Picking a beer at Cooter Brown’s Tavern and Oyster Bar has always required careful consideration, with dozens of local and imported drafts and many more choices in bottles. These days, the new owners of the venerable watering hole are considering that selection especially closely themselves.
Cooter Brown’s, the bar at the elbow of the Riverbend famous for its massive beer selection and late-night oysters, has changed hands.
Founder Larry Berestitzky sold the business recently to a new ownership group that includes Ivan Burgess and David Brown, co-owners of the Warehouse District bar the Rusty Nail, along with Jeff O’Brien and Lee Gold, who are both bartenders at the Rusty Nail.
“We’re excited and also a little overwhelmed by the opportunity,” said Burgess. “I think Cooter’s is one of the places everyone in the city had been to at least once. We’re going to take our time here and respect the history and spirit of this place. We’re not going to turn it into a martini bar or cocktail lounge.”
Cooter Brown’s will keep its name, and Burgress said the bar would remain open through whatever changes they eventually make here.
The first order of business thus far in their tenure has been to start assessing Cooter Brown’s beer selection.
Long before the current craft beer boom, Cooter Brown’s served a Noah’s Ark worth of brew from every corner of the globe.
As the beer scene has changed, with better access to craft beers and vastly more small breweries out there, Burgess and his partners want to align the inventory with the best choices.
“We’re going to cultivate it and make sure we’re serving something because we want that beer, not just because it’s been there a long time,” he said.
Nearly all of the Cooter Brown’s staff stayed through the transition, Burgress said. That includes Vince D’Aquila, the affable oyster shucker known for his cool efficiency while plating up quick dozens on busy nights.
The tavern kitchen continues to serve its lengthy menu of specialty sandwiches and bar snacks.
Cooter Brown’s dates back to 1978, when Berestitzky bought a bar called Hucks and changed the name. It initially had a modest selection of beer reflecting the times, though this grew in stride with the availability of more imports and the return of American craft brewing in the 1980s.
As taps proliferated and row after row of beer coolers lined the walls, it soon found a niche as a beer bastion for New Orleans.
The number of TV screens multiplied, too, giving Cooter’s a following for fans of sports teams whose games weren’t likely to be shown elsewhere.
While forests of beer taps and banks of TV screens are now commonplace at newer bars, Cooter Brown’s also accumulated another sort of collection that remains much more unique.
Dubbed the “Celebrity Hall of Foam and Beersoleum,” this collection takes the form of small caricatured statues of dead celebrities displayed just under the bar’s low ceilings. Each one poses holding a beer with some significance to his or her own legacy or reputation. So, Louis Armstrong holds a bottle of Dixie. “Dracula” star Bela Lugosi displays a beer called Evil Eye. Jimi Hendrix hoists a Purple Haze. And Alfred Hitchcock brandishes a Dead Guy.
On it goes, through some 100 caricatures, puns and inside jokes, all the work of Scott Conary, an artist who once worked in Cooter Brown’s kitchen.
Burgress said that of course the statues will stay.
“Some people have been worried about them,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere, but we might dust them.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.