Anytime something is labeled as ‘the best’ or ‘the greatest,’ it automatically sets itself up for intense scrutiny. This article may do the same, if you can be bothered going to this bar – the best in the world in my opinion – in the first place. It’s not the easiest place to get to. That is if you consider a short taxi ride from New Orleans’ historic French Quarter a pain in the butt. In many ways, I hope you don’t go there, or at least don’t tell everyone about it.
It seems fitting though, that I write about this place, given that the annual Tales of the Cocktail event wraps for another year. Here’s the usual scenario: It’s Sunday, I have the requisite Tales hangover, and as most people are lazing around the rooftop pool of the Hotel Monteleone baking in the July sun, or heading to the airport, a small group of us have snuck away deep into unchartered territory, away from the ubiquitous Tales mayhem, to a place where even very few locals have heard of: Bacchanal.
Let me paint a picture. On a very non-descript corner in a deserted part of town, near the Bywater, sits a very modest shop front that looks about as abandoned as many others in the area, the direct result of Katrina’s fury. Inside, it’s essentially a wine store, fridges on one side containing a small yet very interesting range of vino and some packaged cheese. You pay, they open your wine, you get your own wine glasses, your own wine bucket, your own ice. If cheese is your thing, a friendly server will plate it up for you.
Make your way through to a sprawling back yard that certainly isn’t winning any design awards. Furniture is a mish mash of rotting chairs, long boards resting on bricks, dirty plastic, milk crates and whatever else you can muster up once the place fills up. Which it does pretty quickly, especially on a Sunday, which is by far my favorite day at Tales. Around 5pm, a small band will start playing and one of the city’s leading chefs fires up the BBQ and cranks out restaurant quality food on paper plates for about $6-8 a pop.
It might be juicy corn doused in cheese, chili and lime like one might find in Mexico City. Maybe it will be chilled watermelon Gazpacho with local crab to cool you off; piquant ceviche of the local drum fish, fall apart short ribs braised in Rioja or to soak up all that wine, grilled chorizo on a hoagie bun with grilled peppers should do the trick. Tip: get in line early. If there isn’t a line, start one. Just bring your wine with you. You’ll be practically drooling on the fold out table into the tip jar by the time they open for business.
Make no mistake this place is about as bare bones as it gets. When I exclaim that this is my favorite bar in the world, several people I’ve taken here have been disappointed, perhaps expecting a cocktail here, a craft beer there. Nope and nope. Those people have not been invited back. Now, a small group of us convene there on the last Sunday, spending no less than eight hours at this oasis, forgetting for a short time everything in the outside world. We spend an obscene amount of money on chilled rose, which we enjoy, wait for it: in refreshing rose spritzers. Again, we sneak out, forgoing the never ending goodbyes and make our way to the beer Mecca, Cooter Browns or to Tujage’s for a Grasshopper. But that’s a whole other story...