Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a modern cocktail bar in the French Quarter that is the opposite of everything you find on Bourbon Street.
NAME: Cane & Table
LOCATION: French Quarter, New Orleans
ON THE JUKEBOX: The Alan Parsons Project, William Onyeabor, Fela Kuti
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Boss Colada: Bäska Snaps, white rum, orgeat, pinapple juice, lime juice and Peychaud’s bitters, served in a hollowed-out pineapple or coconut (your choice)
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Boss Colada
WHY WE LOVE IT: Cane & Table is not a tiki bar. Sure, it serves big, colorful drinks out of hollowed-out pineapples, but owner Kirk Estopinal says he and his business partner Neal Bodenheimer are not fanboys. “We like tiki drinks, but we feel like they are one note,” Estopinal says. “How many nights a week does someone want to drink tiki? Maybe one night a week? Once a month? Once a year?”
So they built Cane & Table in New Orleans’ French Quarter as a place where tiki is accepted and loved, but where classic cocktail culture is the star; they came up with the term “proto-tiki” to describe their style. “We say our range of drinks is from the discovery of the New World to the Volstead Act,” Estopinal says. With those very specific parameters, the menu can play with history, drawing inspiration from drinks Charles Dickens wrote about, drinks the first dozen presidents loved and the early, tropical drinks of the Carribean.
“In New Orleans we have influences coming in from all over the world,” says Nick Detrich, the third managing partner of the bar. “We have a pretty large breath of time to pull ideas from.” Their drinks incorporate a lot of gin, fortified wines, and of course, rum. “Rum is the easiest thing to fall back on,” Detrich says. The bar carries about 90 bottles of rum, representing each rum-producing country and each style of rum. “But to make sure that the menu offerings are fresh, we are always exploring other combinations.“
One way to do that is to look at drinks that work well with rum and get them to work with other spirits. Or to look at cocktail techniques that were prevalent in the 20th Century and apply them to drinks before that time. Take the Smoke and Plank cocktail, for example, a Carribean-spiced sour made with mezcal and cherry bounce. "There’s an irreverent line through everything we do,” Detrich says.
The same is true for Cane & Table’s patina bar, which has a weathered, aged look to it. “The inside feels like the mildly dilapidated French Quarter outside,” Estopinal says. “You are immersed in history just walking in the space.” The team didn’t necessarily design the interior to look that way; they just stripped everything down to its original, distressed bones. “It feels odd to walk into a place in the French Quarter that looks really polished and new inside. It loses something in our opinion.”
Estopinal and Bodenheimer are also the partners behind the New Orleans cocktail bars Cure and Bellocq. They both grew up in New Orleans, but made their careers in other cities: Bodenheimer in New York and Estopinal in Chicago, where he helped open The Violet Hour. “After the storm, we both moved back to New Orleans to try to do good things in the city, to help it be the city that we always dreamed it could be,” Estopinal says. “A lot of people did that. Right now everyone is starting to realize that we didn’t all have the same vision.”
He believes the challenge will be balancing the preservation of the sometimes dumpy New Orleans aesthetic with modern growth, which many refer to as the Houstonization of the city. Another conflict is beginning to appear in the dining scene: According to Estopinal, something like 300 restaurants opened in New Orleans last year, as they have every year since Katrina. (Cane & Table’s dining program, designed by Chef Jason Klutts, is made of dishes from cultures that produce rum. Think duck tostadas and curried rabbit.)
“It’s getting to be where there aren’t enough people to go to these restaurants, which will present an interesting future for New Orleans’ food scene,” Estopinal says. Restaurants have started closing within months of opening, which he’s never seen happen before. “I may sound like a jerk for saying this, but I feel like for the first time there is going to be some actual, hard competition against other restaurants,“ Estopinal says. "It’s been happening, but it’s getting more aggressive. And the people who position themselves the right way will win, hopefully. We always figure out a way to distinguish ourselves and stay interesting.”