New Orleans is, and has always been, renowned for its nightlife and bar scene. It’s the birthplace of the Sazerac, the Ramos Fizz, the Vieux Carre, the Hurricane, and several other classic cocktail. It has a long history with the Caribbean rum industry. And today, it’s is a go-to drinking destination for local and world travelers alike.
However, sitting down for a drink in New Orleans is more than just a chance to kick back and order something fancy looking. The city’s oldest bars can take you back in time. They can connect you with important political, economic, and societal changes that were taking place in this country across the epochs. They can put you in the same seat as a number of historical figures who have owned and patroned these establishments. Here’s just a few of the most historically rich bars you should visit when you’re in New Orleans.
1. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was built between 1722 and is currently the oldest structure used as a bar in the United States. The original blacksmith shop used by the notorious Lafitte Brothers, Jean and Pierre, as a front for their Barataria smuggling operation. Like many places in New Orleans and particularly the French Quarter, Lafitte’s is rumored to be haunted by these pirates spirits. Patrons and bartenders claim to have spotted Jean Lafitte sitting with a drink in the back of the bar, as well as a mysterious female ghost that sometimes appears in a mirror on the building’s second floor.
2. The Carousel Bar
Located inside of the Hotel Monteleone, guests can enjoy a drinking experience like no other, atop an actual revolving indoor carousel. The bar slowly revolves at one revolution per 15 minutes, and at just 1/4 horsepower, you don’t have to worry about getting dizzy. Built in 1949, the bar itself is perhaps one of the newest features at the Hotel Monteleone, which dates back to 1886. In its earlier days, celebrities such as Liberace would come in for a nightcap after performing at the hotels Swan Room.
Famous Patrons: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Liberace.
Tujague is the second-oldest bar in the cities, and is known for being the first stand-up bar in the city. This allowed those arriving on horseback to enjoy a drink with their fellow patrons.
Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague established Tujague’s Restaurant in 1856 after immigrating to America from Bordeaux France. They were known to serve a delicious breakfast and lunch to local dock workers, market laborers, and seamen who regularly spent time on the riverfront.
In 1982, when Steven Latter bought the business, and has made it his mission to restore the restaurant it to its earlier state. He has even resurrected many of the restaurant’s culinary traditions. Today, customers are served its traditional Tujague’s specialties including shrimp remoulade, beef brisket with horseradish, “cap” bread, and dark coffee in shot glasses.
Famous Patrons: Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and France’s De Gaulle; as well as Cole Porter, O. Henry, Diane Sawyer, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford, Margot Kidder, Dan Akroyd, Ty Cobb, and John D. Rockefeller.
4. Pat O’Brien’s
Pat O’Brien’s is famous for two things: Hurricanes and the piano bar. Pat O’Brien’s started as an illegal establishment during Prohibition, but converted to a full-bar once the ban on alcohol was lifted. In 1940, they invented the now famous Hurricane cocktail, a staple of New Orleans bars ever since. Today, patrons enjoy old timey tunes at the piano bar as they sip on their signature drinks.
5. The Napoleon House
The building’s owner and former Mayor of New Orleans, Nicholas Girod, expected to use this home as an asylum for an exiled Napoleon in 1821. Napoleon never made it, but the name stuck. Since then, the location has been a regular spot for artists and writers throughout the 20th century. The bar regularly play Beethoven’s Eroiqua, which Beethoven composed for Napoleon, as well as music from other classical masters.
Famous Patrons: Andy Warhol
6. Old Absinthe House
Built in 1806, the building was originally used for importing food, tobacco and Spanish liqueur, but in 1815, the ground floor was converted into a saloon known as “Aleix’s Coffee House,” later renamed “The Absinthe Room” when mixologist Cayetano Ferrer created the signature Absinthe House Frappe in 1874.
During prohibition, the bar was moved to a secret warehouse to hide it from the authorities, but it returned to its original location in early 2004. After a 3 million dollar renovation to return it to its turn-of-the-century style, The Old Absinthe House today has the original marble fountains that were used to drip cool water over sugar cubes into glasses of Absinthe. It is now operated by Tony Moran, himself the son of a New Orleans legend — “Diamond Jim” Moran.
Famous Patrons: Jean Lafitte, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, Frank Sinatra, Robert E. Lee, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Jenny Lind, Enrico Caruso, Liza Minelli, and Frank Sinatra.
7. Henry’s Uptown Bar
Henry’s Uptown Bar has been around since 1900 and today is fourth generation family owned. The first generation of owners were Irish immigrants named James Lee and Margaret Tully Lee. Their son-in-law Edward Crone took over before his daughter, Dorothy Crone, married Henry Gogreve, the bar’s namesake and took ownership in 1946.
Henry was a well known member of the community, and the reason many local customers called Henry’s Uptown Bar their regular spot. He operated the business well into his late 80’s and passed away in 2010 at the age of 91. Today, it is under the ownership and management of his children, who continue to display his trademark hospitality.
Famous Patrons: Lee Harvey Oswald was a regular. Josh Brolin was once asked to leave for throwing darts.
Count Arnaud was a headstrong, local wine merchant who opened Arnauds in 1918 after making a wager with his customers that he could make it successful. He did, and Arnauds and it’s owner have has had a colorful past ever since. During prohibition, Arnaud received multiple fines for serving alcohol, and was even jailed once for refusing to stop.
Today, the restaurant operates with two bars: the French 75 and the Richelieu Bar. French 75 originally served as a “gentlemen only area” when it was established, and served as a gathering place for businessmen to congregate after a days work. Richelieu Bar was opened just a year before Count Arnaud’s death in 1948. While the bar was recently renovated, the bar’s original mahogany finish and dedicated patrons remain.
9. Sazerac Bar
The Sazerac Bar is named after what many consider to be the world’s first mixed drink: the Sazerac. But the bar has a lot more history than just its signature drink. The Sazerac Bar is allegedly the reason that Huey P Long built the Airline Highway (so he could get from Baton Rouge to his favorite drink cocktail, a Ramos Gin Fizz, as quickly as possible) and why the Kingfish flew its bartender to NYC to teach his staff how to make his favorite cocktails the way he liked them. This bar is also the location of “The Stormin’ of the Sazerac” in 1949 which ended with the admittance of women into the establishment for the first time. It is still celebrated every September 30th.
Famous Patrons: Huey P. Long.
Obviously, there are hundreds of other bars you can visit while you’re in New Orleans, but you would be missing out if you didn’t try to connect to the towns illusive history full of intrigue, mystery, wild characters, and most importantly: some of the world’s greatest drinks. Cheers!