In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.
Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.)
But you can buy a Hurricane anywhere in the city, and every gift shop sells Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix so you can make them at home. The drink is only part of the equation; atmosphere and an indulgent attitude are the rest. There is, I have been told, indoor seating at Pat O’Brien’s—including two separate bars and a dining room—but I’ve never seen it. The several times I’ve gone there, everyone who’s anyone was seated out on the Patio—a large outdoor courtyard, at the center of which is a flaming fountain. I have never figured out how they engineered this thing so that the water doesn’t extinguish the fire, but it’s extremely impressive. Likewise, rumor has it that the establishment has a respectable kitchen, but I can’t recall seeing anyone eating. Food, after all, would tend to dull the effects of the alcohol. Come to think of it…that could explain why I can’t remember seeing any food.
Steal This Glass
Your waiter will hand you a booklet featuring photos of all their specialty drinks—concoctions with names like Cyclone, Squall, Breeze, and Typhoon—each in a distinctive glass. The booklet explains why each drink appears to cost about $3 too much: the bar assumes most patrons will want to take their glass home as a souvenir. Rather than policing the customers and charging shoplifters a fine, they do the reverse: offer you a refund if you turn in your empty glass at the counter. If you take it with you, an attendant outside the restaurant will package it in a cardboard holder for safekeeping.
Pat O’Brien’s has franchises in Cancun, Orlando, Memphis, and San Antonio, as well as a thriving online business selling glasses, drink mixes, t-shirts, and tchotchkes of all kinds. But for the best and most authentic Hurricane experience, go to the source. And don’t forget to steal your glass. —Joe Kissell
To learn more about Pat O’Brien’s, visit their official Web site.