With a twist on Creole, Cajun, southern and other culinary styles in this gumbo of cultureS it comes as no surprise that restaurants in New Orleans are habitually jammed with locals and tourists alike.
Ditto for the bar scene. Crowds regularly gather inside the famous pubs for spirits, shots and boozy samples.
On my many previous trips to N’awlins I would always hit the museums, the shops, the swamps, the pretty antebellum mansions that sparked my imagination of the romantic Deep South. But for my latest New Orleans fix, my quest this time was to take a bite out of “The Big Easy.”
My game plan was to immerse in the French Quarter, “Vieux Carré.” One morning after my obligatory Café Du Monde carb load of sugar-topped beignets dunked in the signature chicory coffee, I ventured to the Moon Walk, a promenade by the river’s edge, snapping pictures of the famous Mississippi crescent and later observed street artists by the postcard-pretty Jackson Square.
When it was time to delve into the cocktail culture that part was easy. Many fine drinking establishments (okay, bars) flank nearly every street corner with several proclaiming their fame as the first or oldest. New Orleans has always been a “happy hour” hub.
Inside the landmark Roosevelt New Orleans hotel patrons can tuck into yesterday at the fabled Sazerac Bar and order New Orleans’ “official” original cocktail, the Sazerac. This timeless watering hole became my mid-morning pit stop. With its vintage interior of African woods and original Paul Ninas murals, customers belly up to the eponymous bar filled with a million tales and quaff the ‘sipper.’ The curl-your-chest-hairs specialty blends Sazerac rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, Herbsaint (absinthe) and is garnished with a lemon twist.
As tourists chugged alcoholic bevvies from plastic cups strolling down Bourbon Street, I decided to hang with the cocktail ambassador impresario, Joe Gendusa. The affable tour guide, known for his cocktail history tours with a twist, laughs and says, “It’s not a pub crawl.”
We hit the Napoleon House for our Pimm’s Cup pit stop, which aptly sits across from the Louisiana Supreme Court. Inside the landmark fixture, old portraits obscured the paint-peeling walls as classical music filled the joint and dapper bow-tied bartenders served these sippers.
“The courts are located in the State Capitol but ours shows we don’t follow the rules,” Joe snickers as he adds the historic bar sells more Pimm’s than any other bar in America. The ice-cold cocktail of Pimm’s No.1 with light splashes of lemonade and 7-Up garnished with a cucumber slice went down so nicely.
Over at the Bourbon “O” Bar inside the Bourbon Orleans Hotel the Ramos gin fizz was eulogized. Henry Charles “Carl” Ramos is revered as the creator of the most famous cocktail in New Orleans. During the 33 years at his bar, Ramos reportedly sold as many as 5,000 Ramos gin fizzes a week and employed a line of ‘shaker boys’ to help with the shaking. The quenching gin elixir is shaken the old-fashioned way or via a ritzy machine. I went for the classic. The verdict: decadently delicious.
Criss-crossing the shop-lined streets and negotiating the horse and buggy carriage rides, I made mental notes on all the restaurants. Another day the rush of classic tasting notes stirred at Brennan’s, home of the Bananas Foster. The universes somehow lined up when Patrick Brennan, a fourth-generation culinary maverick, personally prepared my dessert. “It’s all in the ingredients,” he smiled, handing me the glazed banana jewels flambéed in banana liqueur and dark rum. It was like biting into a piece of heaven.
It was on fabled Decatur Street, footsteps from the French Market, where I hightailed it into a deli bastion crammed with a smorgasbord of dangling sausages, generous shanks of smoked ham and shelves stocked with imported dry goods à la Italia. Central Grocery is one of those old-fashioned delis where you sit and mellow out like barrels of marinating olives. Order the original muffaletta, a gargantuan round stacked sandwich so big it’s best shared with friends. You’ll be delighted you did.
Down Pirates Alley where spirits are notorious (the ghostly kind) I bellied up to the weathered counter at the Pirates Alley Cafe. I reached the mother lode of hooch: absinthe. No wonder William Faulkner, the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author, was a regular there. He once lived nearby. I raised my glass to old Faulkner, and talked to Virginia the pirate-clad bartender who regaled me with ghostly tales that somehow still float in the atmosphere.
Then an apparition appeared, or so I thought. By the old absinthe fountain the bric-a-brac of crosses, pirates and green fairies seemed to dance across the bar. I blinked twice on the second sip. Hugging the neck of the absinthe bottle with open arms was a Mardi Gras miniature trinket. Baby Jesus was staring back at me.
The spirits of New Orleans never seem to end.
THE BEST OF N’AWLINS
WHERE TO EAT:
Café Du Monde: cafedumonde.com
Central Grocery: centralgrocery.com
WHERE TO DRINK:
Gray Line New Orleans offers a sublime
2.5-hour walking tour called the New Orleans Original Cocktail Walking Tour. Visit
cocktail-tour for details.
For more information on New Orleans, visit neworleanscvb.com