Mario Suazo’s king-size mustache wouldn’t look out of place on the face of a sheriff in the Old West, or on a bartender working in the sort of creaky saloon the lawman might frequent. Luckily, that’s just the kind of place Suazo tends bar. Since 2001, he has slid Pimm’s Cups and Sazeracs across the beaten old bar of Napoleon House, one of the French Quarter’s oldest restaurants, which has been in continual operation since 1914 in the iconic New Orleans drinking district.
Suazo works days from Thursday to Monday, officiating every shift in a crisp white shirt and a black bow tie. He’s been working there so long he refers to Napoleon House as his second home. Regulars are used to his kind manner and his gentle voice, which puts drinkers immediately at ease with its tone of quiet confidence, as well as his fluid style behind the bar and his assured way with a cocktail. As one might expect, he can build you one of the bar’s iconic Pimm’s Cups in 15 seconds flat.
But first-time visitors also quickly deduce they’re in practiced hands. “Even people who don’t know me say, ‘You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?,’” Suazo said.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
My first bartending job was in 1978 at a discotheque across the river called Spanky’s. Spanky’s was the originator of the wet t-shirt contest and macho man contest. I remember a drink we used to make called a Wedding Cake. It’s amaretto, pineapple juice and milk, shaken. Actually, it’s pretty good.
How did you get the job at Napoleon House?
I had a friend who was a manager here. They needed a bartender on Tuesdays and Sundays, and to do banquets. I came in, applied and got hired. My friend quits a week later and I’m like [sarcastically], ‘Oh my God, this is great. This is wonderful. What do I do now?’ But I stayed. About a year later, I came down with lymphoma. I was out of work for about a year. They let me come back. I made it all the way through Katrina. Then, after Katrina, there was nobody here to come back and work. That’s how I ended up full-time.
Do you get any celebrities in here?
Nicolas Cage was here. Robert Plant, he came here a couple of times. I think they like this place because they can come here and nobody bothers them.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
Of course, number one, you have to be good with people. You have to be good at your craft, making your cocktails. You have to be good at getting along with your compadres. I think it’s a combination of things. You have to be a good psychologist. It comes with experience, dealing with people who are a little drunk. You learn to gauge what’s going on with them.
Do you drink at other bars?
No, because I hung out [at them] for so many years. I hung out at Pat O’Brien’s for ten years. And I liked to end my nights at The Dungeon. They stayed open until 6 a.m. When I went there, they used to play all ’60s rock. It was a very tiny place, and they played very loud music. I think I lost my hearing there [laughs].
How many bottles of Pimm’s do you go through a day?
I go through a case of Pimm’s a day. My record is three cases in one day. That was during French Quarter Fest. I always tell people, “I know how to make other drinks, you know.”