Welcome to the Warmth

Hide from winter in cozy bars across the Gulf Coast.
Eugenia Uhl Photograph
Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar and Bistro|!!| New Orleans

When summer’s long days fade to winter’s early darkness, in most areas of the country, the Rule of Hibernation takes effect.

Denizens of more northern climes find themselves stocking up on books, flannel, food and television program listings. There is no movement to visit friends. Sunless days are boringly endured. And traveling down streets frozen solid or slushy is not desired or even safe.

Cooler days and longer nights in the Gulf South are different from those conditions –– very different.

We have the same issues with the sun leaving us way too soon every day, but temperatures are more temperate, rainfall is not as frequent summer’s monsoons, and snow is a thing we see on CNN but don’t have to experience.
 
In short, our winter walks on the beach require a few more items of clothing than our summer ones, but that’s the greatest change. The beaches are still inviting, though the water, in truth, is not so much. At night in the Gulf South, the stars seem closer and clearer.

My favorite aspects of our winter season are the social gatherings that seem to be scheduled with great abandon.

Travel still takes place, but choices of destinations are limited due to weather patterns around the nation (we are not big fans of sitting in an airplane while it is de-iced), so we all pretty much stay near home. Why go and see the sights of Chicago or New York when the very act of just going outside in those areas is heavy with thoughts of getting back inside as soon as possible?

We Gulf Coasters do like to socialize, however, and we can’t seem to go one single day without seeing friends and neighbors; telling stories, which is a particular talent in our region; and enjoying a liquid libation, well-made and sturdy.

The English perfected the idea of a “public house,” a gathering spot for adults, full of cheer, warmth and fellowship.

English pubs are renowned for offering a feeling of belonging to all who enter. They are also renowned for serving warm beer, for which we Americans have not quite developed a taste –– and by this time, probably never will.

Still, a good drink and good friends in a cozy atmosphere is just the ticket for passing a winter’s evening along the Gulf Coast. And in our region, when the door opens to welcome another visitor, no one shouts: “Close the door.

You’re letting all the cold air in.”

Paradis. Rosemary Beach, Fla.; (850) 534-0400; www.restaurantparadis.com. The word “intimate” is certain to come to mind as you enter the finest restaurant along the eastern portion of Highway 30A, where it intersects with Highway 98 just west of Panama City Beach.

The warm interior décor is a credit to Mike and Gail Pair, who formerly operated the very popular Bistro Bijoux just west of here in the Village at Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin. Style and good taste are hallmarks of their operations.

The well-stocked bar offers guests the choice of traditional bar stools or a more private area with up to four seats around tables set by windows.

Excellently made and generously poured, mixed drinks are a specialty of the house. Your love affair with a simple, straightforward beverage will not be unrequited. But it may be a bit more adventuresome to stretch out just a little and try something challenging.

If previous visits are any indication, the margaritas are perfectly made, and tangy yet sweet mojitos, punctuated with fresh mint, are refreshing at any time of year.

Because the “beach” of Rosemary Beach is near, why not choose a Planter’s Punch or a Navy Grog and keep the theme going? And because many people like their drinks a certain way, the experienced mixologists are capable of accommodating those requests –– and happy to do so.

Most important, when you request a special ingredient or process, the bartenders listen. Although that may not seem so important, it is surprising how many people behind the bars in other establishments don’t hear, or don’t want to hear, what is asked for. At Paradis, they even ask questions just to be certain they understand. In my book, the staff members get stars for that kind of treatment.

In all honesty, however, the Pairs are very fond of wine –– all kinds of wine. They have fashioned much of Paradis to reflect this love of the grape. You will see reminders of grapes and vines and wine everywhere you look.

The place itself could just as easily be set in the heart of Napa Valley as on the coast of Florida. The wine-by-the-glass program is extensive and demonstrates a belief that fine wines come from many places, and they all deserve attention.

Speaking of Rosemary Beach, in case you are not familiar, this is another of those grand planned communities that seem to have taken hold of the Florida panhandle.  

The architecture at Rosemary Beach reflects the styles of the Dutch and West Indies.

The Bermuda shutters; wide second-floor galleries; and building colors reflective of nature with shades of tan, green and brown all combine to offer the eye a most pleasing arrangement.

Plus, right on the main square is the inviting Paradis, perfect for creative loafing or fine dining on a winter’s eve. 

Mary Mahoney’s Old French House. Biloxi, Miss.; (228) 374-0163; www.marymahoneys.com. On Beach Boulevard, among the lavish new grand casinos of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, sits a more modest establishment, laden with history and determined to provide personal service and quality experiences.

Bob Mahoney and his wife, Mary, who passed away in 1985, opened the restaurant, along with Mary’s brother, Andrew Cvitanovich, on the Feast of the Ascension, May 7, in 1964, but the story of the building goes back quite a ways from there. 

The original date of the building’s construction is in some doubt, but the best guess is in the area of 1737, when the entire area was under French colonial rule. A visitor will observe that the structure would look more at home in New Orleans’ French Quarter rather than sitting one block from the white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

The handmade white-painted brick structure also features wooden-pegged columns of dried cypress; roof slates brought over from France; and a porch floor composed of slate slabs, each one 20 inches square and 4 inches thick.

“They don’t make them like that anymore” is an absolutely and irrefutably true statement in this instance.

The entire ensemble is overlooked by “The Patriarch,” a 2,000- year-old naval live oak tree of magnificent proportions. Even Katrina’s fury could not move this behemoth. She stripped the old man of a lot of limbs and foliage, but it’s all back today.

 

The house boasts a cellar, almost unheard of in this part of the world, and it’s absolutely bone-dry. Previously, the cellar was used to store furniture and fine books; today, you will find the restaurant’s excellent wine offerings here.

The brick courtyard used to be adorned with scuppernong grapevines, also known as muscadine. No vines remain, but large-leaf tropical plants and a fountain make for a pleasant backdrop during before- and after-dinner beverages.

The bar area is warm and not overly done, but those who seek out the feel of big mahogany wood surroundings may wish to look elsewhere. French colonial was not about such heaviness, so the bar demonstrates a tasteful and period-authentic light decorative touch. Fireplaces are located throughout the property, being the only source of warmth on chillier evenings in the early days. Today the effect is still the same.

As the Mississippi Gulf Coast continues its struggle to return to normalcy following the devastation of Katrina in 2005, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House stands strong and ready to receive guests. After all this landmark has been through, it deserves your patronage. And it will earn your love.

Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar and Bistro. New Orleans; (504) 523-1930; www.orleansgrapevine.com. The story itself is not unique. When your business is located in the very heart of the Old Square, there are many shared stories of heritage, and they all continue to resonate throughout history.

And here, within the City That Care Forgot, the Orleans Grapevine is a quiet oasis, just a half-block from the madness of Bourbon Street –– but equally important, just a half- block from the gentility of Royal Street.

The building was erected in 1809 by Antoine Angue during the peak of cultural activities in New Orleans. A few blocks away was the French Opera House, the first opera house in America. Across the street was the Theatre d’Orleans. Respected and impeccably dressed men and women frequented the pleasant, if unremarkable, building because the atmosphere was conducive to conviviality and the cuisine was superb, even then.

From that viewpoint, not much has changed in 200 years. The back entrance to St. Louis Cathedral is only a few doors away, as it has been since the Great Fire of 1794, the last fire to destroy the whole of New Orleans, lighting up and destroying 212 buildings, some of which had just been rebuilt from the Fire of 1788, which destroyed 856 buildings. Both times the cathedral was destroyed.

Orleans Grapevine provides the desired comfort and the products, including fine wines served by the glass and the bottle. The bar is open long hours (this is New Orleans, after all) and provides tasty libations at reasonable prices.

A player piano is pumping out 1930s and ‘40s classics and tunes about New Orleans and love. Singing along is not encouraged, but it won’t get you in trouble either.

The tiny kitchen sends out amazing French-bistro-style cuisine, and the creativity is absolutely one of the best-kept secrets in town. It seems locals and neighbors, plus a few stray visitors, are the only ones who know that Orleans Grapevine is a fine-dining destination.

The owners are Pam Fortner and Earle Bernhardt, who also own the Bourbon Street staple Tropical Isle, famous for a lethal concoction known as the Hand Grenade.

But Orleans Grapevine is something completely different from their other storefront. Again, the story is not unique, but it is typically New Orleans.

Downtown Baton Rouge.  Louisiana’s capital city has met the challenge faced by so many American towns. After the business day is over and the workers have headed home, what do you do with the downtown district? How do you encourage folks to come back from home or keep them in the area for refreshments and dining?

The downtown revitalization effort in Baton Rouge seems to be gaining traction. Museums and other cultural attractions along the riverfront receive visitors during the day, and in the evening visitors and locals alike stroll through downtown in a sort of progressive tasting experience.

One of the catalysts for the successful transformation from ghost town to party town was actually the reopening of the Hilton Capital Center Hotel, formerly known as the Heidelberg Hotel. A $70 million renovation project put this property squarely in the center of the place to be –– and be seen –– in Baton Rouge.

The Kingfish Lounge, named for a certain governor of Louisiana, is simultaneously warm, cozy, chic and modern. Lighter shades of red and padded furniture provide guests with views of the back bar, which looks like Captain Kirk could be the mixologist.

In the same general area, the ultra-modern sushi palace, Tsunami, provides full vistas of the Old State Capitol and the Mississippi River while guests enjoy creative fare. If your idea of warming up from a cool winter evening is a carafe of sake, then you’ve come to the correct place in Baton Rouge.   

Let’s say your tastes run to more traditional and beefy fare. Here, in the downtown area, is Stroubes (pronounced “strew-bees”) Chophouse. For some reason, everyone who ever writes about the place makes the name possessive. The restaurant does not place any such grammatical indication on its materials. Take your choice.

If anything, you’ll feel very New Yorker-ish here but without the high dollar commitment or the need to be extra-dressy.

Stroubes has quite the local following, thanks to its intimate décor in the dining areas and the requisite views of downtown and the river, which evidently are de rigueur for the area.

Signature cocktails and martinis are the pride of Stroubes, and the wine list makes a lot of sense in terms of the territories represented and the pricing.

We’re on a roll in downtown Baton Rouge, so let’s not stop. The Wine Loft makes for an elegant yet comfortable destination.

It is, as the name implies, a place dedicated to affairs of the grape. Seeking primarily domestic varietals, the Wine Loft does not fear imports from Europe, South America or Australia. Most important, if you want to learn about the wines, knowledgeable staff members are there to answer those questions that need to be asked.

Downtown Baton Rouge is a strolling destination. Park your car, and use your legs throughout the evening. What a concept!

There is a reason residents and visitors along the Gulf Coast do not dread winter. They welcome this season when there is plenty of life outside the home and the hotel room.

After all, you don’t have to shovel sunshine.
 

Categories: Gulf Coast

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