A Modern Proto-Tiki Mecca in New Orleans

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores North America's most notable bars and cocktail programs. Today: Cane & Table in New Orleans.

cane and table illustration natalie nelson

Cane & Table might be the new kid on the block in New Orleans’ French Quarter, but unlike other shiny new cocktail alcoves, the bar feels as if it’s been woven into the fabric of the city for centuries. And while it’s dressed with a disheveled-chic ambiance with a menu that nods to history, the latest bar from the team behind Cure and Bellocq also brings a fresh perspective to the city’s rich and eclectic drinking narrative.

New Orleans is a melting pot of cultures, cuisines, ethnicities and music, and the era that Cane & Table digs into—the 18th and 19th centuries, specifically—is the root of this reputation in many ways. In those times, the city was one of America’s biggest ports, acting as a hub for trade between the Caribbean islands and the States. People called it the “gateway to the tropics,” as sugar, bananas and rum were circulated via trade routes. The city soaked up foreign ingredients, language and aesthetics, many of which have lasted well into modernity.

Decatur Street, where Cane & Table is set, was close to the mouth of the docks along the Mississippi, situated between the city’s original red light district and the heart of what is now known as the French Quarter. The somewhat seedy corridor was notorious for attracting sailors, pirates and other unsavory characters into its nefarious dens for tots of rum and other recreational activities. Partner Neal Bodenheimer says his team knew instantly this space would be the perfect location for a bar that tapped into the port’s heyday.

Together with chef Adam Biderman, managing partner Nick Detrich developed a food program he calls “rustic colonial,” to reflect culinary influences brought to the area via trade. “We traced the trajectory of these cuisines from Europe and West Africa and looked at how they influenced New Orleans cooking and drinking,” he says. Dishes like pork skins with jerk seasoning and papaya chutney take inspiration from the Caribbean, while others like green Creole tomatoes and andouille sausage represent the palate of the American South.

The less is more mantra is a serious one. Aside from a single portrait of a sea captain anchoring one corner (a nod to Decatur Street’s former clientele) and several large antique mirrors, there are few other additions. Instead of over-communicating nostalgia with a mélange of antiques, artwork and old-timey light fixtures, memorabilia is almost entirely absent, establishing an atmosphere that feels modern in its minimalism while simultaneously paying homage to history.

The drinks followed naturally. “[Caribbean cuisine features] these long stewed beefs and fatty, spicy foods, that pair well with long drinks with a lot of fresh juices,” he said. “Especially those spice-infused with anise, allspice, etc.”

The resulting cocktail menu is what Detrich coined “proto-tiki,” or drinks that inspired classic tiki—the cocktail movement that hit its stride near the end of WWII and focused on exotic rum drinks and Polynesian culture. Cane & Table’s recipes are those that would have been served prior to 1934, when the first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, opened in LA. They’re flush with ingredients from the trade routes—tropical fruits, allspice dram, falernum and rum, and served in the form of cobblers, punches and sours—as they would have been at the end of the 18th century.

Unlike many other modern cocktail bars that aim to evoke a certain era, Cane and Table’s nod to the past is decidedly un-fabricated. Whitewashed brick walls stand weatherworn and weary beneath a renovated wood ceiling, but neither were conjured from imagination; both elements were revealed when the design team stripped away elements of the prior bar (an Eastern European absinthe house called Pravda) during renovations. “In these old buildings, a lot of what you do is addition by subtraction,” Bodenheimer says. “We wanted to let a beautiful old building speak for itself.”

The less is more mantra is a serious one. Instead of over-communicating nostalgia with a mélange of antiques, artwork and old-timey light fixtures, memorabilia is almost entirely absent, establishing an atmosphere that feels modern in its minimalism while simultaneously paying homage to history.

But beyond simply telling the story of New Orleans’ past, Cane & Table is firmly grounded in the city’s current cocktail landscape. Where Cure was the team’s contemporary neighborhood cocktail bar, and Bellocq was an homage to pre-Prohibition New Orleans, Cane & Table is a progressive move towards a more polished, focused agenda. The theme is narrow and deliberate, reflecting a national shift towards bars that eschew generic cocktail bar aesthetics for a more specialized angle.

Though specific, Cane & Table caters to locals, providing a laid-back oasis in the midst of the French Quarter’s notorious tourist traps. “[Decatur Street] was always an area that locals used, and as the Marigny and Bywater have developed, more people live there,” Bodenheimer says. “Our location gives us access to those people. They can come and get the French Quarter experience without having to wade through the muff and the mire.”

Lower Decatur has long attracted service industry types, but the crowd is becoming more diverse with other craft cocktail spots like Tiki Tolteca, Spitfire and Jeff Berry’s upcoming Latitude 29 attracting other kinds of drinkers. Collectively, the bars are renewing interest in the area as a neighborhood for locals for whom Bourbon Street does not exist.

The days ahead look bright for this stretch of the French Quarter, as places like Cane & Table capture the real spirit of the city: a place where history and modernity dance hand in hand—in the streets and on tabletops in bars old and new—celebrating their culture, which is as generous as the relentless humidity.

TO DRINK

The Shaken: The Last King
Diplomatico Exclusiva Reserva, lemon, Saler’s Gentiane Aperitif, Caffe Moka, salt | $11

The Stirred: Banana Manhattan
El Dorado 12 year, Punt e Mes, Giffard Banane de Bresil, Angostura, Herbsaint Legendre | $11

The Punch: Eastern Cottonwood
Worthy Park Jamaican Gold Rum, Appleton V/X, lemon sherbet, nutmeg, Pierre Ferrand Curacao, Yellow Chartreuse | $12

The Cobbler: Hancock’s Sloop
Malmsey Madeira, C&T Falernum, orange | $12

The Bubbly: Calendula
Chinaco Blanco, passionfruit, lemon, Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, sparkling wine | $11

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