The sound of tumbling bowling pins was in the background at Fulton Alley in New Orleans, but my attention was fixed on the rumble of a large, hand-carved chunk of ice falling into a glass at the bar.
The bartender, Anthony Warren, was preparing a “red eye to Manhattan,” the bar’s spin on a classic Manhattan, with a carefully measured mix of bourbon and vermouth, then droplets of a house-made vanilla tincture and specialty bitters from the New Orleans-based company Bittermens.
It was balanced, complex and beautiful. Served just a few paces from where bowlers in rented shoes were rolling spares, it also was an example of how far the resurgent cocktail culture has reached across New Orleans.
That culture is squarely in the spotlight this week as the annual Tales of the Cocktail drinks conference returns. But throughout the year, the growing appreciation for finely wrought drinks has planted the craft cocktail flag in more corners of the city, far beyond the upscale restaurants, hotel bars and tailor-made lounges that have been their natural habitat.
From a bowling alley and a movie theater in a mall to a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant and a quick-serve taqueria, here are four examples around town of craft cocktail spots that break the mold.
Gusto, the Theatres at Canal Place
333 Canal St., New Orleans, (504) 581-5400; thetheatres.com
The Theatres at Canal Place concept melds dinner and a movie in one seat, and it’s made cocktails a common accompaniment for a movie outing. Waiters and waitresses deliver them, along with pizzas, paninis and small plates from Gusto, a restaurant created by chef Adolfo Garcia located in the theater’s lobby. But Gusto also functions as a standalone café, open to anyone strolling through the Shops at Canal Place mall. That means a shopping trip can include a timeout for a cinema-themed cocktail, like “The Driver,” a mix of tequila, ginger beer, fresh basil and lemon, or perhaps a garlic-infused Bloody Mary garnished with sheaves of spicy Spanish chorizo and chunks of Mahón cheese.
301 N. Peters St., (504) 288-8226; 411 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 288-8226; 6215 S. Miro St., (504) 288-8226, all in New Orleans; 176 Town Center Parkway, Slidell, (985) 288-1210; felipestaqueria.com
Most Felipe’s customers beeline for the service counter, where the rapid assembly of tacos and burritos can give this fast-casual taqueria the pace of a cafeteria. Order from the specialty cocktail list, however, and the bartenders take a little more time with the project.
“A lot of people still think of us as a beer and margarita bar, which is how we started, but we saw a niche for doing Latin American cocktails,” said Nathan Dalton, beverage director of Felipe’s, who said fresh juice and garnishes sliced to order are now the norm at his bars.
While the original Uptown location still specializes in margaritas, the Mid-City Felipe’s follows a pisco theme, using a variety of the brandies from Peru and Chile across its specialty drinks. Dalton described the French Quarter location’s bar as an “all Latin America mix,” with fine tequilas, smoky mezcals, piscos and rums sharing the billing. The new Slidell location, which opened in June, is still developing its bar focus. Upstairs from the French Quarter location, Felipe’s also operates its own tiki bar, called Tiki Tolteca, which reopened last weekend after a major renovation.
600 Fulton St., New Orleans, (504) 208-5569; fultonalley.com
Fulton Alley opened late last year with 12 lanes of bowling but a vibe much more akin to a lounge, with leather sofas, subdued lighting and a drinks list designed by the cocktail mavens behind Cure, Bellocq and Cane & Table. That “red eye to Manhattan” mentioned above is a good example of the style here, as is “the strike,” a pale, velvety swirl of gin, pisco, lemon and bitters traced by cherry liqueur. This bowling alley also has its own chef, Mike Nirenberg, who serves a menu of Southern-style flavors like deviled eggs with chicken cracklins, andouille gravy fries and barbecue pork belly sliders.
High Hat Café
4500 Freret St., New Orleans, (504) 754-1336; highhatcafe.com
There’s nothing like a kids’ menu to signal a restaurant’s easygoing intentions, and child-sized orders of chicken fingers and catfish augment High Hat Café’s signature mix of casual Creole and Deep South dishes (BBQ shrimp, Delta tamales, po-boys and chess pie).
But behind the bar, manager Ryan Iriarte has been quietly building an increasingly sophisticated cocktail program. The back bar is now a veritable cocktail commissary, with jars of herbs, jugs of fruit steeping in liquor and whiskeys maturing in small barrels for an aged flavor. A bourbon cocktail called “4500” gets a deep, berry-tart undercurrent from hibiscus liqueur, made in house, and Iriarte even makes a custom mixer for his gin and tonics. It all makes High Hat something of a family-friendly craft cocktail destination.
“People care about what they’re eating now; they’re paying attention, and that extends to their drinks,” Iriarte said. “I like that people can come have a casual meal and still get something unique in their glass.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.