A Wonky New Orleans Cocktail Bar Roundup

If there’s one thing New Orleans is not short on, it’s bars. In the touristy part of town (the French Quarter) you can’t go more than a block without seeing people spilling out of a bar, clutching frozen Daiquiris in a to-go cup – practically the official mascot of New Orleans. All of Bourbon Street seems to be one continuous bar, the highlight being the ill-advised “Hand Grenade”: gin, rum, vodka, grain alcohol, Midori, with a float of regret. Sure, you can head over to Pat O’Brien’s for an authentic “Hurricane” – don’t forget to pick up some powdered Hurricane Mix as you leave.

Yes, there’s much for a craft cocktail connoisseur to shake their head at in New Orleans. There are plenty of world-class bars in NOLA though– a cocktail wonk just needs to be more diligent in seeking out bars worthy of time and attention. What follows is in no way a complete list of every worthy bar in NOLA – that would take months. But as an obsessive bar hound who’s always looking for the next great “score,” what follows are a few you should put on your A-list.

Latitude 29 – If you’re a Tiki/rum aficionado, Latitude 29 is akin to spiritual pilgrimage; it is the masterpiece of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the father of modern Tiki, whose research and writing rescued Tiki from obscurity. The question isn’t whether you’ll go, it’s how many times – I chalked up five visits in a week. Let me state up front: I love the idea of Latitude 29. The drinks are authentic and superbly executed, over and over and over; a blend of classics and modern originals; mostly rum-based, but other spirits have their day as well. The garnishes are magnificent and elaborate; nearly every drink is picture worthy, and I’m guilty of posting more than a few on Instagram. The food is innovative within the Cantonese/Tiki norms and above average in that regard, but won’t blow the socks off of a serious foodie.

All that said, Latitude 29 feels a bit like Tiki Disneyland. Everything is perfect and polished. Some of this is because it serves as the bar for the Bienville House Hotel. It can’t get too rowdy, and you won’t see lemons, limes, pineapple, or swineapplesacrificed in flames to make your garnish just a bit-more kick-ass. Nor will you find a wall with hundreds of rums, a la Smuggler’s Cove, Rumba, or Tacoma Cabana, but the dozens of rums Latitude 29 features are immaculately curated. Not a bum call among them. Latitude 29 is immersion in authentic Tiki and worth several visits – it’s just a more buttoned up and less risqué experience than a bar like the Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale or the Shameful Tiki Room in Vancouver, B.C.  That said, get yourself there, pronto.  Standout drinks for me were the Mai Tai and Rum Barrel; Mrs. Wonk highly recommends the Outcast of the Islands, taste-tested several times over several nights at the bar.

Cane & Table– Tucked among the madness of the French Quarter near the Frenchmen Street music clubs, Cane & Table looks a little rough around the edges. Exposed, stucco walls with decade after decade of paint layers, an old-timey back bar, and a lack of air conditioning (or at least effective air conditioning in the July swelter) give the impression that you’ve stepped back in time to the early twentieth century. In truth, Cane & Table is only a few years old, but in that time has cultivated a cult following among the rummy crowd.

The rough paper menus seem a bit worn (loved?) and less polished, and the drink names are old-timey and unfamiliar. Assuredly not the Tiki classics that you might remember. But study a bit, and you may come to understand that you’re seeing proto-Tiki–tropical drinks from the late 1800s to early 1900s which are closely related but don’t veer into full-metal Tikidom. Instead, you’ll find drinks like the Trinidad Green Swizzle, the Daisy de Santiago, and the Boss Colada. And while you’re working through the drinks, get the ribs. Seriously, get the ribs!

Arnaud’s French 75– This bar exudes serious old-time class. The bartenders are in uniform, and the backbar looks straight out of five-star hotel from a hundred years ago.  Attached to the famous, old-school Arnaud’s restaurant, the French 75 bar could have an uninspired drink list for people who don’t really care about what’s in their glass. Instead, the menu is short but impeccably curated. It’s rare that every drink on a menu calls to me – it does at Arnaud’s.

The menu has a few classics; the obligatory French 75 namesake (a Mrs. Wonk favorite) and New Orleans staple, the Sazerac. But you’ll also find innovative drinks like the Caipa De Gallos: Novo-Fogo cachaça, sriracha shrubb, strawberry-cucumber syrup, and lime. The drinks are surprisingly inexpensive, especially given the care with which they’re prepared. The bar bites are worth exploring – betcha can’t order just one!  (We snacked through two orders of Gougeres—think the best Cheeto you’ve ever had—and an order of shrimp and andouille calas, a traditional Creole rice fritter.) Consistently on “best bars in America” lists, Arnaud’s is worth dressing up a bit fancier than normal for, and enjoying the genteel feel of times gone by. (Maybe leave the plastic hand grenade and the beads at the door.)

Sazerac Bar – Mrs. Wonk loves her Ramos Gin Fizz. Visually enticing with its foamy head, but laborious to make (excessive amount of shaking required), the Ramos Gin Fizz is her benchmark for how good a bar is—but she’s also careful where to order it, lest she piss off her newest bartender friend.  (“If it’s on the menu, it’s fair game,” she says, “but I tip really well.”) New Orleans is known as the birthplace of the Ramos, so it appears far more frequently on bar menus there than anywhere else, and she took full advantage of its availability. Hands down, the Ramos Gin Fizz at the Sazerac Bar was the best either of us have ever had. And by a large margin.

Located in the Roosevelt Hotel, this bar is a must visit for the interior design even if you don’t plan to order a Ramos or the namesake Sazerac. I have a soft spot for Art Deco, and the Sazerac Bar has it in spades. The whole room is covered in wood paneling, the bar counter is a gorgeous African walnut, the ceiling is coffered, and stunning Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals adorn the walls– one of the most impressive looking bars I’ve ever seen. Just a few blocks away from the chain-store craziness of Canal Street, the Sazerac Bar feels like an oasis of calm sophistication, an impression added to by white jacketed bar staff effortlessly crafting your impeccable Ramos Gin Fizz.  The drink menu is divided into classics and modern classics, nothing too crazy or bleeding edge. Being a hotel bar, the drinks are a tad more expensive than most New Orleans bars, but for top-notch drinks in a beautiful bar consistently on “best” lists, a visit to the Sazerac Bar should be a no-brainer.  Just don’t be like the couple next to us and order a Bud Light and a white wine, or Mrs. Wonk will have a word with you.

Bar Tonique – Located just a few blocks north of the crazy part of the French Quarter, Bar Tonique feels like a bar for bartenders. A bit rustic around the edges – exposed brick and chalkboards dominate the small space– the square bar sits perhaps 15 people. A large chandelier adds to the old-timey feel without veering into preciousness. Being just a bit outside the main tourist zone, it feels like an undiscovered hideaway, populated by locals and visiting bartenders rather than folks looking for their next daiquiri slushy refill.

You won’t feel out of place ordering a beer, but scan the chalkboards and cocktail menu and you’ll find plenty to pique your cocktail-obsessed interest. The drink menu sections include True Cocktails, Sours, Slings, Punches, Succulents, and Coolers. Be still, my cocktail-history loving heart! Add in $5 daily specials like the Mai Tai on Sunday and you’ve got a strong contender for your must-visit list. They also made a quality Ramos Gin Fizz that once ordered, becomes the drink of choice for everyone’s next round for sheer spectacle alone.

Cure – Cure is a welcome break from the French Quarter crazy. Visually impressive, the tall, white, well-list backbar dominates the room. The cocktail menu showcases interesting ingredients and spirits while putting them in context that civilians can understand. Typical entry: “PASSION’S PROMISE: Tropical spice meets juniper and pine in this sharp play on a GIN & TONIC.”

Cure is the elder sibling of Cane & Table and Bellocq (below), all owned by The Cure Collective, and we noticed similar traits in all of them. Situated near Tulane University in Uptown, a semi-residential part of town lined with large mansions, Cure draws in veteran drinkers like yours truly as well as a younger college crowd.

Bellocq – Located near Lafayette Square and the National WW II Museum, Bellocq serves as the bar for the Hotel Modern. The similarities to Cure are unmistakable. The backbar feels like a photo-negative of Cure’s – the stark white backdrop replaced by ultra-dark wood, making the lit-from-below spirit bottle really pop out. The overall vibe at Bellocq is more “dark lounge” than Cure, which feels more like a restaurant. Adding to the similarity, Micah, our bartender at Cure, was also our bartender at Bellocq and recognized us a few days later.  Always impressive in a town full of drinkers during Tales!

Bellocq’s cocktail list leans towards older, more obscure classics – think cobblers and punches. Cobblers,a style of cocktails dating back to the mid-19th century, are a combination of spirits, fruit and sugar. You’ll find ten different offerings at Bellocq, including the granddady of them all, the Sherry Cobbler. The menu is also heavy with drinks utilizing vermouths and aperitifs, allowing for a lighter drinking experience.

The great thing about New Orleans is that post-Katrina, it has a vibrant cocktail scene that respects its history as a great drinking town, but also readily incorporates elements of modern mixology. The bars above are just a first cut at spots you should visit. I’ve already got a full card of more bars to check out during our next visit, most likely tales of the Cocktail 2016!

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