A while back, when I was starting out college and the cheapest - not to mention one of the longest - ways to travel home was by train, then an hour and a half drive to my parents in Middle-O'-The-State, PA, my mom lucked into a place on the outskirts of Harrisburg that had opened up in what had once been a Popeye's. She walked into the Smokey Pig and beheld a sight she hadn't seen in a couple of decades: a large spit over a fire behind the counter slowly cooking some of the best barbecue she'd tasted outside of Georgia. The smell of the sauces used won her over as well, and she was a woman on a mission from that point on.
Grabbing a pile of their menus, she made it her business to expand their business, even though she knew it was a bit much for most people who lived in MOTS to schlep all the way to some godforsaken industrial byway an hour and a half south of their town just for barbecue. Nobody thought that way in Pennsylvania, a state where most ingredients for pizza have died before they have even crossed the state line - and putting them together to make an edible pie is beyond anyone's ken. Haute cuisine? Didn't exist where my parents were.
I like to think our visits to the Smokey Pig every time my family came to get me from the train station helped sustain the place for just a little while, even though I know location doomed it from the start and our visits there to get our fill of Georgia pit 'cue and some quarts of their sauce were very infrequent. Mom was just so driven to make sure the place stayed alive, she sucked us all into her task. It was disappointing to hear that the place had shut its doors and doused its fires only a few short years after Mom discovered it.
I see lists of the happening places in New Orleans, however, intending to drive adventurous folks through those places' doors, and I cringe inwardly.
I know one reason for this is that, with some exceptions, it's a tad easier for good places to be found, to sustain a loyal clientele, and to even thrive here. We appreciate good food, good company, and are willing to support it in this town. It's gold, y'all, gold.
What also helps bring in the gold here, though, is the tourism. The economy hasn't diversified enough to where local crowds alone can keep things going, and, in the reality of the restaurant business, local crowds can't do it alone. Same goes for most bars. But there are some watering holes that are just special, that I have a soft spot for, that I like just the way they are without the turista infusion. There are some that will keep their character and resist the ways of the fern bar serving up the latest trendy mojitotiniac fizz no matter what, and I raise a glass or three to them, but there are some that are walking a fine line between the ferns and the funk. What will their tipping point be, and how many locals will be displaced as a result?
With restaurants and other eating places, this kind of thing can be sad, sure. My husband informed me of a double whammy in NYC when he went up there on business in the past week: our favorite Israeli grill in Queens and our divine bagel place in Brooklyn are no more. The former closed due to personnel problems, the latter due to lofty plans to convert the building The Bagel Guys and many other businesses were in to condos - plans that didn't pan out when the bottom fell out of the economy, but still left a vacant building in the wake of the recession. We shook our heads over those casualties and wondered what would be left to visit when we returned to say hi to friends we once lived closer to. We can still say hi to our friends, sure, but not over a great bagel or some kick-butt kibby. Sigh.
But the bars? What is it about publicizing the bars that gets me feeling uneasy?
On the one hand, bars can be sleazy dens of iniquity in which one's paycheck can succumb entirely to the impulse to drown one's sorrows and the pains of everyday life that are too tough to bear when one is fully sober. I'd have a soft spot for the bars where I blew a great deal of dough in my misspent youth if it weren't for the fact that I was simply marking time there by draining glasses of alcohol before I had to return to the glass studio to feed a hungry furnace its nightly diet of broken shards of cullet. I don't remember much about the places where I drank aside from some details revolving 'round playing bad pool, doing my best imitation of Lady Day when "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" came up on the jukebox, and catching some occasional food specials with the drinks when I was ravenously hungry - all of which could have happened in ANY bar, not just the one I went to.
Then again, there are the places I went to to check out some great live music; the spot that served me up too many Long Island Iced Teas the night before I got married; the places where I got together with good friends over some good brew, got pleasantly buzzed, and even had some friendly banter going with the fellow behind the bar; the places that seemed to have friends I'd never met 'til that night they'd just emerged from the woodwork; the places where I wasn't going to be annoyed by loads of guys hitting on me, and, if there was the off chance that someone coming in was gonna try it anyway, that they'd be getting the message from the regulars soon enough - the list goes on and on. These moments can happen at any bar, to be sure, but with me, they have happened most frequently at the bars in this city I call home.
It's something that people don't understand until they come here and have been here for much longer than a weekend jaunt...and it is something that Julia Reed does touch on in her article accompanying the Conde Nast Traveler Bar Tour:
After over a decade in the far more intense urban confines of Washington and New York, I found these brief lunches (at Napoleon House) in the upper reaches of the French Quarter a joy, a perfect example of what Walker Percy identified as the city's "peculiar virtue... a talent for everyday life rather than the heroic deed." New Orleans, he wrote, "has nurtured a great many people who live tolerably, like to talk and eat, manage generally to be civil and at the same time mind their own business." He added that if a person were to fall ill on the streets of Manhattan, folks would grumble about the inconvenience of stepping around a body. In New Orleans, on the other hand, it is still likely that "somebody will drag you into the neighborhood bar and pay the innkeeper for a shot of Early Times." They will, in other words, take care of you in the same way as Girod had hoped to nurture the down-on-his-luck Napoleon, by giving him a safe haven and a restorative pick-me-up. (boldface mine)Shortly after this terrible event occurred at Pal's, I told a visitor to this city about how much many of the local bars resemble localized community centers in these parts. What gets my goat is when the places that really are off the beaten path get messed with a little. The average bar 'round here isn't just a place to sit your butt down and drink - although, if that's all you wanna do, nobody's gonna stop you unless you cause a ruckus that disturbs everyone else in the place. You can get some good, restorative help for the soul from some of the best local pubs...and I tend to be a little suspect of someone using the CN Traveler as a high-class insider guide to soaking up an atmosphere from such places. In fact, I kind of hope such people do walk into places like the Dungeon or the Mayfair and are so overwhelmed by the atmosphere in those places that it kicks 'em right back out onto the street. Could well teach 'em a lesson.
In a nutshell (that everyone coulda just scrolled down to check out at the conclusion of this post, I guess), I get weary of these bar recommendations because bars in so, so many ways are like people - there are so many of them that aren't for everyone that walks through their doors....and, in truth, they shouldn't be trying so hard to be all things to all people. A bar is a bar is a bar in that each one is serving up a more or less similar menu of alcoholic beverages, but the tone of each bar is set by its owner(s), its tender(s), and its people, all of which make for a delicate balance of camaraderie with an edge.
Word of mouth amongst the barflies is a good thing, as it keeps things in that balance.
Words in a glossy magazine with slick pictures of hipsters ( or in an article online with a snazzy slideshow) - well, the jury's still out....and the bars will be on their own there.