The holiday season is my favorite time to be in the French Quarter. The Old World architecture and the narrow streets seem especially evocative. Strings of lights curl around wrought iron balconies like ivy, carriageways are framed in green flocking and some gas lanterns even wear red Christmas bows as their orange flames flicker away against brick and reflect on flagstone paving.
More than just the décor, though, there is a festive mood among the people drawn to the Quarter this time of year. Friends take time to gather for Reveillon dinners, and colleagues partake in extended holiday lunches. Shoppers rove around local shops with gift lists, and groups converge for annual events like the Patio Planters' traditional caroling in Jackson Square on the Sunday before Christmas. Squint just a bit, and the warm sentimentality of Christmases past can seem very much alive in the Vieux Carre.
I suppose that's why when it's time for a drink during one of these jovial holiday larks, the French 75 Bar at seems custom cut for the job. It's but one chamber in this rambling French Creole restaurant's maze of rooms and corridors, though it serves double duty both as an area for diners waiting for tables and as a stand-alone destination for drinks.
Arnaud's Restaurant was opened in 1918 by a French wine salesman who preferred to be called Count Arnaud although he had no legitimate claim to nobility. The French 75 Bar came along much later, but with its tobacco-colored woodwork, brass fixtures, beveled glass and white tiling the space melds easily with Arnaud's overall motif. It's the kind of place where men who wear hats will find hooks to hang them on, and where waiters and bartenders wear tuxedos.
The bar's name is a tribute to the hard-hitting cocktail of champagne and cognac, which was in turn named in tribute to a hard-hitting artillery piece, the French army's 75 mm. field gun of the First World War. These days, customers here are more likely to order distinctive New Orleans cocktails, like the Sazerac or the Ramos gin fizz. Others, though, may come to answer more exotic yens. And that's a tribute to the growing reputation of , the bartender whose passion and exacting standards for cocktail preparation have made him the de facto public face of the French 75 Bar.
Hannah is the kind of bartender who brings his own, homemade syrups to work with him to mix drinks just so, and he's even done archival research to help revive nearly-lost drinks recipes. He concocts his own cocktails, and frequently works out custom recipes with patrons on the spot. But you'll still get no gruff if what you really want is just a glass of Chardonnay. A drink is still a drink here, and the French 75 is still a restaurant bar.
The place does feel a bit hidden and discrete beside its Bourbon Street neighbors just a few paces down the block. Even as a cordial Christmas spirit dresses the French Quarter this time of year, that clanging, ringing midway takes no holidays and pulses away as bright and loud as ever. But stop just short of all that, push open the door at the French 75 and you'll find an urbane cloister elegantly in sync with the feeling of the Vieux Carre at Christmas time.
813 Bienville St., New Orleans