Hotel Bars: The Classic Formula

John Rankin at the Columns Hotel. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

John Rankin at the Columns Hotel. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

"I’m allergic to wine. It’s the sulfites. But I’d drink beer anyhow, because I love beer. This is Nola Blonde, and I love the dark Covington Bock. I usually order two at the same time—one for now and one for later—so I don’t have to stop and take a break."

It is said that Governor Huey P. Long had a personal stake in the construction of Airline Highway because it would cut 40 miles out of his trip from Baton Rouge to the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. One of the Kingfish’s favorite haunts in his heyday, he once flew a Sazerac bartender to New York, just to show the barkeeps there how to make a proper Ramos Gin Fizz, his drink of choice.

Today, nearly eight decades since Long’s last Fizz, it doesn’t feel like much has changed at the Sazerac Bar. The drink menu still offers many of the cocktails that New Orleans is famous for. The original bar top and décor remain, and murals on the wall hark back to that Golden Age of the Crescent City. But a lot has happened between then and now. The Roosevelt has changed owners and names several times. In 2005, the hotel closed indefinitely because of damage from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It reopened in 2009, with all of the elegance and splendor of the original hotel restored.

The reopening of the Sazerac Bar is part of a greater movement in the Crescent City. Once the center of social life in the city and a symbol of its elegance, the hotel bar had fallen from its position of prominence. Hotels had abandoned the old template of large clubs with vast musical offerings, instead opting for a more low-key atmosphere. Gradually, people began frequenting other venues for music and cocktails, and the hotel bar lost its grip on New Orleans’ social scene. That trend is turning around now, with many of the city’s hotels placing a new emphasis on their bars, beefing up their drink menus and adding other draws, such as musical attractions and happy hours.

Today’s hotel bars are looking into New Orleans’ rich cocktail history for inspiration, in some cases featuring cocktails that lost their popularity nearly a century ago. Bellocq, the bar at the recently renovated Hotel Modern, specializes in cobblers, 19th-Century cocktails made with fortified wines, citrus and berries. Kirk Estopinal, Bellocq’s manager, explains, “Most of our drinks are historical recipes, or built upon classic formulas.”

They are not the only bar to do this. Most hotel bars showcase New Orleans’ classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac, the Gin Fizz and the Dark and Stormy. Russ Bergeron, bartender and historian at the Sazerac Bar, says, “We don’t think we’re retro, we’re just carrying the torch on from the decades and decades of bartenders that have worked here and made this place great.”

Anais St. John at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Photo by Golden Richard III.

Anaïs St. John at Hyatt Regency. Photo: Golden Richard III.

"I do a grand show in a grand room because I’m a grand performer. I like to drink champagne because it’s light and makes me feel like I’m doing something special. My favorite cocktail is the French 75, with champagne, gin, lemon and simple syrup. It’s a grand drink."

The aesthetics of the hotel bar are changing as well. The grandeur and elegance of the Jazz Age bars is coming back. New renovations feature hardwood bar tops, crystal chandeliers and bandstands. The bartenders’ uniforms are refined, complete with jackets and ties. The Victorian Lounge at the Columns has the look of a century-old bar, even though it’s only three decades old. Bergeron says, “People walk in here and expect that classic bar experience.” The overall effect can be unsettling at first. Entering a place like the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone feels like stepping into a time machine. Even when it underwent massive renovations in 2011, adding a second, stationary bar, the historic watering hole still took great pains to preserve and honor its legacy, leaving its namesake—the iconic, rotating bar—unaltered.

Not all hotels have as rich a history from which to draw. Bellocq offers a more modern take, combining the configuration of a French salon and the aesthetics of a modern lounge “with some steampunk style thrown in,” as Estopinal puts it. The Loa Bar in the International House Hotel tries for a grander feel, with plush furniture and large chandeliers. Others, such as Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta, draw inspiration from jazz clubs, with low lighting, prominent stages, and smaller, more intimate settings.

While the resurgence of the hotel bar is partially based on nostalgia for bygone eras, these bars make plenty of tweaks to stay relevant on today’s bar scene. Aside from its list of traditional cocktails, the Sazerac Bar also features a seasonal menu, for which bartenders are encouraged to experiment and try out their own twists on classic drink mixes. Many hotel bars are placing greater emphasis on musical offerings in their nightly routines. Post-renovations, the Carousel Bar now gets some of New Orleans’ premier musicians and singers, such as Anaïs St. John, to perform. The Roosevelt Hotel will be adding a lounge next to the Sazerac Bar that will feature live performances, in order to compete with other local music venues.

Kipori Woods at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Kipori Woods at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

"I like Jack Daniels, or Jack and coke, but I usually drink red wine because I drank so much Jack Daniels before, and red wine is supposed to be good for you."

Several hotels have partnered with local jazz artists to further increase their appeal. The Ritz-Carlton’s Davenport Lounge is named after jazz trumpeter Jeremy Davenport, who performs regularly at the club. The partnership with Davenport gives the bar a presence on the city’s expansive music scene and affords tourists an opportunity to see high-quality New Orleans jazz in a refined setting. Trumpeter and cultural ambassador Irvin Mayfield teamed up first with the Royal Sonesta Hotel for Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse and more recently with the JW Marriott to create Irvin Mayfield’s I Club. Both clubs regularly present shows by Mayfield and other New Orleans musicians, providing nightly musical entertainment that had been lacking in the hotel bar scene until recently.

The culture around hotel bars is now starting to change. Estopinal says, “Hotel bars are getting more and more independent with operators outside of the hotel business. It’s no longer an afterthought to have a bar on the property, it’s an amenity.” Hotels are no longer content with a sterile environment where guests simply have a drink while they wait for their room to be ready. Bergeron agrees that people’s perspectives on hotel bars are changing. “The best thing that has happened in the last ten years is that people are starting to respect the craft of the [bartending] trade,” he says. Today’s customers want a classic cocktail made just right. For that, there is no better place than a hotel bar.

 

Here’s a selected list of hotel bars, most with music:

 

8 Block Kitchen & Bar, Hyatt Regency

Jazz Live at the Hyatt features music every Friday and Saturday evenings. The 70-seat bar features vintage-inspired cocktails, including the Honey Island—Old New Orleans Cajun Spice rum, honey, lemon, Peychaud bitters and cinnamon—inspired by the Honeysuckle Cocktail.

 

The Victorian Lounge, Columns Hotel

Opened in 1980, the Victorian Lounge has become one of New Orleans’ top destinations for an authentic, old-time bar experience. The high ceilings, hardwood furniture and low lighting create a refined ambiance that many bars have tried to replicate. The Lounge is known for its Sazeracs, Mint Jelups and Pimm’s Cups.

 

Bellocq, the Hotel Modern

This chic bar, located on Lee Circle, is a newcomer to the hotel bar scene. The red wallpaper and black furniture give the club a modern feel, while the cocktail menu takes patrons back in time with its classical offerings. Its specialty cocktails are its Cobblers.

 

Carousel Bar, the Hotel Monteleone

An icon of the New Orleans bar scene, the Carousel now features a new stationary bar behind its famous, revolving carousel bar. Large chandeliers and expansive windows highlight the newly added bandstand area. Specialty cocktails include the Sazerac, the Gin Fizz, and the Vieux Carré, made with cognac, Benedictine, rye whiskey and water.

 

Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, the Royal Sonesta

Located in the heart of the French Quarter, this jazz club features musical acts every night of the week. While the bar itself is not very large, the more intimate setting only enhances the live performances from the likes of Irvin Mayfield and his cohorts. Featured drinks are the Pear Flower—pear-infused vodka, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit and lemon juice—and a Cucumber Basil Martini made with tequila, agave nectar, ginger, pepper, cucumber and basil.

 

Irvin Mayfield’s I Club, JW Marriott

This CBD club offers all flavors of Louisiana music every Wednesday through Saturday. With performances from the likes of Kermit Ruffins or Mia Borders, the I Club has something for everyone. Its specialty drinks include the Sazerac, the Pimm’s Cup and the Mint Julep.

 

Davenport Lounge, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel

This expansive bar regularly features performances by jazz trumpeter Jeremy Davenport. Its featured drinks are the Ritz-Carlton Martini—gin, cucumber, mint, lime, and simple syrup—and the Sidecar—a mix of cognac, Cointreau and lemon sours.

 

Sazerac Bar, the Roosevelt Hotel

The Sazerac Bar reopened with an enhanced drink menu consisting of both traditional New Orleans cocktails and a seasonal menu of new takes on the classics. Its featured drinks are the Ramos Gin Fizz and its namesake, the Sazerac.

 

Loa Bar, the International Hotel

The Loa Bar, located in the heart of the CBD, offers a bright, comfortable place to grab a drink with a few friends. It offers a wide variety of cocktails, using many fresh fruit juices and extracts. Some specials include the Jinjin, a concoction of aperol, cognac, lemoncino, Belgian ale, Satsuma and cucumber juice, and the Canary, which combines gin, sake, Galliano, ginger, pineapple and lemon.

 

Polo Club Lounge, Windsor Court Hotel

Adjacent to the classic Grill Room Restaurant, the Polo Club Lounge features nightly jazz performances. It also offers custom cocktails including, The Vieux Carre—cognac, rye, sweet vermouth, Angostura and Peychaurd’s bitters—from house mixologist Christine Jeanine Nielsen and has one of New Orleans’ largest wine collections, selected by Sommelier Sara Kavanaugh.

 

Bar UnCommon, Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel

Specializing in both classic and new cocktails. Music every Friday night.