Wednesday, March 7, 2012

New Orleans Trip #7: Buffa's and Bicycles

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Buffa's Lounge. I wryly repeat the name: Buffa's Lounge.

Entrance is through a happily claustrophobic narrow bar up front with friendly bartenders, and you'd swear that's all there is to the place. But you sidle through a narrow doorway, and suddenly find yourself in 1935. The atmospheric back room is an uncontrived, unspoiled, completely natural time capsule. I see no sign of recent renovation, nor is there dilapidation. You have been transported, and there's no better place to have a drink or four.

The back room bartender is usually a dude named D.R., and he's a character. D.R. is a decent honkeytonk pianist who knows everyone and everything, and will broadcast stories full of wit and surprise. I say "broadcast" because D.R. doesn't engage. On those rare occasions when he stops talking, he'll more or less pick up a word or two in whatever you're saying to him, and launch into his next soliloquy, which will more or less pertain to what he thinks you might have just said. Very little penetrates. But great stuff comes out. Just let the show play, like a TV set.

The kitchen operates 24 hours, as does the front room (the back room's only open evenings). Too full from previous meals to order anything but a bite, we ordered fried string beans. And, from my visual perspective at the time, this is how they looked:

A lot is made of very little. String beans, batter...that's it. And while they stubbornly resisted focus, the flavor was spicy and irresistible.

We returned the following morning for breakfast in the front bar: shrimp and grits. It (they?) was sublime (with, naturally, a good splash of hot sauce):

Unfortunately, Buffa's doesn't make corned beef hash around Mardi Gras time (this was the week before), which broke my heart.

Buffa's hosts an infamous open mic night Wednesdays from 8 to 11. There were the obligatory morose singer/songwriter duos, but also some quirky acts. It's actually way fun. I played in trio with some friends, and D.R. sprung up on stage uninvited to attack the piano and planted himself there throughout our performance (customers at the bar were left temporarily dry). Hey, it's New Orleans. Otra cultura. You go with it.

No tourists. Only locals. Great food. A couple good beers. Some other stuff I don't remember real clearly. The mixed bag that is D.R.. The unaffectedly old-timey ambience. Buffa's!

Here's a big insight: when you find yourself hungover three mornings in a row, you get a deep feeling that your life's made a certain turn. The next morning was early, as I'd reserved spots in a New Orleans bike tour. We'd been told it'd be led by a prominent, bawdy NOLA bartender, renowned for her riotous bike tours, which were rumored to include stops at local bars. Me and bassist buddy Josef arrived at the appointed spot, and found that the tour leader had been switched, and the replacement was a dude who was speaking extremely loudly to our hungover selves. Here's Josef's strained, frozen smile as he desperately wonders what we'd gotten ourselves into:

Neither of us was ever so ridiculously wrong. Cassidy just happens to be a natural-born bike tour leader - so much so that he can't turn off his bellowing biking voice (even pre-tour when he's standing feet away from you). The tour was spectacularly good. It was like having your smartest friend, who's read everything about New Orleans plus lived there his whole life, passionately taking you on a highly personal trip around town to make you love the place as much as he does.

Never once was there the slightest impression that our guide had ever spoken a word of his patter before. It was the un-tour Tour. And everywhere we went, astonished locals (in white nabes, black nabes, and nabes both rich and poor) approached the group to take in Cassidy's world-class, brilliant, insightful, hilarious patter. They clearly wished they were on the tour themselves.

I don't care how familiar you are with New Orleans, or how much you hate tours. Do not go near New Orleans without taking one of these tours (they offer culinary tours, "history of drinking" tours, historical tours, cultural tours, custom tours, etc.). More info at the "Confederacy of Cruisers" web site.

Read the next installment (#8)

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