The Deep End
New Orleans has long been the land of cocktails. And among its bartenders, Chris Hannah has practically become synonymous with one of them: the french 75. Having spent the last fourteen years at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in the French Quarter, he wagers he’s made more of the Champagne and Cognac concoction than anyone else in the world. But when he sheds the institution’s signature white jacket-black bowtie getup, he has some other tricks up his sleeve. In March, after a few years of research trips to Cuba with the esteemed cantinero Julio Cabrera, Hannah opened intimate Cuban cocktail bar Manolito with fellow Crescent City bartender Nick Detrich. And when he’s off duty he still finds himself in bars, only these are found on the other side of the drinking world—those weirdly wonderful, buzz-you-in dive bars that serve cold drinks on the cheap. We asked the seasoned veteran to dish on his favorite joints around town.
“When you work in the service industry, you go to a dive bar after work. It’s an escape where you don’t need to put on a show.”
How’d you land in New Orleans?
Growing up, my parents were old souls, and I was always interested in older things, like jazz. After college on the East Coast, I was disappointed with everyday USA, and the furthest I could get away from everything was always going to be New Orleans.
What do you love about being behind the bar?
I can be a character in the play I call New Orleans. You get to the bar two hours early and set the scene, and then you can be a part of people’s evening out.
What makes a great bartender?
I think the best bartenders are the ones who fit the room and know how to handle everything that’s going on in that room. I’m not going to walk into a bar on Bourbon in a tuxedo and try to stir someone a drink. (I applaud people who can run bars like that for so long.)
Tell us about Manolito.
A few years ago when I started these trips with Julio Cabrera, I didn’t know it would lead to me and Nick [Detrich] opening this little spot on Dumaine Street. We really liked the head bartender at Floradita [Manuel Carbajo Aguiar] who died tragically in a car accident last year. The bar is named for him.
What’s the vibe like?
If you’re walking through Old Havana it feels like you’re walking in the French Quarter because of the Spanish architecture. You hear Cuban music in the background; you’re having a Cuban cocktail. Every time I sit [at Manolito] and have a drink I think how perfect it is, bringing the whole story of the French Quarter full circle.
And frozen drinks are on the menu?
There are blenders on every bar. It’s funny—I remember fifteen years ago I was trying to get the blender off the bar. I hated it. And then in Cuba I learned it can be done classically. I was happy to bring that back.
What draws you to dive bars?
Usually when you’re working in the service industry, you go to a dive bar after work. You like it a little dark; it’s an escape where pretty much no one will bother you and you don’t feel like you need to put on a show. You feel like it’s your own little secret.
What makes a great dive?
There are rules. My number one is no internet jukebox—that way, it is definitely that bartender’s domain. I wouldn’t expect any cocktails with more than three ingredients. Not more than two types of bitters. I don’t expect it to be dusted daily. And very dim lighting—you’re going into a room where you don’t want to be recognized.
Do you have a go-to order?
It’s usually bourbon on the rocks or beer.
And what about at home—what’s your drink of choice?
It’s either going to be Cognac or bourbon.
Would you ever leave New Orleans and move somewhere else?
Not in America, no. If I landed a dream job at a tiki bar on a beach on an island in the Caribbean where I could wear a flower shirt and straw hat to work, that would be the only way I’d leave.
Hannah Goes Diving:
“Who doesn’t like a Christmas lounge known for bad decisions?” Hannah asks. (The bar is festooned with string lights year round.) “I appreciate the bartender’s choice in playlists, and although I’m a fan of their famously cheeky rule—indeed I have not come in nude for free drinks.”
“An Uptown service industry dive, and a proper one,” Hannah says of this twenty-four-hour bar that occupies a mustard-yellow building on Magazine Street. He goes for three reasons: when he’s looking for camaraderie, seeking an interesting turn to his evening, and “to see if that amazing jukebox in the back is up and running yet.”
Hannah dubs Pete’s Out in the Cold “probably NOLA’s truest of dive bars.” A door buzzer grants access to an “old interior and bar that could double as a VFW lodge normally found in the Midwest.” Plus, it still has a delivery window on the side from the days when it operated as a speakeasy.
This unglamorous old cottage in Bywater is hallowed ground for many locals. The neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter is filled with service industry workers, “which is blue collar when it comes to New Orleans— even with the influx of hipsters,” Hannah notes. Inside, the drinks are cheap, there are no windows, and the jukebox is loaded with classic New Orleans albums. “My kind of dive,” he says.
Appropriately identifiable by a prideful neon sign that’s nearly the size of the bar itself, Lamplighter is really “everything you’d hope for in a Metairie dive bar: appropriately priced and with room for a day drinking crowd,” Hannah says.
It’s hard to miss this icon in Bywater—“It looks like it just may well fall down,” Hannah says. While he considers Vaughan’s more of a neighborhood joint than a dive, “once inside, it’s the most welcoming.” There’s free food on Saints Sundays, live music once a week, and for the other nights, “a spectacular jukebox.”
“A new clientele and a couple new photos on the wall show signs of progress at this Bywater haunt—emphasis on haunt because once inside, you’ll figure David Lynch will follow right behind you,” Hannah says. While the bar breaks one of his token dive rules—they make cocktails—“that’s negated by no windows and a manual, non-internet jukebox,” he says.
Even though Mayfair Lounge is located just off St. Charles Avenue, patrons still need to be buzzed in to enter. “The cheer behind the bar is hit and miss—but then sometimes that’s why you’re there,” Hannah says.
“I’ve been to the Saint more than any other bar in the entire city. So, yes, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions,” Hannah admits. “The bartenders are magic and on the weekends it’s possibly the best party in town. Solid pours, a couple frozen drinks, and there’s a photo booth—so you’ll remember.”
Hannah digs the vibe of this so-called “cocktail lounge” located deep on the Westbank. “I love an old, untouched bar room that’s also fully carpeted,” he says. An ambient red glow bounces off the dark wooden bar and patrons’ faces alike, “and its furniture and the little dance floor by the jukebox completes it.”