Food & Drink

The Perfect Bar

And why the South has so many of them

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Arnaud's French 75 bartender Chris Hannah at work.

Toward the end of R. L. Burnside’s life, some television producers selected the North Mississippi blues shouter’s bleak, magisterial ode “Woke Up This Morning” as the opening theme for The Sopranos series. A little money began lapping at R. L.’s ankles. Not much changed for him except that he had to padlock his refrigerator with a stout porch-swing chain run through the handle—relatives and friends had begun dropping by when he was out and helping themselves to the potables, on the theory that the TV money would automatically refill the icebox.

“I made a New Year’s resolution,” he announced at a concert during this period. “I decided I was gonna quit drinkin’, unless I was by myself, or with somebody.”
Taking a cue from his impeccable logic, this is our theory: The South has produced such excellent establishments in which to drink “with somebody” because we have created such a cornucopia of fine, local, organically grown reasons to drink. Here are a few: Fishing. No fishing. Summer. Failing summer, Mardi Gras. Weeklong cotillions and/or “telephone book” weddings. Recovery from weeklong cotillions and/or “telephone book” weddings. SEC football championship, won. SEC football championship, lost. Cotton crop, good. Cotton crop, bad.

And so forth, covering every aspect of life, place, season, and hour of the day. The bars of the South have been designed to cradle and nurture this universe of infinite possibility. Take the dark, beautiful Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, established in 1933. The Esquire fronts onto Commerce Street but backs onto the River Walk—so that the caballeros entering the long tin-ceilinged room are accompanied on the left for the entire distance from street to river by nearly a hundred feet of oak bar. Walking along it, you think it will stop because the Texas boys must eventually have run out of wood. But—like Texas as a place and Texans as a people—the Esquire’s bar doesn’t stop until it hits the river. Being in the Esquire is by definition being “at” the bar.

The perfectly ramshackle Snake and Jake's in New Orleans.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Dive In

The perfectly ramshackle Snake and Jake’s in New Orleans.

Great Southern bars are often at the edges of something big. At the Lorelei, the Islamorada watering hole on Upper Matecumbe Key in the Florida Keys beloved by backcountry guides and fishermen, a snowy egret patrols the rail next to the bar. Nobody pays him any mind, which is why he’s so comfortable hopping from the rail to the tables as the guides assess the tides and the moon and the performance of the tarpon over drinks at sunset. The egret is straight out of a Melville novel, a portentous beast of the wilderness, standing sentinel as the fishermen plot yet another invasion of his territory. The Lorelei is the last bit of civilization the guides see as they make the twenty-five-mile run in their skiffs for the backcountry, and the first bit of civilization they see as they return.

And then—at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum from a bar catering to $600-a-day guides and the anglers who can afford them—there is the juke joint. I once visited the storied R. L. Burnside kitchen and tested the refrigerator chain personally, on an evening when a few of us had driven over to beg him to play a couple of sets at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint outside Holly Springs, Mississippi. Burnside never locked his door. He just locked the refrigerator. The chain was on, which meant no R. L. We went to Junior’s anyway, hoping to find him there. He wasn’t. But his hyperkinetic grandson, drummer Cedric Burnside, was at Junior’s and played like the devil incarnate.

Junior’s has since burned to the ground as a result of what we might call terminal juke-joint-ness—meaning, the unholy combination of frayed 1930s wiring in a sharecropper’s house and moonshine in the larder. Technically, as a bar, Junior’s had nothing to recommend it. The moonshine could eat the deposits off a junkyard carburetor, and the beer was worse. But before its inevitable metamorphosis into an ash heap, Junior’s did have the rockingest house band in the South: Junior himself on guitar, Burnside on guitar, and Cedric on drums. After Junior died, the Kimbroughs and their associates kept doling out the dollar beers and the ’shine, R. L. and Cedric kept playing when they didn’t have paying gigs, and people kept driving in from miles around to dance on the busted linoleum.

In addition to the superb music, there were a couple of other Southern peculiarities. One was that nobody tried too hard. If Junior’s family had been trying harder, they might have offered something to eat besides the overcooked hot dogs, or found some slightly more palatable forms of swill. They didn’t. This bred an unapologetic, you’re-in-our-living-room level of hospitality. Anybody could walk into Junior’s and dance their asses off—anybody: the working people of Holly Springs, professors from Oxford, fans of Burnside’s from around the region. Junior’s effortlessly accomplished that stripped-down thing that often occurs in great Southern bars: It dove for the low end with such force and velocity that it punched through the bottom and came out on top.

And that is the mark of a perfect bar.