Friday, March 15, 2013

Drank No. 8: New Orleans, or What makes a great drinking town?


I had a drink at the French 75 bar at Arnaud’s in New Orleans. In some towns, including my home, New York, this act would be perceived as helplessly passé. It’s somewhat of a tourist destination. The room has been hopelessly updated, it’s too bright, there’s too much polish on the brass. The drink—eponymously named for the bar—is far from hip. But in ways unrelated to the typical qualifiers, the experience was perfect.

The bartender, in his mid to late 30s, had a foppish hairdo that reminded me of Richard Branson. He wore a white jacket, de rigueur for many classic New Orleans bars and almost unheard of elsewhere in America since it's at least fifty years out of (current restauranting) style. Before accepting our drink orders he asked what we last drank at our previous stop. Based on our answers he told three of us our orders were OK. But the fourth, he suggested mildly, you might choose another, and he offered advice. We took it. The drinks were uniformly excellent.

This unsolicited advice may seem untoward. It wasn’t to me. There’s a certain amount of authority and insight I want a bartender to have. I can ignore it and move along or I can put myself in their hands and let them take care of me. Personally, I love it when I meet a bartender with knowledge, sincerity and skill who pushes my boundaries. I let them take over, something I’d almost never do with a waiter, but I might do with a chef. Maybe it’s because a bartender is kind of like a waiter and a chef all in one?

The drink was excellent and we wrapped up our night. But before we left there was a bit more to the story. One of us complained about another bar. He said he got a lemon twist in a Manhattan. (I’m almost sure it was my friend Allen Leibowitz, who makes a small art of tender complaints.) The bartender overheard him.

“Where did you get that drink?” he asked.
“The International Hotel Bar.”
“From a woman?”
“Tall? White blond hair, pony tail?”
“Lucy, probably.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me tell you,” the bartender said, “She knows how to make a Manhattan. She was making what she thought you wanted in a Manhattan. There are a lot of people who expect it that way, for some reason.”

What makes a great drinking town? New York is grand in many ways, and to some extent it’s a place where you can enjoy a drink for what it is. But, in my experience, most of America’s bars are not sincere. They are drinking places that are proxies for other things: doing business, hanging out with friends, hooking up. In New Orleans, however, the rubber meets the road. Here, drinking is about the act. It’s the experience of the cocktail cool and golden in your hand. The room, full of people worth looking at. The bartender, yours only.

This kind of service that our bartender offered — knowing who was making Allen’s drink in another bar, what she thought, why she made it that way — this does not happen in the real world. New Orleans is not the real world. We should all thank our lucky stars that, in spite of flood and oil and neglect, it still exists.

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