Posted November 17, 2015
By RENEE VESSELINOVITCH
NEW ORLEANS – Ask anyone who has been to New Orleans more than once about what keeps them coming back, and they’ll say it is the city’s decadent ways, all-night bars, fantastic food and great live music.
Specifically, what keeps me coming back is that “The Big Easy” is the city of jambalaya, Hurricanes and Hand Grenade drinks, the late Paul Prudhomme, Louis Armstrong, Bourbon Street, the beignets at Café du Monde and Pat O’Brien’s.
A trip to New Orleans is never complete without a stop at one or more of its famous piano bars. For my money Pat O’Brien’s is always worth the trip.
“Pat O’s” may not be the place where locals spend every weekend, but even New Orleans residents will sometimes find themselves there if only to hear to the nightly dueling pianos in one of the club’s several lounges.
Pat O’Brien’s is located smack dab in the center of the French Quarter, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the nation. So much of what makes New Orleans unique is experienced in the cultural melting pot atmosphere of the French Quarter, from rambunctious party vibe of Bourbon Street to the bohemian elegance of Royal Street.
The French Quarter is New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood and it is full of entertainment and fun. People come to the French Quarter to eat, drink, visit boutique and voodoo shops, and listen to jazz and other great music.
In late October, I had the opportunity to return to New Orleans and revisit two of the most iconic piano bars in the United States: Pat O’Brien’s and the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street.
Hands down, the best bar that I went to in New Orleans was the famous Pat O’Brien’s on St. Peter Street. Having only been there once before, I had forgotten that the bar is actually three different bars in one. When one first walks into to Pat O’Brien’s you wonder if you took a wrong turn because it doesn’t look like a French Quarter bar at all.
Upon entering, one walks down an open brick path toward an ancient courtyard, suddenly realizing that one is still outside with the open night sky above. I continued to look around in confusion because I could not seem to find the entrance to inside the bar.
A waitress who approached me immediately informed me that I was already inside the bar! It seemed to be as if I almost had walked into a small town. There was an entrance to a small bar to my left, an outdoor bar and seating area ahead of me, and the larger piano bar to my right.
Eager to get inside that piano bar, we were in what seemed to me a pretty long line. Waiting in a line ahead of us was a group of Asian tourists, a group of lecherous conventioneers, who seemed like they were looking for some action, a few groups of men and women who had come to town for a bachelor or bachelorette party, and a group of boisterous fraternity boys.
Considering the length of the line, I was pleasantly surprised that it only took us 15 minutes to get a table. We were lucky to get one of the best tables in the house that had just opened up and we were shown to a table front and center. Directly in front of me there was a woman pianist and facing her was a man pianist. Both sat at shiny, cooper-colored grand pianos.
They took turns preforming different versions of songs that almost everyone in the room could sing along to, including “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John, “Drive My Car” by the Beatles, and many more. This interactive entertainment at its best. The shiny, cooper-colored grand pianos I could tell by the level of intoxication of the people sitting at the tables surrounding us that Pat O’Brien’s doesn’t skimp on the alcohol.
A group of large men I had pegged as conventioneers, who had walked in just ahead of us, each seemed to sway precariously from only one drink. They seemed to take turns shouting out the lyrics. Obviously unaware how drunk they were each upon standing immediately seemed to lose their balance and sat right back down. One made a big show of applauding the pianists once the song had finished and made sure everyone saw him walk over to the pianos to place a single dollar in each tip jar.
The frat boys on the other side of us seemed to be requesting song after song without once thinking of tipping the performers. Obviously from somewhere in the South they shouted out the names of songs recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garth Brooks and Charlie Daniels. Then started hooting and clapping when the songs were played.
Those who could stand were singing loudly (and badly, I should add) along to the familiar songs; they were having the time of their lives. The drink of choice at Pat O’Brien’s is the “Hurricane”; a large, tall glass of rum and dark red tropical punch that costs $11 and was invented it here. It contains four ounces of rum and a fruity punch in its 12 ounces.
O’Brien is reported to have invented the Hurricane cocktail in the 1940s. It is a sweet, scarlet-colored, with a passion fruit punch flavor. The story behind the drink was that during World War II, it was extremely hard to import scotch so salesmen forced bar owners to buy up to 50 cases of their plentiful rum in order to secure a single case of good whiskey.
Bartenders at Pat O’Brien’s came up with a good recipe to reduce their surplus of rum. Then they decided to serve it in a tall glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. At the end of the evening, you have the option to keep the glass as a souvenir or return it for a $3 refund. If you choose to keep the glass, the serving staff will even pack it up for you in a protective box.
There are more than 200 piano bars in the French Quarter, and probably more than three on every street. The other piano bar I visited on this trip was called the Carousal Bar on Royal Street. It is located in the iconic Monteleone Hotel. This is my recommendation as a change from the bustle and madness of Bourbon Street.
Gone are the frat boys, lecherous conventioneers and loud bachelor/bachelorette partiers. The patrons of this bar exude class and style. This bar is known for its carousal-shaped bar that slowly turns in a circle, so slowly that I didn’t even know it was turning. But eventually, I noticed that we were sitting on the opposite side of the room from where we had originally sat down.
The Carousal had a very different vibe than Pat O’Brien’s. It reminded me more of an elegant, old, ritzy bar where people might go to enjoy the music and have a casual drink and, though the drinks were strong, no one was falling over or acting boisterous. The people at the table next to me were far more beautiful and well dressed than most of the people you will see in the French Quarter.
Since 1949, the rich and famous have frequented this bar, to inspire and to become inspired. The Carousel is designated an official Literary Landmark. It boasts an impressive roster of literary guests; including Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams have all sat at this famous bar.
Truman Capote liked to brag that he was born there. Although not quite true, his mother was living in the hotel when she went into labor. In addition, literary notables such as Williams, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Winston Groom were known to frequent the bar. Williams references it in “The Rose Tattoo” and “Orpheus Descending.”
The Carousel is also credited with inventing famous drinks as well; the Goody and The Vieux Carre Cocktail were first concocted at the Carousal Bar. Walter Bergeron, head bartender at the time, invented the Vieux Carre in 1939. The drink honors the ethnic groups who frequented the French Quarter at the time: Cognac for the French; Rye Whiskey for the Americans; Sweert Vermouth for the Italians and bitters for the Islanders.
The two piano bars offer two completely different experiences with lots of wonderful live music and plenty of heavy drinking. But they both make New Orleans a vacation destination worth visiting.
If You Go
- Location: 718 St. Peter St., New Orleans, La.
- Parking: Street.
- Dress Code: No dress code
- Hours: Mondays-Thursdays 12 p.m. until 3 a.m., Fridays-Sundays: 10 a.m until 4:30 a.m. kitchen open until 10 p.m.
- Entertainment schedule: http://www.patobriens.com/patobriens/neworleans/calendar.asp
- You’re Having: A Hurricane
- Location: 214 Royal St., New Orleans, La.
- Parking: Street; garage and valet parking for hotel guests
- Dress Code: No dress code
- Hours: 11 a.m. until late, seven days a week.
- Entertainment schedule: http://hotelmonteleone.com/entertainment/carousel-bar/
- You’re Having: A Vieux Carre = Hennessey cognac, Benedictine, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters.