I went to some of New Orleans' fanciest, most iconic bars — but had a better time at the dive bars that locals swear by

Flickr/Dan SilversThe famous Carousel Bar & Lounge at Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.
  • New Orleans has some of the most iconic bars in America.
  • On a recent trip to New Orleans, I visited several of the city’s landmark upscale bars, as well as some of the local dives that locals swear by.
  • I noticed a huge difference in the experience you get at both types of bar – and I know which kind I’ll be returning to next time I’m in the Big Easy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories

New Orleans is a place of endless contradictions.

The city’s multifaceted culture is an enormous draw for tourists. And in particular, the epicurious ones.

As a bartender about to embark on my first “true” taste of New Orleans (a college spring break trip during Mardi Gras where my friends and I slept in the car and ate only at Waffle House doesn’t count) – I was determined to experience each side of the city’s bar culture.

The fancy, and the divey.

Like most bartenders, I gravitate to the dives. But New Orleans is exceptional: This is a city whose upscale bars either birthed or perfected several of the classic cocktails I make on a daily basis.

Armed with local friends to guide me to the humbler taverns, and expert bartender recommendations on the fancier joints, I got a fantastic taste of both the posh and proletarian watering holes.

As much as I enjoy elegant hand soaps and bartenders in bow ties, I fully plan to skip the haute hangouts on the next visit.

At most of the upscale bars I visited, you pay more for the same quality – or sometimes worse

I’ll start with the Big One. Sticker shock. Obviously, that’s a perfectly normal caveat if you’re going to be bougie in the Big Easy.

Emma WitmanCocktails at the landmark Sazerac Bar in New Orleans.

But the real kicker is that you aren’t paying more for more when you drink at a fancy bar. You’re paying more for the same.

Hotels house most of New Orleans’ fanciest bars. These are the bars that bring with them infamy, legacy, and of-a-different-time atmospheres, drawing in droves of tourists.

While the splendor is lovely to look at, I found that the “luxury tax,” so to speak, is brazenly audacious in New Orleans. Worse even than that pesky 9.45% sales tax you’re also slapped with in the city.

The “house” or “well” liquors might – but not necessarily – be a small upgrade. Tanqueray versus Gordon’s. Maker’s Mark versus Old Grand-Dad. But at most, it’s the sort of difference that should account for $US1 or $US2 more.

Instead, basics like a gin and tonic creep into the double digits. With “the cheap stuff.”

At the very least, I felt that a double-digit Bacardi daiquiri should also buy five minutes sitting at the Carousel Bar & Lounge’s eponymous rotating attraction.

Instead, I stood spitefully sipping my $US13 drink as I watched the lucky passengers’ slow orbit around the bar. I finally gave up after a solid 20 minutes of trying to scout an open seat before exiting through the glamourous lobby of the Hotel Monteleone.

What the humbler haunts of New Orleans lack in indoor amusement park rides, they make up with something you’ll never see at the fancy bars whose reputations precede them: specials.

One review of a favourite dive bar of my trip, Bar Tonique, said it best: “When you need a break from Bourbon Street, but can’t leave the Quarter, head to Bar Tonique for a quality $US5 cocktail, and no bachelor parties.”

I thought I was dreaming when I saw their Caipirinha listed at $US5. Because other than cheap beer, you’re be hard-pressed to find anything for $US5 behind the hotel bars.

There was a major difference in the makeup of the bar staff, too

There was another thing you rarely see behind the hotel bars that I saw at every single dive bar I visited – women.

By my count, in four hotel and upscale bars with approximately 12 bartenders total, I counted among them one woman. One.

I was flummoxed by the imbalance, perhaps naively: In all fairness to New Orleans the lopsided ratio is likely a more damning indictment of craft cocktail culture in general.

And if you’re looking, you can find plenty of badass females bartending in the city.

But still, I hated to see the lack of women at the storied, iconic hotel bars. Representation matters.

It was at the Sazerac Bar, inside the Roosevelt New Orleans (a Waldorf Astoria hotel) that I encountered the lone XX mixologist of my hotel bar crawl. Rachel, by the way, made my favourite Vesper of the entire trip.

Don’t be suprised if the cocktails you get at the dive bars are better than their upscale counterparts

But don’t be surprised if the cocktail you get at a dive is just as good – if not better – than a fancy bar’s creation.

In fact, my second favourite Vesper of the trip came from Red Truck Clubhouse, a dimly lit dive favoured by off-duty bartenders.

BarEmma WitmanA bartender at the Red Truck Clubhouse dive bar.

Seem impossible? Far from it. In fact, craft cocktail bartending has become so prolific, you can find it almost anywhere. I’d venture to guess that even establishments lowest on the pecking order of cocktailing make Old Fashioneds.

The Red Truck was a breath of fresh air, and I was fortunate to discover this gem of a place via a friend and former coworker who bartends at the Ritz-Carlton’s Davenport Lounge.

In the course of a day at hotel bars, people-wise I had pretty much only seen a) other tourists, and b) tightly uniformed staff. The experience felt like a Disney-fied version of the city.

At Red Truck, I talked to locals, took the bartender’s favourite shot (equal parts tequila and Cynar), and devoured $US2 pizza by the slice.

No, it wasn’t my favourite meal. But you know what also wasn’t my favourite meal? A $US68 brunch consisting of a bland omelette, a few mimosas, and a strawberry crepe that admittedly was so good it almost justified the price. Almost.

Nope. Favourite meal, in fact, was some of the best fried chicken of my life from a gas station that cost less than $US10.

From theme parks abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, to the hotel bars featuring full-sized rides within them, New Orleans’ paradoxical nature is what makes the city simultaneously so baffling, endearing, and enigmatic.

In this sense, a true sampling of the NOLA bar scene might require hitting the hotels, and if I had to choose a couple fancy bars to revisit, I’d go with these: Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, for the atmosphere and cocktail napkins alone; and the Davenport Lounge, for the air conditioning and complimentary homemade potato chips and wasabi peas.

But if you’re pondering where to focus the majority of your spirituous endeavours in New Orleans, my response mirrors my answer to the age old question of “What’s your favourite drink on the menu?” when a guest can’t decide what to order.

It’s a matter of personal preference.

Personally, I’ll forgo the fancy bars next time. Even if I never get to ride that dang carousel.

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