Before we get into all the boozy fun of Tales of the Cocktail, let’s pay homage to where it all begins. New Orleans. One of the great cities of the world!
A cocktail convention in New Orleans might sound like something that is predictably decadent, and one of the best things about Tales of the Cocktail is that it is constantly in flux. There are elements one can depend on, of course – late nights, lack of sleep, fried food, a lot of batched punch, and most importantly, the people and the place. However, there are times the twain don’t always need to meet. And after doing this for a few years now, I realize that’s OK.
The TOTC schedule is painstakingly coordinated so that on a given day, one can easily stay busy attending seminars, tastings, events and parties from when the rooster crows till, well, just before he has to crow again early the next morning. It’s a fun and impressive feat of stunt-drinking if kept at the proper pacing. This is an international convention, which means opportunities to meet people from everywhere who all share common booze interests. You can have conversations with them while sipping from a fountain of punch in a teacup as a classic jazz band plays in the ballroom of one of the most glamorous, iconic establishments in the country.
But sometimes, you just need to get away while staying very much present.
After a couple of days of this, while loving the people and the situations, it’s time to be in New Orleans. See other faces than the ones you’ve been drinking with all day. Don’t get me wrong. It feels glorious to be in the midst of the crowd of off-duty bartenders, brand managers and writers packed into and spilling outside of the Old Absinthe House, adopted as the official hang because it’s between the Monteleone (TOTC HQ 1) and the Royal Senesta (TOTC HQ 2). There’s real love to be felt there. We can finally be off the punch and onto the beer! (And if doing so, drink local with Abita.) We made it through another day and we’re gonna rise again! Maybe a little later than expected. But yeah!
Except by that time of the evening, after we’ve all been partying, I might want another drink, but I don’t want another party. Which is why I head around the corner to the Chart Room. The bartenders are absolute sweethearts and the epitome of hospitality (one time they even offered my friend part of a really good sandwich they’d been saving when it was too late to get delivery), and despite its location in a very touristy section of the French Quarter, it’s not on Bourbon St., and most of the customers are locals. It’s the sort of place to which one can go alone and feel welcome, and choose to not be alone for very long, or have some private quiet time. No one
there is going to make you a Ramos Gin Fizz. They probably don’t even have fresh juice. Rather, think of it as your oasis between cocktails.
What to do with a night off
If you have some free time in the late evening, stroll away from the French Quarter into the Marigny to listen to music. Just as art moved out of SoHo in New York City, music, real music, moved out of Bourbon St. in New Orleans decades ago. A lot of it made its way to Frenchman St., where one can wander in and out of most clubs and take in some impressive talent playing all kinds of jazz, reggae, soul and pop, and combinations thereof. Incidentally, d.b.a. is one of the few with a cover, but the bands are usually worth it and there are great things to drink while listening. I’m lucky to be friends with a local trumpet player, Mike Kobrin, and two of his bands, both groovy and energetic – Another Day in Paradise and the Dana Abbott Band – are regulars at Cafe Negril. It’s easy to wander in there, get caught up in the pulse of the music and the place, and end up making new friends. If one is feeling peckish, 13 is the perfect hang to refuel with some substantial snacks and decent drinks, plus it’s one of the few with good vegetarian options, (if you like that sort of thing.) While there, it’s worth taking your go cup to the Frenchman Art Market, a late night outdoor fair showcasing wares from talented local artists such as Small Change Finery. If you’re not in the mood for music or after the bands pack up, another great neighborhood dive is The John. I’m sure the decor in the corner seemed like a good idea at the time, but ignore that and just hang out. Spacious, comfortable, sweet bartenders, good jukebox, cool local crowd, they even project classic movies. What’s not to love?
Though I didn’t get to do it this trip, if you’re feeling even more adventurous, get yourself to Tipitinas, one of the Uptown “neighborhood juke joints.” There is usually a line outside, but it moves quickly, and the energy within is worth it. Or take the Canal St. Ferry across the Mississippi to Algiers. Sequin St. exists in Algiers. So does Pelican St. Go there just to say, “Meet me on the corner of Pelican and Sequin.” There are more places there to hear music too, like the Old Point Bar.
For when you need to refuel
Before the parties get into full swing, you should eat a good dinner. Just outside the Quarter, across Canal, is the Warehouse District, a quiet, residential neighborhood with some of the most exciting new cuisine in town such as Cochon and their sister restaurant Herbsaint, and there’s also Coquette and many others. Reserve an evening with friends to do this. You can even sneak in a ride on the Charles St. streetcar!
For a respite when it’s easier just to stay closer to the action
If between TOTC events in the Quarter, go around the corner from the Monteleone and say hi to one of our favorite drinkstresses, Abigail Giullo, at SouBou. While dining on fantastic small plates such as alligator sausage, refreshing tomato and corn salad, oyster tacos and BBQ ribs with ghost pepper cotton candy (you gotta try it!), she might send out a little “Trouble Tree” of mini drinks (“shots” don’t do them justice) if you’re nice. Coconut water be damned! At lunch, an Amaro Negroni with a side of their housemade Bloody Mary Mix is a much better way to cure what ails you the day after the night before.
Alligator also finds its way into an outstanding, tangy twist on the Middle Eastern shakshukah egg dish at Kingfish, which also excels in cocktails and other delectable bites large and small. But if you’re not in the mood to triumph quite so high on the food chain or more on a budget, you can’t go wrong with any of the NOLA trifecta of fried – Mena’s Palace, Mother’s and Coop’s Place.
On Chartres, definitely make a point of stopping into Crescent City Books, boasting rare and vintage finds, including an astounding collection of cookbooks and cocktail manuals. It’s a great spot to discover the work of local Louisiana writers and find new classics.
Speaking of classic, pay respect to Galatoire’s, one of the “grand dames” of French Quarter dining. Just put on your gladrags and do it, especially for weekend lunch. Before you are seated, they ask if you have a favorite waiter. If you don’t have one, upon dining there, you soon will. Though the jackets-required atmosphere may seem stuffy, it’s surprisingly transportive, relaxing and supremely delicious, specializing in fresh fish and flavorful interpretations of time-honored New Orleans cuisine such as Turtle Soup. Order a Café Brulot, a flaming, spiced coffee punch served table side. It’s one of the only places that will make it now.
Not to harsh on Tales of the Cocktail or any of the attendees, but participating in a convention of that scale, for that many days requires mental as well as physical balance. After learning about the history of ice, or trying out new mezcals and small batch whiskeys or sipping in time to the beats at the elaborate warehouse party you waited so long in line to get into, it’s a shame to be in New Orleans without being in New Orleans. Make the time. You’ll see most of these people again next week and by then you’ll miss them. So hop in a cab across town with someone you just met and strike up a conversation with the driver, who undoubtedly has a great story about why they live there. Because, after all, few people move to New Orleans. They end up there.