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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IN NEW ORLEANS,
THE WELCOME MAT IS OUT AGAIN


BY CHRIS BARNETT

March 29, 2007 -- More than a thousand bars have their welcome mat out in post-Katrina New Orleans so you don't have to look hard to find a friendly place with a smiling face.

There are many ancient saloons in the French Quarter, once owned or frequented by the "gentleman pirate," Jean Laffite, and his brother. Laffite's Blacksmith Shop, tucked inside a 1772 mud-and-stone building (941 Bourbon Street), is a dark, candlelit cave with a piano man on the ivories. The original horseshoe shop was supposedly the brothers' front for selling their stolen swag. Not far away is the Old Absinthe House (240 Bourbon Street), circa 1814, where Laffite and Andrew Jackson supposedly planned out the victory party for the Battle of New Orleans.

Also in the Quarter is Tujague’s (823 Decatur Street), the town's first stand-up bar for two-fisted elbow-bending. It's still going strong at 151 years old. Meanwhile, Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street), a few blocks away, is the former mansion of a New Orleans mayor named Nicholas Girod. He once offered it as a refuge to the exiled Bonaparte in 1821, but Napoleon never moved in. His name was an attention-grabber, of course, so the mayor purloined it for his pub.

Kerri McCaffety, anthropologist-author of Obituary Cocktail: The Great Saloons of New Orleans, recently photographed the city's 60 oldest, most ornate bars for her book. She favors the Napoleon House and its signature Pimm's Cup for her social drinking.

Of course, not all New Orleanians like their libations with a history chaser, but they do enjoy a heavy pour of nostalgia. That led me to Tommy's Cuisine, which dishes up "classic Creole Italian and French" food.

Tommy's has a short history (five years) in the Warehouse District and a 40-year New Orleans heritage, courtesy of Tommy Andrade, the soft-spoken owner-host who is there most nights greeting regulars and newcomers. His debut was in the summer of 1968 as an apprentice waiter in the Sazerac Bar of the Roosevelt Hotel, now the New Orleans Fairmont. (It's yet to re-open after the hurricane.)

"Here I was in the most elegant, beautiful bar in this city named after the first cocktail in America," he recalls. "I stayed 20 years."

From the outside looking in, Tommy's could pass for a cozy bistro on a side street in the French Quarter or even Paris. The ceiling fans, exposed brick and sprays of fresh flowers add to a festive atmosphere. Inside, however, Tommy's feels like a New York Italian restaurant with the usual wall of black and white photos of notable customers. There's the seductive scent of garlic floating in the air as well as those well-seasoned waiters who take care of you like you own the joint. The centerpiece of Tommy's is the 10-stool bar, right in the middle of the action, that runs the length of one room. Glasses and wine bottles are displayed overhead. Chief mixologist Jonathan Miller and his colleagues greet first-timers as if they're blood relatives.

Solo travelers can drop in for a big cocktail and some easy conversation and, if the spirits move them, order shrimp remoulade, crabmeat au gratin or anything on the menu. Miller will haul out good linens and silverware and you can dine on the plank.

Andrade also has opened a wine bar right next door. It's more like a wood-paneled living room than a tasting room. As he so delicately puts it, "We have couches, we're comfortable and romantic, but we're no lover's lane."

I counted 20 wines by the glass (and more than 125 bottles) representing most of the world's wine-growing regions. Prices range from $8 to $15 a glass. The Cloudline Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley is a long way from home at $11 a glass.

Somehow, Andrade has made his place an attitude-free zone and that's refreshing in a spot this hot. Maybe it's because most of the waiters (and many of the cooks) have worked for Andrade for as long as 15 years. They follow him, Pied Piper-like, wherever he goes in New Orleans. Maybe it's because there's live jazz piano and no cover charge.

Or maybe it's because of Andrade's nearly faithful recreation of the Sazerac. I say nearly because Absinthe, once called "bottled madness," was an ingredient in the cocktail when it was invented in New Orleans by Antoine Amadee Pechaud in 1838. Of course, Absinthe, which can hit 140 proof, is now outlawed in America and much of the civilized world. As a substitute, Herbsinthe is used to coat the glass at Tommy's. Otherwise, the Sazerac at $8 takes no shortcuts.

If your preferences lean more toward a stylish saints-and-sinners sanctuary, consider Loa, inside the hip International Hotel in the Central Business District. With its copper bar and flickering candles--the bar's only source of light--a drink at Loa seems a little more special, almost ritualistic, but fun and with no pretensions. Loa is packed every night with artists, musicians, writers, lawyers, brokers, bankers and just people looking for their next gig, contends bar manager Jake Burgess, who just moved back home to New Orleans.

"Loa is a place where people get together, chill out and rebuild a sense of normalcy in their lives," he says.

In case you are wondering, Loa is named after a benevolent spirit of the voodoo world and the candlelight is designed to entice large gatherings of loas to encircle the bar and rid it of its "disharmony."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2007 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.