You take a few steps from the hurly-burly of Bourbon Street, pass the ornate main entrance of Arnaud’s Restaurant and continue to the doorway of what looks like the restaurant’s much smaller neighbor.
You push through two successive sets of flapping double doors and then step, as if through an airlock, into the French 75 bar. It's a chamber trimmed in bourbon-colored wood, brass and beveled glass. Bartenders wear white dinner jackets and black bow ties. Patrons hold fizzy Champagne cocktails by the stem or burnished-red Sazeracs in their palms.
The look is Belle Époque, the feel is Roaring Twenties and lately the buzz about the place has been ramping up.
Earlier this month, the French 75 brought Arnaud’s the James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Bar Program. Arnaud’s proprietors, siblings Archie and Katy Casbarian, and head bartender Chris Hannah accepted the honor together at a May 1 gala in Chicago.
Among cocktail enthusiasts, and to Arnaud’s loyal local fans, the award affirms a long-held conviction that the restaurant’s bar is a modern classic. At Arnaud’s itself, the high-profile national recognition has been a validation as the family behind a historic, old-line New Orleans restaurant writes its next chapter.
“This bar is part of a nearly 100 year old institution and it’s on the forefront of bar programs for the nation,” said Katy Casbarian. “That’s a motivation for Archie and I to see what else we can do.”
The spotlight shifts
Arnaud’s was one of three from New Orleans to bring home medals. The others were each chefs de cuisine — Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint, who won Best Chef: South, and Zachary Engel of Shaya, who won Rising Star Chef of the Year. The two chefs are part of restaurant groups, led by Donald Link and John Besh, respectively, that have racked up many James Beard awards and have helped set the pace of contemporary New Orleans dining.
Arnaud’s award brings the spotlight to a different niche in the city’s culinary spectrum. The city’s French Creole restaurants are often portrayed as stalwarts, the grand dames carrying on their own traditions as a surging New Orleans food scene grows and changes around them.
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But they have indeed been changing, especially in the turbulent years since Hurricane Katrina. At Arnaud’s, that’s been evident in the dining rooms, where an influx of new, sometimes lighter dishes are served alongside the familiar mainstays.
The most noticeable change, however, is just down the corridor at the French 75, which grew into a New Orleans destination for high-caliber drinks just as the craft cocktail trend was taking off nationally. Hannah’s approach to cocktails blends a reverence for ingredients and technique with time-honored recipes. It proved a natural fit in a restaurant already deeply ingrained with its own traditions, and it framed the craft cocktail movement as a revival.
“Chris has a fine appreciation for history and cocktails and that was such a good fit for Arnaud’s,” said Katy Casbarian. “He has been a steward of that.”
“He’s a curator,” her brother Archie added.
History in a glass
Next year marks the centennial of Arnaud’s, which first opened in the final year of World War I. While the bar is considerably younger than the restaurant, it’s no newcomer.
It was created in 1979 by the late Archie A. Casbarian, father of Arnaud's current proprietors. He renovated a room that had once been the restaurant’s “men’s grill,” a gender-exclusive dining room from the old days, and dubbed it the Grill Bar. Arnaud's already had a bar, the Richelieu Bar, which dates to 1948 and still serves as a snug, windowless cloister deep within the restaurant. Archie Casbarian's new lounge was intended from the start to be something different.
"He wanted this to be an upscale oasis in the French Quarter," said his son.
In 2003 the space was rechristened as the French 75. Hannah got a job here the following year, not long after he’d moved to town. Bobby Oakes, the longtime bartender at Arnaud’s, taught him to make the New Orleans classics.
Gradually, though, Hannah began to put his own stamp on the place. Hannah is a student of the old school, an aficionado of the vintage, and that carries from his wardrobe to his appreciation for blues and jazz. This also extends to his way with cocktails.
“When I got to town, I didn’t want to work at a new place," said Hannah. "I wanted to start a cocktail program at a place like this, something old and classic."
He dug into historic archives to resurrect old drinks, and he started making some of his own cocktail ingredients so that old recipes would taste the way they were intended. In the beginning, he worked the bar solo. As its reputation grew, the French 75 has added more staff who share the head bartender’s interest in and dedication to the classic cocktail.
The French 75 is named for the potent Champagne cocktail that is in turn named for the feared 75 mm artillery piece the French army used in World War I. There are different versions of the recipe, though the one Hannah serves is a mix of Champagne, cognac, sugar and lemon juice. The drink is always in heavy rotation around Arnaud’s, thanks in part perhaps to the power of suggestion from the bar's name though also certainly because the drink is distinctive and festive.
These days, that description fits this historic restaurant's bar, too.
813 Bienville St., 504-523-5433
Dinner nightly, brunch Sunday.
Correction: this story has been edited to correct the date that the Grill Bar debuted.
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