In New Orleans, a city brimming with legendary career bartenders, Lisa Zumpe ranks among the finest. She has bartended on the same block of the French Quarter for more than four decades, most of those years at The Chart Room, a scruffy, cash-only neighborhood bar and industry hangout that has operated on the corner of Chartres and Bienville streets since 1973. Miss Lisa, as she is known, began work there in 1975, when she was 21 and the bar’s famous Miller High Life drafts were only 60 cents. (The High Lifes are now $2). Except for a decade-long detour, which included a stint as a waitress for celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme, she’s been there ever since, a “stoic and stern” presence (in the words of her friend and fellow bartender Chris Hannah) with pulled-back hair and large, almond-shaped, “seen-it-all” eyes. Over time, she has developed a devoted following and a reputation for efficiency, focus and taking no guff—one customer calls her “Chick Norris.”
These days, The Chart Room, like every other New Orleans bar, is closed. Zumpe, 66, misses the work and the people, but has made good use of the time. She’s re-landscaped the lawn of her Uptown home, and kicked a 50-year-old smoking habit. Still, she’d like to return to service and once again take up her status as one of the longest-serving bartenders in the French Quarter. “I’m still physically able,” she said. “And I can run circles around some of these younger bartenders.”
Miss Lisa Zumpe
How did you find your way behind the bar?
I was a cocktail waitress. I was 21 years old, at a club owned by [jazz musician] Ronnie Kole. I worked there for a year and a half. Here comes VJ [co-owner of the Chart Room]. He said, “Do you want to bartend at The Chart Room? Have you ever bartended?” I lied, “Oh, sure.” This was 1975. Ray [the other owner of The Chart Room] said to me, “OK, Lisa, I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to put you on probation for a month. We’ll see how you do.” It was amazing how quickly I got good it at. Years later, I looked at Ray and said, “Remember, Ray, when you hired me and put me on probation for a month. Am I still on probation?”
What makes for a good bartender?
You have to have a tremendous amount of patience—up to a point. I’m a very patient person, but if you push me, it’s not nice. You have to work through the nonsense. A lot of people want to bare their souls, because they have no one else to talk to. Patience is a big thing.
What makes for a good bartender at Chart Room specifically?
It’s a neighborhood bar in the French Quarter, which is a rarity these days. We have regular customers, with all their quirks. In this bar, it gets to be like family. It’s that kind of connection and caring. The Chart Room is an everyday thing with them. People compare it to Cheers.
What has changed about bartending during the course of your career?
Rudeness. I see a lot of rudeness and disrespect. And everybody’s in a rush. It’s, “me, me, me, me, me.” Just sit down; I see you, and I’ll get to you when it’s your turn. People have no patience in bars. They come in and expect immediate attention. And definitely the way people drink. People used to drink cocktails. It was a social thing. Now they want to drink fast and get loaded.
What advice would you give a young bartender just entering the profession?
Honestly, I’d tell them don’t do it. Go to school. I don’t see it so much as a profession anymore, like when I got into it. But if you really want to get into it, just take care of yourself. Don’t get caught up in the partying and drinking and carrying on. I’ve seen so much destruction. You have to protect and maintain yourself. Hold yourself in high regard.
I’m sure you’ve had a lot of memorable customer encounters. Can you share one?
This guy comes in, all excited. He said, “Oh, my God! I haven’t been here in eight years. Please tell me you still have the frozen mugs of Miller High Life for $1.” I said, “Yes, but they’re $1.50 now.” He turned right around and left.
How did you get the nickname “Miss Lisa”?
In New Orleans, everything is “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” It’s all about Southern respect. The younger ones started calling me Miss Lisa. It’s just a respect thing.
What is the current situation at The Chart Room?
They shut us down March 16. We were closed three months. We came back in June and worked a month, and it was so trying, because you had rules. Customers had to have masks on and sign a contact-tracing card. The hardest thing is to get people to cooperate. People just wouldn’t get it. Of course, the COVID rate started going back up and they shut us down after four weeks.
Is the current pandemic the hardest time you’ve experienced in your career?Absolutely. I’m looking it at like when I came back from Katrina, after four weeks when my city was underwater. I was busy as all get-out, because I had FEMA people and security people in the bar. Slowly but surely, we got the old girl back together. After five years, it began to look like it did before Katrina. We came back so strong. Business started picking up, people started moving in. But this thing, you see so many restaurants and bars that are shuttered and are never coming back. It’s heartbreaking. I think it’s going to be a lot tougher this time making the comeback.
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
Before this whole COVID thing and layoff thing, I was working four shifts a week. I was thinking of cutting back to three nights. I’m a big dog lover. I was thinking about volunteering at the rescue centers. Now, I’ll take the four shifts back to recoup what I’ve lost. What are you going to do? I’d rather be around people than do nothing.
Any silver linings to this time for you?
I’ve got one customer that’s been coming in for 25 years. He comes in every Thursday night at 10:30 like clockwork. Now, every Thursday night he tips me as if he was at the bar, through Venmo. That’s nice.