On Great Bars and the Napoleon House
A good bar is good because it offers a shot of calm and a glass of reprieve on the rocks. It’s a place removed from the monotony of the day. Aided by a good bartender who can make good drinks, it can become a favorite, or even a local. It’s a place for conversation, reflection, a meeting point, and an escape hatch.
A great bar transcends all this though. It moves beyond the physical. It’s more than just a local or a favorite. It’s a place that provides access to a larger narrative not usually reached. It’s a place for special occasions that carries weight and is immediately understood to be something special upon entry. I’d estimate there are probably only five or six great bars in the United States, and certainly no more than ten. I’ve been to perhaps two of them, and as of last weekend, three.
The Napoleon House in New Orleans is just about to celebrate its centennial. For those counting, that means, yes, alcohol was served there during those dark years of prohibition. As is the case with much in the French Quarter, it’s full of character and history and is completely unique.
Yes, of course, the cocktails are perfect. They are not good or great. They are perfect. The Martinis, Pimm's cups, Sazeracs or whatever else you want, are not made my mixologists, or cocktail artists, or anyone else with a pretentious title. They are made by bartenders, good people who can carry a conversation and know their craft better than anyone else, but would never be caught dead calling it a “craft” in the first place.
The decor is dark wood, peeling paint and plenty of old paintings of the emperor himself. The soundtrack is classical or opera. So the story goes that the building, which sits on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, was offered to Napoleon as his own escape hatch during his exile, but he never made it. Too bad for him.
Once I visited Napoleon's palace on Elba where he lived out his exile hosting parties and pacing his patio. Though the cliff-top views of the Mediterranean are stunning, something tells me a new start in the Quarter might have been a better play for the guy. Who doesn’t fantasize about chucking it all and starting fresh in New Orleans anyway?