“Step right up to the bar,” has been the warm welcome at Tujague’s since 1856. Tujague’s Restaurant, is the home of America’s oldest standup bar. America’s early barrooms often lacked bar stools. Customers (all male, of course!) stood at the bar, often with one foot resting on the brass floor rail. Very few bars of that style still remain today.
Customers and bartenders alike are reflected in the ancient mirror that backs the bar’s wall. The mirror, which arrived in New Orleans in the mid 1850’s spent its first century in a Parisian bistro. Today, as in centuries past, neighborhood locals stand side by side visitors toasting occasions large and small or just catching an after work beer.
Although the original Tujague’s was located just three doors down on Decatur, the original site of Begue’s Exchange, New Orleans pre-eminent restaurant of the 19th century. In 1917, when young Philip Guichet, Sr. moved his restaurant into the vacated Begue’s space, big things began happening in the bar.
Young, competitively natured Guichet, travelled to New York City in 1918 on the eve of Prohibition where he invented a sweet, creamy, green concoction, dubbed the Grasshopper. He took second place in that competition but from then on, the cocktail was a fixture at Tujague’s.
Despite the nuisance of Prohibition, the bar at Tujague’s never closed.
Photos from those days show sober gentlemen gathered at a bar that doesn’t seem to offer more than soda water and near beer. But the bar was far from dry.
Waiters carried bottles in the pockets of their voluminous white aprons to accommodate thirsty customers, a practice not totally ignored by the authorities.
The Times-Picayune reported in 1931, “New Orleanian, Philip Guichet was seized by a raider after serving absinthe. He denied selling liquor despite the accusations of a Prohibition agent who claimed to have seen him serving absinthe to a patron in the restaurant below his apartment.” Luckily, Mr. Guichet eventually escaped the charges.
His love of competitive bartending never left him. Almost forty years after inventing the Grasshopper, Guichet travelled again to New York City to compete in the Early Times National Cocktail Competition. This time, he captured first place with a drink he called the Whiskey Punch.
The Whiskey Punch never achieved the international fame of the Grasshopper, and in fact was completely lost in time until early 2015, when four photos and the first place red ribbon were discovered in Tujague’s third floor attic.
The greatest discovery was an envelope on the back of the framed piece. Inside the envelope, was a typewritten page with his winning recipe for the Whiskey Punch.
In 1982, the late Steven Latter purchased Tujague’s from the Guichet family proudly keeping the one hundred and twenty five year old tradition alive. Judges and lawyers kept lively company in the bar, often whiling away the hours playing poker dice at a round table. Not much of a drinker, himself, when Steven did imbibe, his drink of choice was Crown Royal. Just a few years before his death, Steven saw a purple, velvet Crown Royal throne on display at Rouses. He heckled the local distributor for one of those thrones, until finally, it was installed in the bar’s back corner, where Steven held court over America’s oldest standup bar.