Bar Dining in the French Quarter
Sara Essex Bradley Photograph
This romp around the French Quarter focuses on full course meals at bars in restaurants within the boundaries of our beloved Vieux Carré. It begins with a revolution, a new restaurant named R’evolution spawned out of a three-way with Louisiana Chef John Folse, Chef Rick Tramonto and Royal Sonesta Hotel owners, or management, or some combination of it all.
Bar R’evolution has become French Quarter hot spot for those of us who enjoy a bar setting more for eating with drinking. My first meal at R’evolution last summer was actually in their most formal center dining room. The reasoning was the same as my first visit to most new restaurants: I needed to go at least once so I could say I had been and so I could give an estimate on its longevity. After a shot glass liquid amuse-bouche of a heavenly citrus concoction, highlights included wood-fire grilled sweetbreads, steak tartare and “Bird in a Cage,” which rivals the fried chicken at Galatoire’s as the tastiest bird dish in town. To provide full details about the incredible edible cage would be like giving away the ending of a movie.
The décor equals the food, easily the most smartly dressed eatery to open in New Orleans since Restaurant Jonathan on North Rampart Street in the 1970s.
Further investigation was in order. The next day I returned solo. As is my custom when dining at a bar, my favorite seat is one near the service area. The cross pollination of bartenders and waiters guarantees access to a flow of insider gossip – a guest with a peculiar order, need the check quick for Table 10 or they will be making a baby at the table, and a local chef just left in an ongoing journey to find himself.
The bartender that second night quickly gained my confidence after recommending an iced platter of P&J oysters on the half-shell as a starter. I was under his forces. I forgot what else I ate that night, but a tattoo caught my attention. There was a bold letter on the bartender’s right forearm that resembled the “R” in R’evolution’s logo. None of the other bartenders had the same branding, and I soon learned that the name of the man with the “R” tattoo was Randy. The tattoo had preceded his employment at R’evolution.
“Death by Gumbo, Crabmeat Beignets and oysters on the half-shell – our three most popular food selections at the bar. Folks like eating in our relaxed and lively atmosphere,” says Randy Colbus, a lead bartender at Bar R’evolution since they opened with a bang last June. He was lured to New Orleans by food, drink and a girlfriend similarly named Randi. “On a busy night at least half our bar customers are eating at the bar. They include walk-ins to the restaurant, out-of-towners traveling alone and folks out for a grazing who want a quick in-and-out bite, in addition to our local destination bar diners.”
All the bartenders are stars who know food as well as drink, but wait until you meet the directors of their 10,000-bottle wine cellar. Wine director Molly Wismeier is as pretty as she is knowledgeable, and her dapper assistant Matthew Allen visits the bar as well as tables with recommendations that shouldn’t be ignored. For example, a perfect Loire Valley cabernet to pair with one of their signature appetizers, a pair of long-roasted bones sawed down the middle presented with a marrow spoon best shared to reserve stomach space for other courses.
In a recent tour of the wine cellar, Wismeier showed two friends visiting from Virginia and me some of their older wines in the cellar, including a 1929 Maury she described as “lighter than a port but with all that fruit.” We were snagged once we heard it was available by the glass and were soon back at the bar with three glasses. The $35 a glass price tag breaks down to 42 cents a year for an 84-year-old wine that rested in casts for decades before being bottled in the 2000s. I think that it was the first wine I drank that was older than I am.
Mr. B’s Bistro and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
“The BBQ shrimp is our most popular entrée. Other favorites at the bar are Gumbo Ya Ya, Crab Cakes and Duck Spring Rolls,” said manager Larry Sherman on a recent Saturday afternoon. The lunch crowd fueled by $3 Bloody Marys and martini specials filled the entire dining room and every seat at the long bar. Food at the bar is best enjoyed on days and times when the restaurant isn’t packed.
Anything on the full menu is also available at the Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse bar around the corner from Mr. B’s Bistro. Every place at the bar and all the bar tables were completely set for dining early one recent Thursday night. In fact, I hear dining at their lively bar there is more popular than their subterranean dining room.
Touche Bar at the Omni Royal Orleans.
“Honey, here is our bar menu, but you can have anything you want from inside, too. You want prime rib, I go and get you prime rib. You need a Rib Room menu, too? I got one here, but let me check on the specials,” said Donna Seyer who has held court at the Touché for the past 14 years and is easily the Royal Street grand dame of bar dining.
“Everybody figures I’m from Chalmette when they hear me talk. I do live in Chalmette, but I’m from here. I made my first communion at the Cathedral and attended the St. Louis school on Dauphine Street.”
The bar is Seyer’s stage and the customers are supporting actors – not audience. The Touché is lunch day headquarters for several French Quarter business owners and shopkeepers. On busy days, they even call Seyer to order food to go. The bar still has house accounts for the long-term regulars. A federal judge and his buddies show up for lunch followed by a card game in an adjoining lower level room one day a week. Several “regulars” are out of town guests who check into the hotel and immediately report to Touché for their waking hours, enjoying Seyer, other customers, ambiance, food, drink and a changing street scene as the world turns.
“It is a hotel bar, but at least 50 percent local. Last night it was 90 percent local. My favorite is the debris roast beef poor boy. My wife loves the potato skins stuffed with cheese and prime rib debris. We eat here at least three or four times a week,” said a retired physician who requested anonymity, as I suspect his children have no idea how much time their retired parents spend in a bar.
On the doctor’s suggestion I ordered the famed prime beef debris poor boy. It was served on Leidenheimer bread annointed with a generous portion of horseradish mayonnaise and extra gravy on the side. It was obvious what all the adulation was about. I had no idea there was a debris poor boy this good outside of Mother’s. An attorney from Mississippi sitting nearby and watching all the commotion had a hungry look in his eye. He asked Donna if he could get a half-sized order. This was my salvation, as there was no way I could consume a whole one, so Donna brought out another setup and we shared.
“We love our bar diners. We treat them like family,” said James Conte, co-owner of the 10-year-old Meauxbar Bistro. “Our typical bar diner starts with a gin martini or maybe our Martini Indochine. Our petite plates are perfect for bar dining with maybe a soup du jour or salad, or a pâté special along with a salad.”
The steak tartare and flash fried oyster salad are two popular small plates for bar dining, but my favorite is the entrée-sized bouillabaisse, easily one of the best in the city. Their version has a light “nectar of the gods” saffron broth. The chef adds seasonal seafoods in the proper order for each to be perfectly poached, and finishes the presentation with a thick slice of French bread rubbed with garlic and a generous dab of rouille. Once you sample bouillabaisse at Meauxbar, you’ll have no tolerance for the heavy tomato sauce varieties filled with overcooked pieces of seafood that give this dish a bad name.
Even though Meauxbar has “bar” in its name, this small bistro has only four or so comfortable and nicely spaced stools. Its location on North Rampart Street near the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts makes this a tough reservation on show nights, but a solo at the bar is usually easy to capture.
The Pelican Club.
A friend suggested I try a steak at the bar. My 16-ounce, perfectly cooked rare rib eye was crowned with crispy fried onion rings and corralled on three sides by tasty sides – corn so fresh it shivered with cob separation anxiety, green beans fenced in by a few asparagus spears and mashed potatoes nicely scented but not overly drenched with the now ubiquitous truffle oil. I called chef Richard Hughes the next day to tell him how good the steak was and to get his opinion on bar diners.
“We cut all our meat daily. The beef is all USDA prime. Each steak is brushed with a little butter and grilled. No secrets,” said Hughes, who has been slinging some good-tasting hash at his “house of huge portions” since 1990. “Last night our bar was filled with diners. In years past bar diners were people from out of town traveling alone, but more and more locals both solo and in pairs are eating at the bar. Our menu is perfect for bar dining as we have an extensive appetizer selection. And we’ll serve you anything we cook at the bar.”
The bar at Pelican Club sits 10. Five people were eating the weekday night I visited, and I knew three of them. On my right was a health law attorney I hadn’t seen in 20 years. On my left were Kate Lutken Bruno and Stephen LaRue, who told me they enjoy bar dining all over town. They suggested that I give the bar at Iris a try, and I did the next day for lunch.
Iris at the Bienville House Hotel.
Iris can be entered from North Peters or Decatur streets, and is about three blocks from Canal Street, which isn’t on any of my regular French Quarter routes. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t been there. As is my custom, I took the last and fifth stool closest to the bar service area. My only dining companions at the bar were bottles of Sheep Dip, Knob Creek, undiluted Maker’s Mark and Redbeast directly facing me. I also eyed a seven-bottle collection of exotic bitters, which I understand are expertly used by one of the city’s most creative bartenders.
Since this was my first visit to Iris, I did the old chicken trick. A perfectly roasted or grilled chicken is the signature of a good kitchen. I wasn’t disappointed. Other highlights I sampled included tasty bruschetta and bresola small plates. The kitchen uses almost all locally grown greens and herbs. A tidbit I picked up at the bar: the bread is now from a Maple Street baker as baking in-house has been on hold since chef Ian Schnoebelen recently opened Mariza in Bywater featuring contemporary cooking with a nod towards Italy.
Hermes Bar at Antoine’s.
Much like a grandparent comes to life with the birth of a first grandchild, the Hermes Bar has energized this trans-generational culinary museum. The bar menu features some items not on the main menu including Oyster Foch and Shrimp Reuben poor boys, but the “big boss” here lets you order anything on either menu.
For that kind of day when you crave eating at a bar in solitary splendor, think Galvez.
Galvez is white tabletop dining with the full menu highlighting tasty tapas and paella offerings. As far as the view and service goes, it’s at the top of its ethnic pyramid in our city blessed with a flood of Hispanic food trucks since Hurricane Katrina.
If it weren’t for Bernardo de Galvez, we might be celebrating the Queen’s Birthday each year instead of the Fourth of July. He was proclaimed a Revolutionary War hero for his military activities in this area. Our early city leaders named a busy street in his honor. To commemorate our bicentennial, Spain sent a statue of Galvez on a horse that stands guard by the defunct World Trade Center, not the best view in town. In contrast, the restaurant named in his honor has one of the best dining views of the Mississippi River south of Memphis.
In memoriam and a toast to the future.
Like life, French Quarter living and eating has its moments of sadness.
Bar regulars as well as occasional guests at Tujaque’s mourned Steven Latter’s premature death last February. Nola.com food writer Susan Langenhennig described his favorite perch in the bar, as “a throne-like Crown Royal chair, which he haggled out of his liquor distributor.” No visit to New Orleans is complete without a beef brisket poor boy or an order of their chicken bonne femme, featured last year in the French Quarter dining update. The portions are huge, so bring a friend to share.
As you enter Broussard’s, the wall tiles designed by Joe Segreto depict the establishment’s Italian and Sicilian heritage along with a tribute to Napoleon. I pass the large dining rooms and make a beeline for the nine-stool bar that opens onto a courtyard with the largest wisteria in the French Quarter. The bar was surprising empty one recent cold February night.
“I guess you haven’t heard the news. It was supposed to be a secret, but it happens next week so I guess I can talk. The Preuss’ are selling,” said longtime bartender Mary Jackson. Those of us who followed Chef Gunter Preuss and his wife, Evelyn, from Versailles Restaurant to Broussard’s many moons ago will miss these two great folks at the restaurant. However, I hope we see more of them around the French Quarter that they call home as they enjoy a well-deserved retirement.
Find Them Here
819 Conti St.
214 Royal St.
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse
716 Iberville St.
914 N. Peters St.
713 Saint Louis St,
Iris at the Bienville House Hotel
321 N. Peters St.
942 N. Rampart St
Mr. B’s Bistro
201 Royal St.
777 Bienville St.
The Pelican Club
312 Exchange Place
Omni Royal Orleans
512 Royal St.
823 Decatur St.