A Bywater Nexus: Bacchanal Wine

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New Orleans’ Bacchanal Wine and the Bywater community that surrounds it share a unique history together. In late 2005, Bacchanal – three years old, and only a wine shop at the time – helped bring the community together while it recovered after Hurricane Katrina. This story on Via NOLA Vie explains how local chefs, whose restaurants had closed in Katrina’s aftermath, served food at Bacchanal in what The Bacchanal Wine website refers to as “the original New Orleans pop-ups.”

The Bacchanal website goes on to explain, however, that a lack of permission or permits from the city led to the police raiding the shop one Friday night. The VNV story writes that the whole business was in danger of shutting down – but the community wasn’t having it. A year-long legal struggle ensued, per the story on Bacchanal’s site, but members of the community showed up in support of Bacchanal on their day in City Hall – and together they won.

Today, Bacchanal is venerated on the Internet with praises like “New Orleans’ secret garden of wine” and “the coolest bar in the world.” You could still miss the restaurant pretty easily if you shop quickly enough, though. You don’t see a stage or dining room tables when you walk in the front door – you just see a little ol’ wine shop that’s dimly-lit, cozy, and easy to navigate. When you pass through that door on the north-facing wall and head left, that’s when you’re headed toward the action.

For a Minnesotan, the first Sunday in August 2019 was another exercise in humidity endurance. For an Orleanian, based on what I heard from locals in passing, it wasn’t too bad a day. The picnic tables and chairs in Bacchanal’s backyard were empty that afternoon, save for some small puddles from an earlier rainfall. Today’s action was packed in upstairs, in a restaurant whose appearance could be recreated in the top floor of somebody’s home – but what’s nice about restaurants is you can invite yourself to them whenever you want. You’re a fool if you don’t give yourself one to Bacchanal.

In one room, lights hang down between wooden beams and illuminate a cluster of dining tables. The musicians play against the back wall, no stage, just right there in front of the tables. It felt like an indoor version of the backyard parties I saw in pictures and videos online. In the bar, I only noticed a steady flow of foot traffic and an interesting ceiling. It comes to a triangular peak rather than a flat surface, and it’s decorated with what appear to be wooden-framed burlap sacks of some sort. Fun fact: according to this chart on the Brittanica website, Bacchanal has a hip roof.

Look around in the bar and you’ll see tattooed body parts, beards, sundresses, button-ups, slacks, distressed denim jeans, but not enough of any one element to point out and say “THAT’S who comes here.” Everyone does. They come, they laugh, and they’re happy.

It’s hard to spot the weirdo is in a room like this unless you are the weirdo, and today’s weirdo worked through a duck liver banh mi with the exact opposite of surgical precision. The weirdo had like 100 napkins balled up on his plate, but even those weren’t enough to keep his face clean of egg yolk and liver pate. The weirdo tried his very best to play it all cool, but a fly on the wall would probably tell you he did the opposite of that, too.

Yet, my discomfiture was mostly of the second-hand kind. One can’t help but eavesdrop when one suspects a first date is unfolding, and one was happening a couple of seats to my left. Over there, a young lady was toughing out what actually sounded like a pompous man’s date with himself. You should’ve heard him: name-dropping exotic yoga positions, patting himself on the back forcefully for past good deeds done, and declaring himself “recently plant-based.”

If reading people is karate, sure, I’m a first-degree Grain Belt – but the way she propped her head up with her forearm and just kind of sat there isn’t much different than how I picture myself looking when somebody is talking and I’d really prefer he or she not be. And I’m sure you already know what the guy looked like. How about we pivot back to the sandwich?

This banh mi wasn’t on the paper menu, but advertised on a small hanging chalkboard behind the bar. A special? I believe so. Was mine special? I nodded a lot while I ate this. Yes. Yes. Yes. Unoccupied pieces of bread were torn from the sandwich and used to mop up the smears of egg yolk and liver pate my face didn’t catch. The Funk of Cilantro (the working title of my memoir, if you’re curious) played alongside these instruments and made some very nice music.

I cleaned up after my banh mi, more or less, and ordered gazpacho for the first time in my life. Before this afternoon, my only encounters with gazpacho were a sampling of some a co-worker made at home, and a song called “Gazpacho” but a rapper so obscure I can’t even find the song on Spotify anymore. The gazpacho that day was a bowl of thinly-sliced jalapeno discs, sunflower, coriander, and cukes in a pond of yogurt. A bite with everything left a light electric burn on the tip of the tongue, but eased into something calming and cool. I scraped the bowl clean down to the faintest of residues.

I understand that having come here and not dabbled in wine means I didn’t experience perhaps the most important layer of this place. I’ll probably be the only one reporting on this place who doesn’t gush over tailored cheese plates and thoughtful wine pairings, and you know what? You can miss this and still have a great time. Their cocktails are reasonably-priced and your pet spirit will be well-represented. Mine is bourbon, as you know, as my Colonel Nonno was a pleasant sipper: Old Grand Dad bonded bourbon, Cynar, pinot noir and grapefruit. Very nice.

The menu changes but has dedicated sections to vegetables, snacks, seafood dishes, meats and desserts. There’s a sandwich special at lunch, though I can’t confirm 100-percent my sandwich was a part of that since I went on a Sunday. You can find the whole menu here.

BACCHANAL WINE

  • Hours: 11 a.m. – “around midnight” (kitchen open until 11 p.m. M-Th)
    By the Way: 21 and over, and they mean it.
  • Prices: Cocktails $10-12, munchies and sweets $6-8, other menu items $6-25 with a good mix of options at low, medium, and high-end price points.
  • Location: Right here!
  • Will I go back? Bacchanal Wine and nearby Parleaux Beer Lab are a dual stop I’ll work into every future New Orleans trip. Simple as that.

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Dating was added to the introduction, and attribution was clarified in the second paragraph after initial publication.

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