose afternoon agendas.

Inside, women angle for access to the gas-fed fire kept roaring in the hearth, guys elbow in at the bar to order drinks and others inspect or add to the mosaic of business cards that cover the walls here, with everyone from landscapers to investment bankers to athletic trainers represented in the collection. Outside, men cluster in those black wool dress coats that law schools must issue with their juris doctorates and women tighten their scarves as the winter sun starts to fade. The papery wafts of cigars are heavy in the air and the Lucky Dog vendor stationed at the corner sees his business spike as drinks begin to overtake that long-ago lunch.

As the afternoon progresses, the crowds grow thicker inside and outside a circuit of bars similarly situated near the dining rooms where the holiday lunch ritual is practiced. You see it form up at the Chart Room (300 Chartres St., 522-1708), at Pat O'Brien’s, at French 75 beside Arnaud’s, at Touché beside the Rib Room, at the Carousel Bar inside the Hotel Monteleone, at the Hermes Bar inside Antoine’s and at Napoleon House.

The Old Absinthe House seems to be the hub, so much so that in some French Quarter dining rooms you might hear people talk about going to “After House” after lunch. But just behind this classic is an alternative that is new to the scene this year, and therefore has sleeper status.

Patrick’s Bar Vin was opened this summer by Patrick Van Hoorebeck, a longtime local maitre d’ and founder of the wine-themed marching group the Krewe of Cork. It’s an upscale wine bar tucked away inside the former St. Louis Hotel, which developers are now in the process of converting into the Hotel Mazarin. That property is slated to open Dec. 28, but for now at least there is a faintly spooky feeling to this wine bar in an otherwise empty hotel. But on a jaunt around the Quarter that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and to keep the afternoon going through to after hours it makes for a more secluded spot than the ad hoc street party just a few steps away. 

After all, it’s no coincidence that Patrick’s Bar Vin opens early on Fridays in December, popping corks from 2 p.m. on as lunch is letting out.

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