Bars dripping with tourists are a dime-a-dozen in New Orleans, with cheap day drinking specials and Slimer-green frozen favorites (ahem, Tropical Isle) drawing in the masses on any given Tuesday.
If you’re looking for a traditional gilding the lily experience, there’s the famous (and famously dangerous) 25-cent Martini lunch at Commander’s Palace. For those with a knack for frozen cocktails that could flatten the most formidable of drinkers, there’s the “purple drank” (made with Everclear, naturally) at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
And if you want a bar that’s able to deliver on kitschy vintage charm with a wink and a nod to its own ridiculousness, Pat O’Brien’s is the place to go.
Pat O’s (as it’s known among both friends and whooping out-of-towners) is widely regarded as the granddaddy of all tourist traps; It’s the kind of place where the drinks taste like a slurry of Skittles and grain alcohol and someone could easily lose a flip-flop to the grenadine-shellacked floors. The disdain is particularly true among the cocktail-inclined, many of whom fault Pat O’s and their syrupy-sweet version of the Hurricane as ruining the nuanced magic of the drink.
And in many respects, they’re right. Pat O’s is pulsing with out-of-towners in various circles of drunken hell and their version of the Hurricane is indeed a treacly one-way trip to the worst hangover imaginable. The drinks are almost clinically strong and no bartender has any interest in talking shop about that time you made your own falernum. Most things come out of jugs and pouches.
What they do know how to do, though, is have a damn good time.
Getting to the Pat O’s mothership—the real one, if you will—can be a trifle confusing, simply because the bar has spawned numerous offshoots, Gremlins-style, across the French Quarter and around the U.S. In New Orleans, these hole-in-the-wall pit stops are for those interested in snagging a drink on the go, but lack the je ne sais quoi that makes the original bar a destination joint.
Located in a salmon-colored, centuries-old building on St. Peter St., the official Pat O’s easily transcends its tourist rep by sheer force of will, serving as an unabashed passion play of New Orleans outlandishness. Upon arrival, guests tumble into the cool darkness of its castle-like entryway, and the bar’s quirky, pink-and-hunter green color scheme (like a candy store meets Valley of the Dolls) quickly comes into focus. Then, you choose your own adventure.
On one side, you can venture into a wooden barroom with a graveyard of vintage beer steins hanging from the ceiling. Out back, in the courtyard, you can go straight to the flaming fountain, which serves as a giant roman candle for groups crowded around umbrella-lined tables, sipping quasi-tropical concoctions.
Either way, you’ll eventually be drinking a Hurricane inside the piano bar.
A cavernous room with chairs and tables squeezed sardine-tight, every human in the place has come to worship at the altar of the baby grand pianos positioned back-to-back on stage. The dueling pianists ping-pong songs back and forth under the blaze of the spotlight, taking requests that have been hastily scrawled out on napkins while bantering about any gratuitous notes: birthdays, engagements, “Brooklyn pride,” someone’s obsession with Billy Joel.
Karaoke classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s are popular fodder and if you can make it through a Pat O’s experience without at least one version of “Tiny Dancer” or “Take It Easy,” count yourself among the blessed (or cursed, depending on who you ask). Sometimes, though, the requests can surprise. On a recent night, the playlist ranged from Spin Doctors to Frank Sinatra, including one particular pianist’s regular party trick: simultaneously playing and rapping Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in its entirety. It brings the house down every time.
So, yes, you might be seated next to a tiara-wearing bachelorette who requests a Kelly Clarkson song. And you’ll probably wake up with an epic hangover and a bright red, 80-proof ring of Hurricane-shame around your lips. But no matter. You’ve survived a night at Pat O’s and lived to tell the tale.