A cocktail crawl through the French Quarter, to the ambitious but uninitiated, is a game of chance. Beating the odds and finding great drinks requires talking up the bar staff, asking lots of questions, and being open to some of the chattiest, most genuinely friendly people on earth. Along the way, make sure to find yourself bellied up to at least one of these five local favorites.
Catch this room on a quiet evening and it is, hands down, one of the loveliest of our nation's drinking establishments. Steeped in the history of the cocktail (and of the whole damn city, for that matter—don't miss the museum upstairs, a strange and personal homage to the Mardi Gras balls of yore), and decorated with a playful mix of elegance and oddity, French 75 has true style and grace. It's part of French Quarter institution Arnaud's, adjacent to the main dining room and yet a world all its own. Star bartender Chris Hannah continues to innovate and impress. His off-the-cuff invention during this writer's visit: a mix of Johnny Walker Red, Drambuie, a teaspoon of a homemade smoked apple butter, and a light squeeze of lemon, over ice.
French 75: 813 Rue Bienville, New Orleans, LA 70112; 504-523-5433, arnaudsrestaurant.com/french-75
Claiming Coyote Ugly as a neighbor may not be the most obvious signal for a great cocktail bar, but newcomer St. Lawrence is quickly on the rise as the French Quarter's patron saint. Since opening in June 2012, their elevated pub fare has begun attracting the best and hungriest of the afterwork kitchen set. Try the Resurrection Sazerac, which substitutes Old New Orleans 3-year Amber Rum for the traditional rye whiskey. It's completed with a rinse of Herbsaint, a touch of simple syrup and a couple dashes each of Angostura and Peychaud's.
St. Lawrence: 219 N. Peters, New Orleans, LA 70130; 504-525-4111
SoBou has a contemporary vibe, replete with a host of modern classics and inventions from leading lady Abigail Gullo. She's quickly gained the respect of the local talent after moving down from New York. One of her signature cocktails, the Charbonneau Way, is poetically expressive, both in its flavor profile and in its nod to the cobbled history of Gullo's adopted home. Sazerac rye and Bittermens Amère Sauvage are followed by fresh lemon juice and sweetened with maple syrup, poured in an absinthe-rinsed coupe and garnished with a delicate sprig of thyme.
SoBou: 310 Rue Chartres, New Orleans, LA 70130; 504-552-4095 sobounola.com
Bar Tonique is the sort of neighborhood bar that transcends its station. It's intimate yet spacious, dark but not at all seedy. And the drinks, especially when Sonali Fernando is behind the bar, come with a big sarcastic grin. Try a classic like their Punt e Mes-inflected Vieux Carré, or order one their house creations. The Blanche DuBois was first mixed up by owner Ed Diaz for the annual Streetcar festival. It's a riff on the original Trader Vic's Mai Tai, made with a strawberry muddled with spearmint leaves, mixed with housemade orgeat, Death's Door Gin, Senior Curacao of Curacao, and a squeeze of fresh lemon. If you're lucky, you'll get Sonali yelling "Stella!" at the top of her lungs. Bar Tonique's motto is spot on: this is a spot for hand-crafted cocktails without any pretense.
Bar Tonique: 820 N Rampart Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, 504-324-6045
Open late and serving up some of the cheapest drinks in town, Chart Room is a true local haunt. When asked about where French Quarter bartenders find themselves after work, Chris Hannah of French 75 said, "It's territorial. Bartenders from some bars end up at Pravda, others at Erin Rose." What about Chart Room? I asked. Hannah cracked a wide smile, the only one I'd seen him show all night. "Everybody loves Chart Room," he said. If that doesn't win you over, the open air corner setting, the rich flow of musicians in for a quick nip, and the French Quarter history covering every inch of wall and ceiling will. If you want to drink like a local in this soulful city, this is one bar not to miss.
Chart Room: 300 Rue Chartres, New Orleans, LA 70130; 504-522-1708