From the simple pleasures of a Fried Shrimp Po-Boy to refined Creole dishes drenched in rich, buttery sauces, New Orleans’s food is unlike anything else in America. After the city flooded in 2005, many feared that its cuisine and unique drinks culture would be lost. Remarkably, one by one, almost all of the beloved restaurants returned. At the same time, young chefs with high standards and new ideas opened restaurants that expanded local dining options. Today, the New Orleans dining and drinking scene is stronger than ever.
As the restaurants recovered, so too did the drinks scene. Major cellars were rebuilt. Small, craft breweries launched throughout the state. And a cocktail renaissance grew that connects the latest trends with New Orleans’ rich mixology tradition.
In 2010, 8.3 million people visited the Crescent City and spent $5.3 billion, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. In this town, tourists have always spent plenty of their money on beverage alcohol. Today they, as well as the locals, are just buying better quality drinks.
Smarter wine service
“New Orleans is the only market in all of the United States that sells more French wine than Italian wine,” says Bryan Burkey, owner of a wine bar that goes by the name of the Wine Institute of New Orleans. “That’s our French heritage.”
The charms of New Orleans, such as its food, its well-preserved architecture, or the funky brass bands in Frenchmen Street clubs, directly affects the variety of wines available in New Orleans. Many wineries, Burkey says, distribute only in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans, because the owners so enjoy their regular “business trips” to the Crescent City.
In 2007 Burkey opened W.I.N.O., which serves 120 wines in one-, two- or four-ounce pours, priced from $1 to $80, with a mission to educate local consumers. “What we do here,” he says, “is push the service industry to get better. I’m sending people into their establishments with way more knowledge than they have, which keeps them on their toes.”
At iconic restaurant Commander’s Palace, which produced both Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, the “Wine Guy” Dan Davis oversees a list with over 2,400 selections. “We have invested heavily in our cellar since Katrina,” he says. “We feel bullish about the future of fine dining in New Orleans.”
Over the last few years, Davis has also worked to improve New Orleans’ wine service by hosting regular classes and exams at Commander’s Palace by the Court of Master Sommeliers. On his own staff, Davis currently has five certified sommeliers and 20 servers and managers who passed the introductory sommelier exam.
In these tough economic times, Davis believes customers demand value in their wine. “I have seen wines-by-the-glass offerings expanding and improving all over town,” he says. That cost-consciousness might also explain the flurry of wine-focused bars that opened in the last year and a half. Oak in Uptown, Bouligny Tavern in the Garden District, and Patrick’s Bar Vin in the French Quarter all offer high-end wines, small plates, and the kind of upscale experiences that used to require investing in a three-course fine dining meal.
Regional beers take the lead
A quarter century ago, Abita was a pioneer of the craft beer movement. As Americans demanded more flavorful beer, this brewery outside New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchatrain became a major national player that now produces more than 109,000 barrels a year. But as small craft breweries sprouted like mushrooms in other states, Abita remained the area’s only real alternative to macro beers.
Since Katrina, Louisiana’s craft brewing scene has been racing to catch up. Walk into the two-unit Bulldog bars, which both feature sought-after patios and 50 draft beers, priced $3.25 to $11, and today you’ll find taps for Abita, Cajun country’s Bayou Teche, Baton Rouge’s Tin Roof, Covington’s Heiner Brau, and New Orleans’ own NOLA Brewing Company.
“A lot of people will try a local beer, just because it’s local,” said Polly Watts, owner of the Avenue Pub on St. Charles Avenue. “NOLA comes out with an IPA, and suddenly everyone wants to know what an IPA is.”
Watts also played a role in improving New Orleans’ beer culture. Three years ago, she transformed the well-worn, 24-hour dive bar that she inherited from her dad into a mecca for beer enthusiasts. The regular tastings and wide selection of rare craft and imported beers have made this Lower Garden District bar a must stop for beer-obsessed tourists.
For Watts, making high-end beer profitable meant figuring out what locals wanted. “Nationally when you read about craft beer, you read about big, edgy, hoppy stuff,” she says. “That isn’t going to happen in New Orleans, because our palate is European. When we made the turn to getting European craft, I saw my sales climb.”
Those milder beers pair better with the bold flavors of local dishes, whether it’s a sloppy Roast Beef Po-Boy from Parkway Bakery and Tavern or a plate of Cajun Boudin Sausage handcrafted at Cochon by the dual James Beard award-winning team of Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski. Local restaurants are beginning to take beer as seriously as wine. Celebrity chef John Besh worked with Heiner Brau’s German-trained brewmaster to create custom beers for the Alsatian brasserie Lüke. Boucherie, which puts a modern spin on classic Southern fare. And Company Burger, a new gourmet fast food restaurant on Freret Street started by an alumnus of Atlanta’s Holeman and Finch Public House, pours witbiers and saisons carefully chosen to complement its signature cheeseburger. The All-American beer selection include six on tap, ranging from $3 to $5.50, and nine in cans, ranging from $2.50 to $5.
“When I walk into a place that has six taps,” says Watts, “and two or three of them are good craft beer, that’s something you would not have seen three years ago.”
A history with cocktails
At Galatoire’s, the century-old Creole institution on Bourbon Street, the upper-crust still indulges in three-Martini lunches that often don’t wind down until the sun sets. Ralph’s on the Park, a locals’ favorite for globally inspired, Creole cuisine on the edge of City Park operated by Ralph Brennan, makes 48 percent of its sales from alcohol. Just outside the French Quarter inside the recently renovated 504-room Roosevelt Hotel, the Sazerac Bar looks as good as it did when governor Huey P. Long drank Ramos gin fizzes there in the 1920s and 1930s. Bartender Russ Bergeron reports that the Sazerac Bar makes at least 50 gin fizzes a day, and most of them are ordered by younger customers.
New Orleanians never lost their love for the cocktail. When America moved on to new thrills, this city stayed loyal to classic drinks that pre-date Prohibition. It’s no wonder that in 2008 the Louisiana state legislature named the Sazerac—a mix of rye, sugar, absinthe substitute and Peychaud’s bitters—New Orleans’ official cocktail.
“As a city,” says Neal Bodenheimer, owner of the hot cocktail bar Cure, “we are preservationists, and that basic grounding of cuisine and cocktail culture is something that gave us a place to build from. We’re not that far behind New York or San Francisco anymore.”
The opening of Bodenheimer’s bar on Freret Street in 2009 marked a turning point in the recent evolution of New Orleans cocktails. Cure was the city’s first independent operator that invested in the training and the tools to pull off a world-class craft cocktail program.
“There were a lot of bartenders spread throughout New Orleans who really didn’t have a place to do what they do,” says Bodenheimer. “Cure was that place.”
The local scene is also nourished by annual gathering Tales of the Cocktail and the Museum of the American Cocktail, where monthly seminars feature cocktail luminaries such as Dale DeGroff, Gaz Regan and historian and writer David Wondrich. “I think the big news,” says Kimberly Patton-Bragg, president of the United States Bartending Guild’s New Orleans chapter and a bartender at the restaurant Dominique’s, “is the amount of talent that’s growing in the city. There have been more jobs and opportunities for craft bartenders. We’re even starting to see fresh juices in dive bars.”
As New Orleans’ thirst for quality cocktails grows, a growing number of bartenders are striking out on their own. Daniel Victory, formerly the head mixologist at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton Hotel, recently opened Victory, a fashionable cocktail lounge with the vibe of a nightclub. T. Cole Newton, who first gained notice at the upscale bistro Coquette, took over a dive bar, renamed it Twelve Mile Limit, and now sells drinks made with Chartreuse and other expensive ingredients for a mere $6 to $7. It’s become a regular haunt for Newton’s fellow bartenders.
“People are taking that plunge,” says Patton-Bragg. “There are going to be a lot of cool things happening this year.” No matter what new direction the bars of New Orleans take, they will always be grounded by staff and customers with a deep knowledge of the city’s historic dining and drinking traditions.