Chris Rudge, the founder of Bacchanal, a crumbling one-room wine shop that grew into one of the liveliest, most atmospheric music and dining destinations in New Orleans, died Friday at his home in Bywater. He was 40.
He had appeared to be in good health, and his death shocked friends.
Rudge, who had an easygoing charm and an unstoppable joie de vivre, was a virtual fixture at his hybrid store/restaurant/music club housed in a 200-year-old brick building at Chartres Street and Poland Avenue.
“He was here last night, hanging out, talking about the business,” said wine shop employee Erik Corveau, his eyes brimming. Rudge, he said, lived in a shotgun about two blocks from his business and “when he wasn’t at home, he was here.”
One of Bacchanal’s cooks slept at Rudge’s house on Thursday night, and in the early morning hours, he found Rudge sitting upright in an easy chair, unresponsive, according to one of Rudge’s partners. An autopsy is pending.
Rudge started the wine shop in 2002, a time when the prospect of a fine wine retailer at the far end of the Bywater might have seemed farfetched. At the time, the entire block around his shop was deserted.
“Our plan was to play backgammon, sip whiskey and drink wine — there really was nothing more to it,” said artist Matt Vis, a teacher at Delgado Community College who is also half of the duo that dubs itself Generic Art Solutions.
Vis had purchased the picturesque Poland Avenue building and surrounding land for $8,000 in 1997 and showed it to Rudge, who was looking for a space to open a wine shop. Rudge had learned about wine by working at Marisol, an ambitious but short-lived restaurant in the Marigny, where he’d become the sommelier. Vis rented the building to Rudge and was his partner in the shop at first. Later, Rudge and his mother bought the building from Vis.
By initially inviting an occasional guest chef or some musician friends to jam in the large fenced yard outside his little shop, Rudge eventually created a venue with the aura of a casual New Orleans backyard party.
“Everyone in the neighborhood just wanted a place to hang out,” said Beau Ross, 44, a partner at Bacchanal. “We eventually started bringing in guest chefs on Sunday, and that was immortalized on the HBO series ‘Treme.’ ” A close friend of Rudge’s since their student days at Florida State University, Ross moved to New Orleans with him.
He described how he once lived with Rudge and one of Rudge’s former girlfriends in a FEMA trailer pulled onto Bacchanal’s patio after Katrina. “A beautiful chaos,” he called those days.
Serving up both food and music without permits, “we did what we needed to do to survive after Katrina,” Ross said. After being shut down for code violations in 2011, Rudge added a balconied indoor bar. Every night, chef Joaquin Rodas, the third partner in the business, sends out plates from a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet. A stable of musicians plays there seven nights a week.
Rudge also sponsored events that helped Bacchanal live up to its name, such as the annual Rose Fest, a mass tasting of 200 or so pink wines from all over the world. He always wore a pink seersucker suit and an outlandish pink hat to the event and seemed to enjoy himself as much as the patrons.
The compound is so engaging that actor Will Smith recently tried to rent out Bacchanal for a Sunday afternoon. He was told they couldn’t kick out the regulars, but Smith came anyway with an entourage of movie people.
“Chris created the best bohemian haunt in New Orleans,” said Sean Cummings, a local real estate developer who created the Rice Mill Lofts, an apartment building just up the street from Baccahanal.
“It’s hard to decode or deduce what makes for an effortless, irresistible hangout,” Cummings said Friday as he drove to Bacchanal with a carload of T-shirts bearing the legend: “Team Rudge … Bacchus of Bywater.”
“I mean, who would imagine that a place where you walk into a dark shop to order your wine, stand at a window in the back to order your food and get the cheese plate somewhere else would be successful?”
Bacchanal serves its food on paper plates with metal cutlery. Diners sit on mismatched lawn chairs in a gravel-strewn yard sometimes dotted with mud puddles. It’s always packed.
“My favorite time was when Chaucy the goat was head-butting patrons,” Cummings said. “This was the next-door neighbor’s pet, and her back door opened onto Bacchanal’s patio. That’s the kind of place Chris ran.”
But it worked. Over the past two years, it entered the pantheon of New Orleans places that in-the-know tourists feel they simply can’t miss.
“Out of his mirth and mythology, Chris created a beacon for the neighborhood and beyond,” Ross said. “With so much life in him, I thought he would outlive us all and speak at our funerals.”