Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop
What more can we say about this venerable must-drink stop on any tour of New Orleans bars? Should we tell you that it’s housed in one of the oldest standing buildings in the French Quarter - or that many purport it to be the very first bar ever to open in the United States? Sure, but you probably heard that somewhere already. We could also say that Lafitte’s is the final outpost on Bourbon Street - thankfully just beyond its rowdy run of strip joints, Irish pubs, heaving discos and other watering holes. But you probably knew that already too.
What you may not know is that, despite its reputation as being a “catch-all” for a hodge-podge of tourists, this place is the real deal. And by that we mean a completely non-pretentious spot that truly welcomes everyone and anyone for an old-fashioned good time (read: 18th century old-fashioned).
Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop dates back 200 years prior, and according to New Orleans legend, was once owned/ operated by Jean Lafitte, the notorious privateer/ entrepreneur/ diplomat who later became a hero of the Battle Of New Orleans! While the building has survived enough fires, hurricanes and political upheavals to earn that landmark status, don’t expect to fall through the floor if you tumble off your bar stool. The tavern has been retrofitted a number of times to satisfy safety regulations.
What we presume hasn’t changed much is the dark, brooding, almost haunting interior that seems just as scintillating at dusk as it does in the middle of the night! (Better get used to candlelight.) Walking through Lafitte’s doors is akin to sinking down into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. (And we surmise the bar is just one of the many New Orleans locations that inspired Walt Disney in the first place.) A handsome bar and fireplace are hewn entirely out of brick while an assortment of tables and chairs appear plundered from some rival’s pirate ship off the Gulf. The nostalgic frivolity is further encouraged by cheap (lethal) drinks, Saints games on the telly (when appropriate), and most notably, by rounds of sing-along requests courtesy of the baby grand piano in back!
On our most recent (re)visit, we were mesmerized by a lass with long blonde braids who soulfully sung everything from “Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi to “Georgia On My Mind” - and all in a raspy voice somewhere in the neighborhood of Stevie Nicks! (In fact, her rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” was the night’s biggest crowd-pleaser.)
Lafitte’s is crammed with merrymakers any night of the week, as their poop decks can surely attest to! If you are begging for air, there is a small outdoor patio to the left. It houses some cool statuary nestled within a garden, as well as another bar open only in warmer months. So what are you waiting for? Grab those doubloons, mateys, and head on down to Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop! The magic awaits... Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop - 941 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 593-9761
The Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel
Recommended as the perfect pre-Madonna concert stop-off by our front desk host of the Lamothe House Hotel (see “digs”), the legendary Sazerac Bar at the newly-refurbished Roosevelt Hotel certainly lived up to the suggestion. Other than knowing the Roosevelt was an Art Deco landmark located in the Central Business District, we did not have much expectation. But once entering the property’s elaborate lobby (that shoots down an entire city block!), we were immediately blown away, and not just by the innate beauty - but by the inimitable power of New Orleans to always surprise!
Originally opened in 1893 as the Grunewald (by Bavarian-born entrepreneur Louis Grunewald), the hotel was demolished in the 1920s to make way for the first incarnation of The Roosevelt, a Depression-era majesty that would later attract the likes of everyone from Frank Sinatra to President Eisenhower. Sold off to the Fairmont conglomeration in the 1960s, the Roosevelt underwent a “Mid-century” renovation what whitewashed much of its original Deco charm. But progress beware... Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you mess with perfection. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew into town, and with its flood waters, damaged the entirety of the Fairmont’s sub-basement mechanical systems! The hotel was shuttered for four years, only to re-emerge as “The Roosevelt” after a $145 million restoration. (Don’t worry, the electrical systems were all moved from the basement to brace for any future storms.)
During Dimension Development’s refurbish, a number of original Art Deco design attributes were painstakingly brought back to life - including mass amounts of mosaic tile flooring, handmade plaster work throughout and, in the aforementioned Sazerac Bar, original 1932 murals by painter Paul Ninas! Exquisite does not even begin to describe the mastery on display here.
While we cannot vouch for an actual stay at the hotel (now part of Waldorf Astoria’s high-end collection), we can discuss the integrity of the Sazerac’s artisanal cocktails. Harkening back to the days of when Louisiana Governor Huey P .Long dispatched Sazerac’s bartenders to New York to mix his drinks while he was away from his 12th story Roosevelt Hotel suite, the remodeled bar glistens in warm hues of gold and orange. You’ll likely marvel at the African walnut bar and tiled flooring almost as much as you marvel at your bartender’s technique! We tried a quartet of whimsical concoctions that included the signature Sazerac (a New Orleans standby deemed the first alcoholic “cocktail” ever created), and a lavender-infused libation that was too-too-good-to-be-true. We think you’ll have a difficult time deciding on what potion to order, so why not spend a bit more time (and money) here and indulge!
Elsewhere inside the Roosevelt, a special event night might include a visit to the “Blue Room” restaurant, a lavish spectacle that, in its heyday, served as a supper club for the rich and famous. Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and even Sonny & Cher have reportedly dined here, though our favorite story from the Roosevelt’s website has to be that of chanteuse Marlene Dietrich who, in her 1975 concert at the Blue Room, requested “hits of oxygen” in between songs. You go girl!
The Sazerac Bar (located on the southwestern side of the lobby thoroughfare) is open daily from 11:00 AM until 2:00 AM. Set of Drifters tip: If visiting in the morning, why not try the “Ramos Gin Fizz,” another New Orleans original - and Governor Long’s favorite hair-of-the-dog antidote. It’s made with gin, lemon and lime juices, sugar, cream and egg whites! Sounds like breakfast to us!
The Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel - 123 Baronne Street, New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 648-1200
Port Of Call
We're not saying were alcoholics or anything, but when in Rome (or New Orleans), sometimes all you need is a big ol’ drink to get you through the afternoon - or at least to the next block! If this scenario sounds the slightest bit familiar, then we recommend a stop-off at the legendary Port of Call, a nautical-themed watering hole that has been a favorite of locals since 1963!
Located at the very edge of the Quarter on splendid Esplanade Avenue, this restaurant/ bar has always been packed to the gills with revelry each time we visit! (Set of Drifters tip: If stopping by during or after a Saints game, expect lines at the door.)
Aside from the kitschy, colorful decor, the Port of Call is much-appreciated for its price-point. Here, Zagat-rated burgers, steak and seafood are served at prices that promote a second, and even third, round of drinks. Speaking of which, we wholeheartedly recommend “Neptune’s Monsoon,” the Port of Call’s take on a traditional Hurricane. According to their menu, the special blend of tropical juices and two kinds of rum is the “frequent last request by pirates condemned to walk the plank!” You have the option to get a regular sized drink, or the double-shot. The latter is served in a King-Size “to-go” cup that you might find littering New Orleans gutters the following morning.
But buyer beware, “Neptune’s Monsoon” and the aptly named “Port of Call” grog are strong - lethally strong. Drinks that keep on giving, we can remember carrying these suckers around with us for at least another two bars after having dinner! (Not that we remember much after that...) The Port of Call is open daily for lunch and dinner, seven days a week, though closing time seems to adjust depending on current occupancy.
Port of Call - 838 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 523-0120
crunch, crunch, crunch (hipster watering holes)
When your "Set of Drifters" first visited New Orleans together in October of 2003, we happened upon a charming Thai restaurant on Esplanade called Siam. Sounded simple enough? But as we wandered up the creaking staircase to the 2nd floor bar, we were taken aback by the down n’ dirty establishment's unexpected rendition of traditional Southeast Asian decor. While the food was nothing to necessarily call home about, the ambiance was decidedly special. And what we had not yet realized was that we had entered "The Dragon's Den," a live-music venue and bar quite popular with NOLA's bohemian youth. As we sat nibbling on spring rolls, green curry and the like, hordes of neo-goth ragamuffins began shuffling in to witness the evening’s roster of experimental musings. We were hooked.
Fast-forward a couple years to 2007 and our subsequent return. The restaurant Siam had fizzled out. (A hint: no one wants to eat so close to the ground when it doubles as a dancefloor!) The Dragon's Den was, and apparently still is, thriving. DJ's and eclectic local bands perform regularly on rotating nights with themes like “Geekshow Freakshow,” “Soul Funk’d” and “Church.” Drink prices are reasonable, and the balcony overlooking Esplanade is always attracting an intriguing mix of locals eager to share New Orleans war stories. Expect a crowd of "crunchy" folks who may (or may not) have taken a shower that week!
In our more recent trips to New Orleans, we have since stumbled upon a new boho events space that we also recommend. Located a bit further afield on St. Claude in the Marigny, AllWays Lounge & Theater may share a similar edgy vibe with the Dragon's Den, though we hereby decipher its clientele to be more "hipster" than "hippie." On the surface, AllWays may feel a bit more "polished,” its relaxed atmosphere augmented by rich red curtains and cozy lighting. But don’t that description scare you off; consider it a good thing. AllWays denizens actually wear deodorant, well at least most of them.
From genderf*ck drag comedy (quirky Rupaul's Drag Race alum Tammie Brown recently played) to stagings of a traditional plays by the likes of Tennessee Williams, AllWays Lounge is your go-to spot for the avant-garde and (potentially) under-clothed. The night we first attended in November of 2009 saw the amalgamation of five different musicians who had never before met. Though the quintet’s odds n’ ends instruments ran the gamut, their “Russian roulette” riffing set was clever, if not at times, cloying. Even so, it was something we had never seen before.
Current listings on the AllWays calendar include a weekly “Classic Country Jamboree Potluck,” Bella Blue’s Dirty Dime Peepshow (trust us; it’s dirty) and the play, “Crimes Against Nature,” a love story involving fraternal clowns. We’re so there.
Dragon's Den - 435 Esplanade Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 949-1750, http://www.facebook.com/thedragonsden
AllWays Lounge & Theater - 2240 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, (504) 218-5778, http://www.theallwayslounge.com/
Pirate's Alley Bar
When it comes to evocative atmosphere, New Orleans has it arguably more so than any other American city. That being said, there are still some specific locations within the French Quarter that seem to have this pungency in spades! If you find yourself meandering through the passageways behind St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, you’re more than likely to stumble upon a 600-foot stretch of cobblestone called "Pirate's Alley."
According to folklore, pirates and politicians would often frequent the area behind the Cabildo (the former seat of government for old Louisiana - see “sights”) in search of coffee and booze. We suppose some things never change, as currently - even 250 years after the heyday of privateers - an open-air cafe stationed on the corner attracts both tourists and locals alike.
We often stop by the Pirate’s Alley Bar multiple times during our trip, either to catch a much-needed afternoon pick-me-up, or to bring first-timers who want to try absinthe, the one-time "green curse of France." (Have no fear; the addictive psychoactive properties of wormwood-infused absinthe are highly exaggerated.)
At Pirate’s Alley, expect to find a few friendly and knowledgeable “pirates” or “wenches” stationed behind the bar at virtually any time of the day. And don’t forget to chat to your neighbors. As a local hangout for many Vieux Carré residents, Pirate’s Alley Bar is the perfect spot to soak in the real pulse of The Quarter. We recommend the Mexican coffee, or any of the other specialty liqueur drinks that are sure to have your head spinning, or at the very least, numbed. (Oh, and for the record, we’ll favor pirates over politicians any day of the week.)
Set of Drifters tip: History lives here. No, seriously. Nobel Laureate author William Faulkner once lived next door! For more on Pirate’s Alley’s legend, visit the bar’s website, where a calendar of upcoming rum-tasting events is also featured. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Pirate's Alley Bar - 622 Pirates Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 524-9332
staying caffeinated in the Big Easy
With so much booze on tap throughout the French Quarter, visitors to New Orleans may find themselves forgetting about other favorite liquids that help get them through the day... at least until that nasty hangover rears its ugly head the following morning. You can find out where to stock up on water (and late night eats) over in our “essentials” section, but if it’s just caffeine you’re looking for, we offer a duo of potentials that should do the trick. And guess what? Neither of them comes with long lines at the French Market...
Cafe Envie: Take any day-long stroll around the French Quarter and you might find something missing... a lack of chain retailers or restaurants! Aside from a Walgreen’s on Decatur, New Orleans city planners have done an excellent job at keeping big names at bay along Canal Street. While that all may change with the Fall 2013 addition of an H&M store on St. Peter, at least previous attempts to bring Starbucks here have failed. So, the question still remains. Where can you go in the French Quarter for a quick cup ‘o java? We suggest skipping the infamous Cafe du Monde at the French Market (see “goodies”) for nearby Cafe Envie, an excellent espresso/ pastry and sandwich stop at the corner of Decatur and Barracks.
We have been going here for years, and have only grown more and more impressed with the quality of their beverages and sweets. (We dare you to try and deny their white chocolate macadamia and raspberry swirl cookies!) On our last visit, we happened on the final day of a photography exhibit by a local lensmen who showed off some rather impressive shots of the city and nearby environs. But aside from the cappuccinos, baked goods and art, what we love most about handsome Cafe Envie is its relaxed, local vibe. This is the perfect place to unwind with a copy of the local newspaper to see what’s really going on behind the doors and gates of those majestic manses and quaint shotgun bungalows!
Cafe Envie - 1241 Decatur Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 524-3689
Royal Blend Coffee & Tea House: A bit more centrally-located amidst the French Quarter hubbub, Royal Blend Coffee & Tea House is no less inviting, particularly thanks to its lushly-landscaped patio that beckons quietly off from Royal. (Indoors are a bit sparser, so try your best to get a table outside.)
Royal Blend is popular not only for weary travelers who need a pick-me-up refuel, but for locals looking to stock up on gourmet coffee beans imported from around the globe. With over 35 different flavors to choose from, all dark, medium and dessert varieties are roasted and packaged right here in New Orleans! (Set of Drifters tip: Look for the “Bananas Foster,” described by proprietors as “the taste of bananas in butter rum sauce, sprinkled with cinnamon and poured over rich vanilla ice cream.”)
Oh, and did we mention the teas? Available in ¼, ½ and full pound quantities, anyone of the 20 or so different blends make for perfect (usable) souvenirs from NOLA! Elsewhere, Royal Blend impresses with a delightful array of breakfast and lunch offerings, including a pastry menu that may have you coming back the following day for seconds. Royal Blend Coffee & Tea House is open Monday through Thursday from 6:00 AM until 8:00 PM, Fridays and Saturdays from 6:00 AM until midnight and Sundays from 6:00 Am until 6:00 PM.
Royal Blend Coffee & Tea House - 621 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA 70130, (504) 523-2716, http://www.royalblendcoffee.com/
Carousel Bar and Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone
Let’s face it - hotel bars are a love ‘em or leave ‘em kind of lot. And usually, your Set of Drifters choose the latter. That being said, most big cities tend to have one or two options that, for some reason or another, pass muster. Here in New Orleans, we’re fans of the Sazerac at the Roosevelt Hotel (see above), thanks in part to its historical Art Deco setting, but also for the intense skill of its bartenders. Somewhat similar in vibe, though nowhere near as sharp (or luxe), the Carousel Bar and Lounge (newly renovated at the Hotel Monteleone) is also worthy of a stop, primarily if you are meeting up with friends at the beginning of a long night out in the Quarter.
You may have already heard about the spot. Yep, this is the lounge with the circular bar that, with its 25 circus-theme embellished seats, rotates under a carousel canopy every 15 minutes! Sure, it’s all gimmick, but one that remains endearing - for at least a round or two.
It all started back in 1949 when the Monteleone family expanded their landmark hotel with additional floors, guestrooms and meeting spaces. At the time, their “Swan Room” nightclub attracted singers, actors and writers from around the world who often visited “The Carousel” after shows. (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Liberace are just some of the luminaries that have reportedly saddled up to the merry-go-round.) The bar has since been featured in a number of films and TV shows throughout the decades.
These days, expect to face a hodge-podge of tourists and travelers across the rotating bar who come not only for the kitschy experience, but also for some rather tasty libations. The signature “Vieux Carré” mixes together rye whiskey, cognac and dry vermouth with a teaspoon of Benedictine and dashes of Peychaud and Angostura! Lethal. If you think you’re up for a spin, the Carousel Bar and Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone is open daily from 11:00 AM until 2:00 AM. Set of Drifters tip: Try to hit this one up before the sun sets. Giant windows out onto Royal Street afford rotators with some great people watching beyond the carousel. Though if you're as lucky as we were during our few rotations in October of 2012, you may just end up smack dab in the middle of a plastic surgery convention after-party!
Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Carousel Bar and Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone - 214 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA 70130, (504) 523-3341
Perestroika at Pravda
We just can't get enough of Decatur street. While its shopping is the best in the Quarter by day (see "goodies"), as the sun sets, Decatur also offers a surprising amount nightlife alternatives to debaucherous Bourbon Street. One spot that we first enjoyed while visiting for New Years in 2008 is Pravda. Then awash in sumptuous Russian kitsch, which, depending on your outlook, may have been a blessing or a curse, Pravda boasted not only the largest selection of absinthe in the United States, but a full-service coffee/ espresso/ tea bar as well. (A nice touch, we thought... the kind of place you could text your Facebook friends in the afternoon, and then return later to sample one of the 50 varieties of vodka on hand!)
A more recent visit in October 2012 surprised us with some serious changes. Now cleverly re-dubbed “Perestroika at Pravda” or “P@P,” the bar has eschewed vodka in favor of rum! (When in New Orleans... we guess.) While the subdued decor lacked much of the original "Red Square" showiness, we were still mightily impressed by mixologist Nick Dietrich’s updated drink menu, a list that includes among other chicanery, Czech and Polish pilsners and a concoction named “Peter's Bon Bon.” (While reading up on some research to write this entry, we came across a great interview with Dietrich that shows his attention to detail and quality is paramount.)
Plans to add Eastern European cuisine are also on P@P’s docket, though we’ve heard that from management before. In the meantime, head onto to Pravda for good conversation, a tablet of Mad-Libs, and some rather strong cocktails!
Perestroika at Pravda - 1113 Decatur Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 581-1112
This recommendation is perhaps the most touristy our "Set of Drifters" blog will ever get. The only reason we even mention O'Briens in the first place is because it’s the kind of spot you’ll hear others reference at some point in your visit. Why is that? Well, for starters, O’Briens is the home of the infamous “Hurricane.” Engineered shortly after Pat O'Brien's speakeasy was turned into a legitimate bar at the end of Prohibition, their original recipe is lethal, yet tasty - and these days, you can bet that it will arrive to you in an attractive souvenir glass - at an additional price!
This is the kind of place where wait staff is still forced to wear outdated green sport-coats while they stop to take photos of tourists at the fire-pit every five minutes. Not that we cared; the expansive courtyard is warm (even in the winter), and inviting with lots of colorfully-lit fountains.
While we have not dined at Pat O'Brien's, its menu does feature an extensive list of Cajun/ Creole-inspired party fare. (Red beans and rice, catfish etouffee and jambalaya are on the docket, but one suspects the majority of people here chow down on hot wings instead!) At O'Brien's, the overall mood is undoubtedly festive, encouraging cross-pollination with visitors from all over the world! If you are braving the Bourbon hysteria, why not come in and rest your beads where "The Hurricane" began? Set of Drifters tip: On the other hand... if there’s a huge Saints victory surging down Bourbon Street, you better prepare to duck and cover! This place will be going off!
Pat O'Brien's Bar - 718 Saint Peter Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 525-4823