You may have heard: New Orleans got trashed. Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina demolished wide swaths of the city. And still today, the perception of most of America is of a shattered demi-monde, with zombie locals wandering through debris-littered streets, wondering when the next storm is coming.
None of that is true anymore, if it ever was. Parts of the city stayed open through the storm—and if not, quickly came back to life. Of course, we're talking about the bars. While most of the city ditched for the Interstates or rode the storm out in the Superdome, at least two establishments kept their doors open. Both were bars.
It's like nowhere else on earth, when it comes to booze. The cocktail may have been invented here, and in New Orleans drinking isn't just entertainment, it's subtext. It's a way of life. In the 85 blocks that make up the French Quarter, there are at least 100 places licensed to sell you alcohol, and maybe as many without a license. It's so ingrained, the city's annual Tales of the Cocktail event draws more than distillers showing their wares: it attracts droves of enthusiasts in what has been compared to a "Star Trek convention for drunks."
With the cultural embargo lifted on the city—if the Southern Baptists' women's convention can come back, so can your annual meeting—you'll need some back-pocket advice on the right places to drink, and what to imbibe. And since it's still New Orleans, it's still good to know the places within safe staggering distance back to your hotel.
The horrors of hurricanes, the frozen Pat O'Brien's ones, are better left to underage lushes in the making. There are hundreds of places to indulge in the French Quarter alone—but a great handful not to miss. Take your clients to the first set, and once they're put to bed, check out the second set on your own:
Arnaud's French 75: A visit to New Orleans should include one of the old-line Creole dining rooms, and Arnaud's is one of the most convenient and least dated of the group that includes Antoine's, Galatoire's and Commander's Palace (a cab ride away in Uptown). The bar, French 75, wears its lush mahogany fittings as if they'd been there since the 1800s, when in fact it has been open only a year. Servers wear black jackets and crisp white shirts, and the air conditioning is set to subzero, a nice respite from the occasional hot and humid December day. Dimly lit in the evenings, it's a cozy setting for small groups with some appreciation for old New Orleans.
When to go: Before dinner at Arnaud's
What to drink: Something stiff to gird yourselves for tomorrow's meeting—or the bar's eponymous brandy-and-champagne cocktail
Find it: 813 Bienville St., just north of Bourbon
Boondock Saint: For the after-work hours, it doesn't get more focused than the Saint. Come to drink and talk over the fierce "Irish Car Bombs" served up by Ukrainian barmaids who give expert instruction, in case you don't know the means of consumption: drop the shot glass of whiskey into the pint of Guinness, and quaff it all at once. Repeat. Repeat until the British have left the area, or maybe just until they leave the bar in disgust. Friday afternoons, linger until the bar crawls begin—bartenders from other places wander through in pajamas on their own circuit, and usually have a few extra Jell-O shots to dole out if you're good. Like any good Irish-flavored place, there's cops involved: an NOPD officer's a part-owner.
When to go: Friday evening as the pours get longer—or any midnight, really.
What to drink: An Irish Car Bomb, if you're free of a politically correct mind
Find it: 731 Saint Peter St.
Carousel: Conveniently sited in the Hotel Monteleone, the Carousel is close enough but just far enough away from the Bourbon Street gutter. The name comes from the actual revolving carousel that functions as the bar. No ponies to ride, but you'll make slow revolutions while the barkeep shakes sloe fizzes and the like. Remember, the sidecar is based on old cold remedies, so you can fake an oncoming sickness for cover. The hotel itself is a piece of local history and has a classic marble-trimmed lobby, though rooms will seem small.
When to go: Saturday midday, to escape the heat and after the hotel check-in rush has waned.
What to drink: A sugar-rimmed sidecar, served in a martini glass, always does well.
Find it: 214 Royal St., to the right of the hotel entry.
Flanagan's: It's almost a house rule: To work the bar at this darkened hangout, you need some ink, somewhere. The kitchen staff is exempt, but most are tatted up anyway. (The menu promises little, and delivers it. But grilled cheese? You're covered.) Show up late in the afternoon, and the local color will entertain you with stories about train rides, the details of their storm plans for the season, and possibly, the particulars of hiking the Appalachian Trail solo. Around 7 p.m. the bar bulges with ghost-tour groups for 30 minutes while they wait for dark, then reverts to an under-30 crowd that doesn't know a stranger. Despite the pool table and slot machines, it's far from a dive: The big-screen TVs play the History Channel and old Cary Grant-Grace Kelly movies, and there's wireless if you need to check in and cloak your location via Facebook.
When to go: Anytime, really—but avoid the tour-group hour if you want a seat in front of the taps.
What to drink: It's a beer bar and a beer crowd. Louisiana's favorite is Abita, in Purple Haze or Amber garb.
Find it: 625 Saint Philip St.
One-Eyed Jacks: An old theater space that still specializes in the theater of the living, Jacks has Candace, the best bartender to escape Detroit and land in the Quarter. Find the schedule and plan ahead for the events, which include "The Bingo! Show," which is like bingo, if Baz Luhrmann were in charge, and "Fleur du Tease," a burlesque for those who still appreciate the art of carefully placed clothing. Bonus: It's close enough to Bourbon Street to break from the pack and let others know you'll be "right down there."
When to go: Make it late, but check out the Web site for shows, which can pack the front room.
What to drink: Definitely a beer place, but the wall of half-empty whiskey bottles suggests a world of options.
Find it: 615 Toulouse St.
Ritz-Carlton Library: New Orleans likes its swank, even if it was born somewhere else. The Ritz-Carlton chain is Canadian, you know. It's one of a type of bars you've toured in other cities, but is distinguished here as a private smoking club where your cigar still has protected rights. It's at the Canal Street edge of the Quarter, and for souses with spouses, it's paired smartly with a world-class spa. Martinis are a little showy here, though the cognac concierge on duty won't sneer if you order one instead of the dozens of spirits available. It is private, but day passes are available.
When to go: Fridays at 5 p.m., while waiting for dinner reservations nearby.
What to drink: anything older than 25 years will let you fit in. You're here to gawk quietly, or in more polite terms, to "network."
Find it: 921 Canal St., at Canal and Bourbon (opposite side of the street, Bourbon becomes Carondelet Street.)