Finding the Real NOLA in a Neighborhood Bar

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores America's most notable bars and cocktail programs. Today: New Orleans oddball, Parasol's.

parasol's new orleans illustration john tebeau

When we started going to Parasol’s, it was mired in drama.

John and Thea Hogan bought the New Orleans bar in 2010, outbidding Jeff Carreras, who’d been running Parasol’s while renting the building from a descendent of founder Louis Passaeur. Carreras took his entire staff just down the block to open the competing Tracey’s—whose neon sign uses a parasol as the apostrophe in its name, much as Parasol’s uses a shamrock.

Debate ensued about which was the “real” Parasol’s, because Carreras claimed both the original recipes and his kitchen crew, while the Hogans basically opened a new bar in a building with six decades of boozing legacy.

New Orleanians are passionate about both food and tradition and skeptical of anything that monkeys with either, so arguments about the legitimacy of a po’boy can carry the same intensity as a paternity test.

My husband John and I had heard about the debate, but we wouldn’t have guessed there was turmoil. Parasol’s retained a laid-back neighborhood feel, a weathered throwback to the Irish Channel’s immigrant stevedore past. If founder Passaeur walked into the bar todayaside from the well-fed jukebox anchoring the end of the room and a row of blinking coin-op poker machinesI bet he’d recognize the place he opened in 1952.

In a city of ornate ironwork and elaborate multicolored paint jobs, Parasol’s is an unadorned one-story structure with a simple coat of weathered white paint and green trim. But the corner building is home to two radically different experiences: On one side, there’s a bright, smoke-free dining room with free iced tea and a walk-up window to order food. On the other: a dark dive bar that wears a midday haze of cigarette smoke with classic rock on the jukebox.

The bar inside the latter is long and narrow, with no tables, just the stools that belly up to the bar and a few more along a parallel drink rail. That means our favorite day bartender, Billy Nothnagle, is face to face with most of his clientele. (As such, he can name almost all of the solo-drinking regulars.) Billy is a gentle giant with a long flowing beard and ponytail. A seasoned barkeep, he has a knack for anticipating a drinker’s needs. If you want to talk about Parasol’s extensive selection of bottled craft beer or get an opinion on the best Irish whiskey for shots, Billy can help, or he’ll keep the PBRs coming.

In true New Orleans fashion, your order might come with a side of colorful characters. On one visit, a large male bartender served us wearing a skirted sexy cop costume; it was neither Halloween nor Mardi Gras. Another time, a gambler hit it big on the poker machine and bought a round for the bar. And another night, John had a drink thrown on him when a woman missed the guy she was arguing with.

The crowd never suddenly swells with customers looking for cut-rate happy hour drinks. Instead, Pabst Blue Ribbons and Miller High Lifes go for two bucks at any time of day, while well drinks stay steady at $3. Since many of Parasol’s customers work in the service industry, they can make their own happy hour whenever their shifts allow.

Thea Hogan now runs Parasol’s solo, even though buying the bar was her husband John Hogan’s dream. He lived in St. Petersburg, Florida when he met Thea, a New Orleans native, at the city’s first Jazz and Heritage Festival post-Hurricane Katrina. They quickly fell in love. After the Hogans married, they lived in Florida for a while, but buying Parasol’s became part of a plan to get back to NOLA.

“He loved this place. He was here every single day,” Thea Hogan recently recalled, sipping an iced tea at the bar. John didn’t just own the bar, he lived it—greeting patrons, letting them run tabs and loaning them money, treating them more as a big extended family than customers.

John embraced New Orleans quickly, and was taken from it almost as fast. He died, the day after his 56th birthday on Christmas Eve in 2012. (Tracey’s closed that day out of respect, and Thea describes all past history with their once-rival as “water under the bridge.”) “My original thought was I was going to shut it down,” Thea said. More comfortable doing paperwork in her back office or making the restaurant’s gumbo, she didn’t like glad-handing behind the bar even before she became a widow. But she just couldn’t walk away.

“What am I going to do? Go back to a nine-to-five job?” she said, shaking her head. Thea figures she’ll stick with Parasol’s until she’s ready to retire.

We don’t typically go to Parasol’s at night. It’s a younger, more rambunctious crowd after dark. (Thea said she can feel the transition by what’s playing on the jukebox.) Instead, we like Parasol’s at lunch on a weekday. My husband, John, asks Billy what’s good and local on tap and often samples a few beers before choosing. My current well drink is a Whiskey Sour, and Billy’s is tart and refreshing. We usually order a bag of Zapp’s potato chips to snack on. John’s loyal to the roast beef po’boy, dressed, and basted with garlic butter on French bread from Leidenheimer, a century-old local bakery. I often go for a saucy firecracker shrimp po’boy with the addition of blue cheese and jalepeños.

In true New Orleans fashion, your order might come with a side of colorful characters. On one visit, a large male bartender served us wearing a skirted sexy cop costume; it was neither Halloween nor Mardi Gras. Another time, a gambler hit it big on the poker machine and bought a round for the bar. And another night, John had a drink thrown on him when a woman missed the guy she was arguing with.

At first glace, New Orleans may appear wild and chaotic—not an unfair assessment considering Bourbon Street’s swaying hand grenade-armed tourists and seedy strip joints. But peel back the layers, and it’s home to a fervently, local —undeniably eccentric—culture whose human drama is lived out each night alongside po’ boys and beers in bars like Parasol’s.

 

TO DRINK AND DRINK

The Forever Happy Hour: Pabst Blue Ribbons and Miller High Lifes / Well Drinks all day, every day. | $2 / $3

Local and craft  beer: A large selection of craft and local beers often including Abita, Bayou Teche, NOLA Brewing & LA 31 | $2-6.

Cocktail: Frozen Irish coffee. A blend of Irish whiskey, locally roasted coffee and sweetened condensed milk. | $3.50-6

Po’Boy: Roast beef. Offered on white, wheat, French bread or bun, but can you call it a po’boy if it isn’t on Leidenheimer’s French bread? | $7-9.50

Bonus Po’Boy: Firecracker shrimp po’boy. Spicy, saucy Buffalo-like shrimp. Add blue cheese and jalapeños for $1.50. | $8.50

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Colleen Newvine Tebeau lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, John Tebeau. They have been part-time New Orleans residents since 2011, enjoying NOLA for a month or two at a time. She blogs about living life intentionally on Newvine Growing. John Tebeau is an illustrator who recently completed a series of six pieces of art honoring Great Good Places of New Orleans, including Parasol’s.

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