Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Visit to Tujague's

So, when recently in New Orleans, I went to Tujague's, one of the oldest continually operating bars in the United States. It's been on its corner of Decatur Street facing the French Market since 1856. I always meant to pay a visit, but somehow, during past visits, the chance always escaped me. So I made a point of it this time around.

The neon signage is peerless. The ceilings are high. The mirror behind the old bar is as big as an elephant, and was 100 years old already when it was shipped from France in the mid-1900s. It's a rare bar that has a brass rail, but no stools at all. So you stand there, one foot on the rail, like those suited, mustachioed ruffians seen in old photos of yesteryear.

In various glass cabinets are numerous mini-bottle of every liquor and liqueur you can name, some old, some new. They are a reminder of how Tujague's got through Prohibition; bartenders kept dozens of such little receptacles in their aprons, ready to dispense liquid illegality into waiting cups.

The bar area is not huge. 30 people would fill it up. But there were only a handful of locals when I visited. I ordered a Sazerac, my usual drink when testing the waters at a New Orleans bar. Big Easy taverns tend to reach automatically for the Herbsaint when this drink is mentioned, even though original ingredient absinthe is now available. I guess old habits, and local brand loyalty, die hard.

I was a pain, and asked for absinthe. I also said "not too sweet," because everyone lays on the simple syrup these days. I didn't think I needed to give specific instructions on the Peychaud's Bitters. Maybe I should have. Because I was handed the reddest Sazerac I've ever seen. It was fine. Nothing special. And still too sweet. I wish people took more care when making this drink. It's not like the bartender was busy.

Someone next to me order a Grasshopper. Somewhere down the line, the idea became established that this is a signature drink at Tujague's. But the locals at the other end of the bar, upon spying the mint green mixture, said "What's that?" So that sort of put the lie to that bit of conventional wisdom.

I wandered around the dining rooms with my drink and found more cabinets full of small bottles. I also found a few interesting frames artifacts. Among the more amazing: a signed photograph of Julian Eltinge, now unknown, but during the early 20th century the most famous female impersonator in American, and a Broadway star; and a sheet from an old register proving that young Cole Porter and his family from Peru, Indiana, were frequent guests during a visit in 1902.

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