When Jonathan Henderson is in New Orleans, he just has to stop at Pat O’Brien’s.
“They never disappoint,” Henderson said of the famed St. Peter Street establishment, adding that its “celebration” vibe and “party atmosphere and attitude” make it a treasure even in a city known for places to have a good time.
And the retired New York City firefighter — in town to celebrate one year since he and his wife got married in Jackson Square — made sure to head to Pat O’s on Sunday, as the bar welcomed thousands for its 85th birthday celebration.
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The bar was officially opened by Pat O’Brien, who had run a French Quarter speakeasy, on Dec. 3, 1933 — 85 years ago Monday. Not coincidentally, this week also marks 85 years since the end of Prohibition.
Since that time, Pat O'Brien's has become an iconic spot for New Orleans nightlife, featuring "dueling pianos" in its piano bar, a flaming fountain and its signature hurricane cocktails.
Starting in the 1950s, the bar began holding birthday celebrations as a way to thank the community — specifically locals who take the time to go there, according to Charlie Bateman, Pat O’Brien’s vice president.
“We just really wanted to give back what people have been giving us for years,” said Bateman, who started working at Pat O’s 45 years ago, making $20 here and there by helping to clean the place.
For Sunday, what giving back meant were hurricanes for $4 (down from the usual $9) and live music performed in the courtyard — a change from the past, when the bar would get a part of St. Peter Street closed off for its festivities.
That decision is the latest change in a number that have come over the years, according to current owner Shelly Oechsner Waguespack, though she said all of them have managed to only enhance the bar’s appeal to tourists and locals alike.
“People have a strong, strong connection to Pat O’Brien’s,” she said. “And when they get here, if they haven’t been here in a while, it’s almost like a walk into a Disney World moment.”
The most obvious change in Pat O’Brien’s history was its 1942 move to a historic building in the 700 block of St. Peter, instead of its original spot a half-block away at St. Peter and Royal streets.
That move really put the bar on the map, Waguespack said, at a time when the French Quarter was a much different place.
“I think — whether some people want to admit it — I think that Pat O’Brien’s brought New Orleans to the next level as far as entertainment and nightlife goes,” she said.
From there, the business grew, and it really took off when her father and grandfather bought the bar in 1978.
Since then, Pat O’Brien’s has added a restaurant and event spaces and even started franchising in other cities around the country. There are currently two locations outside of New Orleans — in San Antonio and Orlando.
It’s that last decision that Waguespack is most skeptical of, saying her father really wanted to “spread the wealth” in his time as company president before his death seven years ago.
Waguespack said she constantly gets requests for more franchises, but she worries that might spread the brand too thin, and she doesn’t want to do anything that would touch the uniqueness of the bar’s relationship to New Orleans.
“I like what we have here,” she said.
And what’s most special, she said, is that the bar is a family affair — far beyond just the three generations her family has owned it.
Many servers and bartenders have been there for generations as well, she said, which leads to an environment where the employees “feel just as passionate about Pat O’Brien’s as our guests do.”
As for Henderson, he has his own special family in New Orleans.
He said he was part of the New York City Fire Department's response to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, driving down in a convoy and staying in the city for two weeks.
The New Orleans Fire Department then repaid the favor after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Henderson said, and he served as a liaison for the NOFD response — his last official duty before his retirement.
He’s grown close with New Orleans firefighters from those experiences, so what better place to hang out with one of those NOFD friends Sunday than at Pat O’Brien’s?
“It’s super, super fun. Like they say on the cups, ‘Have Fun!’ ” he said. “Everyone comes here with that mindset.”