New Orleans hotels draw local crowd with creative bar offerings

March 30 2012 | Latest News
In New Orleans, Hotels Lure a Local Fan Base

The New York Times
Published March 29, 2012

MIDWAY through a Friday happy-hour gig, the bandleader Shannon Powell started taking requests.

“Anything y’all wanna hear?” he asked the 60-odd patrons at the Windsor Court Hotel’s new Cocktail Bar after leading his jazz trio through a selection of New Orleans classics. “Anything at all.”

A voice rose from a cluster of blue-clad University of Kentucky fans in town for a basketball tournament, “Something by Fleetwood Mac.”

Mr. Powell laughed and shook his head, and about half the crowd — a mix of hotel guests and local residents fresh from the office — did the same. The bartender, Christine Jeanine Nielsen, worked with focused intensity as she mixed her signature riffs on classic cocktails: pisco sours rounded off with earthy beet juice, Aviation “snowball” cocktails served over finely crushed ice.

After the giggles subsided, Mr. Powell offered a blues-shuffle version of “You Are My Sunshine” with a vocal style that recalled Ray Charles at his prime.

At the Windsor Court (300 Gravier Street; 504-523-6000;, the newly opened bar space illustrates an emerging trend in New Orleans: hotels that build a local fan base by reimagining the hotel bar. Instead of offering overpriced pours for largely captive hotel guests, the new bars generate solid buzz among locals by upgrading the hotel cocktail and dining experience in a city known for its ambitious culinary scene and cocktail culture. At the Windsor Court, that meant carving out a lobby cocktail space that featured creative craft libations and live music — both solid factors for attracting New Orleanians.

“The music’s been a great draw,” said Skip Adams, the food and beverage director. “We’re also going for the craft cocktail crowd and businesspeople looking for a drink when they got off work.”

The Warehouse District’s Hotel Modern (936 St. Charles Avenue; 504-962-0900; opened this year with two options to attract local palates. The first is Tamarind, a restaurant whose bar manager, Kimberly Patton-Bragg, serves specialty drinks that complement the Vietnamese-inspired menu. She displays a culinary sensibility with complex flavors like tamarind-infused vodka and spicy/sweet peppercorn syrup in a single glass.

The Modern’s second bar represents the work of bartenders whose interest in obscure cocktails produced Bellocq, a contemporary homage to the city’s Storyville district. Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal, driving forces behind the well-regarded barroom Cure, focus on 19th-century cocktails like the citrus-scented Rye Smash and a list of cobblers, lower-proof refreshers made with fortified wines (sherry, port, Madeira) rather than distilled spirits.

“We want locals who want a new outlet,” said Mr. Bodenheimer. “There are young professionals who live in the Warehouse District and Central Business District, and we wanted to bring everyone a good experience that’s not priced like a hotel bar.”

The celebrity chef John Besh built his restaurant empire on hotel partnerships, most notably with Domenica (123 Baronne Street; 504-648-6020; inside the landmark Roosevelt Hotel. In 2009, he gave Alon Shaya a chance to build a stellar reputation with regional Italian cuisine, including house-cured salumi.

When the Hyatt Regency reopened its 32-story tower in the shadow of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Mr. Besh announced a similar alliance with Brian Landry, formerly of the Creole standby Galatoire’s. The pair developed Borgne (601 Loyola Avenue; 504-613-3860;, dedicated to coastal Louisiana seafood. The airy, minimal room updates the rustic family “fish camps” that dot the state’s waterways. Standouts include a spicy shrimp rémoulade and crisp, delicate stuffed flounder.

Even the French Quarter’s stately Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal Street; 504-523-3341; upgraded its iconic Carousel Bar as part of a recent $25 million renovation. The space has a significantly larger footprint than it did before, with a second bar area, spacious split-level seating area and a street-level window views. With increased elbow room, the Carousel has become a better option for locals in need of a nightcap and dose of classic New Orleans kitsch before bedtime.