French Quarter Drinking Companions
According to their book, the last time the authors of the French Quarter Drinking Companion were in The Golden Lantern, they had a typically weird New Orleans experience, and were frantically writing country lyrics on napkins to use as cue cards for the drag queens (“the oldest in captivity”) who were too drunk to remember their lyrics.
Heady times, though it’s a trifle more sedate as we meet on a Sunday afternoon in the back/side bar for a cocktail. The Backside Bar would be an apt name for the room we’re in, come to think of it,especially given the glimpse of the Tom of Finland posters form the bathrooms. In any case, there’s only occasional rowdiness due to a televised sportsball game in the front bar.
Allison Alsup, Elizabeth Pearce and Richard Read are the aforementioned authors: whip-smart, NOLA-savvy, long-time drinking friends with an irresistibly sharp wall of repartee and raconteur-ism that takes in literature, show tunes and, of course, where to drink in the hundred-odd watering holes that pepper the iron-wrought confines of the French Quarter.
“So this guide book,” I say. “I’ve dipped into it and it’s not really a 'Guide Book', is it?”
“I really hope people read this from cover to cover,” says Allison. “It’s more like a biography of the Quarter. It gives a real sense of what the neighbourhood is about. It’s more like a feeling, a revelation.”
“It’s like a memoir,” says Richard. “The best memoirs might not be authoritative, but they provide beautiful snapshots, great little moments that capture essences.”
This is an accurate summary. The entries for each bar aren’t a list of amenities or what beers are on tap. They’re a lowdown of who you’re drinking with, the music on the jukebox, what your tab is likely to be and what tattoos people are sporting. The snapshots arrive as endlessly entertaining tales of the evening’s happenings as some combination of the writers has a drink there.
As Alison says, “It’s not fact-based. We’re trying to get the spirit and the feeling of the places. The smells.”
“Which is why we’re sitting in front of a mens’ room right now,” says Richard.
The idea for the book came about in 2009, Allison and Elizabeth enlisting Richard over drinks at the swanky French 75 Bar. The book sold via an editor friend and suddenly the gang had 90-odd bars to review in about five months. I wondered how the research and writing duties broke down. Did you all go to each bar once?
“There were some we visited twice,” says Elizabeth. “There are well over 100 places to order a drink in the Quarter. We weren’t familiar with some, so we went twice to some of those. We didn’t ask our significant others where they wanted to go for a drink - we TOLD them. We enlisted some people for a Bourbon Street excursion and it was fun to pull in friends but mostly it was just the three of us.”
“I did a lot of the daiquiri bars,” says Allison. “I also ended up getting a lot of Bourbon Street bars, but I really came to appreciate Bourbon Street and I used to hate it. Seeing where the rest of the world is coming to and finding that place where they can do whatever they want. It’s smelly and loud and there’s khaki pants and everyone looks at each other like they’re getting away with something. I see its place. You see something about human behaviour.”
“We put off Bourbon Street but when we finally hit it, it was wild. I mean, you have to be primed, but we walked into Crazee Corner and suddenly we’re ordering shots and shouting and singing ANYWAY YOU WANT IT WHOOOOHOOO…”
“We crossed a threshold, I swear,” says Allison.
Although the initial audience is tourists, this is a book for locals, too.
“It’s a guide to a mysterious place,” says Elizabeth. “We’re like three Virgils! But locals love it too. They recognise their favourite bars and can look and see places they’ve never been.”
“Also, I get house guests and though I know where I want to go, I want to give my friends a bit more range,” says Richard. “Now I have something I can give them and say, hey, read this. It suggests places that may be off my radar. It substitutes for a lot shepherding we have to do here sometimes.”
I tell them I think that the Golden Lantern is the perfect example of what a good Quarter bar should be. It’s far enough from the tourists, has devoted locals, is just gay enough and there’s always a noteworthy incident. I’ve personally always had to story to tell. I say that the reason I like French Quarter bars is that they aren’t cliquey. You can sit down next to anyone.
“It’s for everyone,” says Alison “You see all kinds of people.”
“It’s compressed,” says Richard. “There are only so many places to go. My favourite examples are The Abbey or Molly’s – the great melting pots. The gutter punks, the old drunks, suits, a wedding party…”
“And you get that at the higher end,” says Elizabeth. “At the Carousel (in the Monteleone Hotel). People arrive in different states of dress, metal t-shirts, suits, states of undress and they all come in to get a drink. So it’s not just neighbourhood bars. Nobody is running you out, unlike certain bars uptown”
So everyone gets a chance, right?
“Let’s just say everyone’s money is good,” says Elizabeth.
“If you’re coming in vertically, you’re OK.,” says Richard. A pregnant pause. “Leaving is a different matter.”
Buy the French Quarter Drinking Companion on Amazon
Elisabeth Pearce runs a great New Orleans Cocktail Tour
MORE: The Shandypockets guide to your new favourite cocktail bars