I first wandered into the Big Easy Bar in Ybor City during a raucous pub crawl.
Escaping the crowds in Ybor is an old pastime of mine, and this was a classic case. While The Lion's Den next door was wall-to-wall, with a long wait for drinks, the Big Easy Bar was wide open and relatively quiet — a much closer speed to what I wanted.
The Big Easy is a unique addition to the escape route. Rather than a lesser-known hole in the wall, which is where I usually find some relief from the party scene, the Big Easy is a very large, highly visible place right along a busy stretch of Seventh Avenue.
On weekends, the Big Easy's two full bars get plenty of action, and there's a spacious dining area that can handle a nice crowd. And it is liable to get crowded on the weekends, even if the vibe is less intense than at neighboring spots. On weekdays and other slow nights, it's big without feeling empty; chilled-out but only slightly removed from the perpetual party outside.
That's not to say that the Big Easy has no party vibe. You'll find the beads, carnival masks and other decorations that you'd associate with Mardi Gras, all worked into a faux French Quarter setting, complete with a balcony façade in the back.
Cheap shots are on the menu (Tullamore Dew and Captain Morgan are $5 all day, every day), there's plenty of draft beer, and live music is, of course, a staple. The whole thing is New Orleans-themed, and no city says "party" more than New Orleans.
New Orleans' French Quarter, of course, is known for Bourbon Street, which I think is a reasonably scaled-up approximation of Ybor City. Not even a block from Bourbon Street, amazingly, is my favorite French Quarter bar: Erin Rose. While the tourists are drinking $16 frozen daiquiris in light-up glasses 20 feet away, I'm enjoying a nice (and cheap) cocktail.
The Big Easy is much more high-profile than Erin Rose, but for me, it serves a similar purpose. It's a great place to have a drink and kick back for a while when you need a breather from the rest of the town.
As far as having a drink goes, I'd put that even higher on the list of reasons to visit. There is a nice selection of draft beers, including a handful of Abita brews — I'd love to see some NOLA Brewing on there someday — and an interesting selection of spirits, including Bayou rum distilled in Lacassine, just outside of Lake Charles.
The cocktail program at the Big Easy is killer. The list is fairly extensive, clocking in at 22 options, and it features an even mix of house takes on the classics, alongside some unique concoctions. If you only notice 20 cocktails on the printed menu, that's because two of them are rotating selections aging in barrels behind the bar. One of the current ones, for example, is a barrel-aged Boulevardier.
I tried one of the most elaborate cocktails on the list, the Centro Viejo. Ostensibly inspired by New Orleans' Vieux Carré, this drink uses the flavor profile of its predecessor — potent but sweet, with a classic vermouth-and-bitters edge — as direction rather than blueprint, creating a similarly robust cocktail with wildly different ingredients, ranging from Rhum Clément Barrel Select to black tea and vanilla syrup. Elaborate recipes can easily lead to failure, but this one easily passed the test.
Other noteworthy entries include the VooDoo Child (Hendricks gin and elderflower liqueur with cucumber and celery bitters, served in an oak-smoked glass) and the Angel's Envy Feature, which is a dealer's choice option involving the eponymous whiskey.
This latter option is your bartender's chance to shine, and mine did not disappoint, crafting a straightforward cocktail of Angel's Envy, a splash of simple syrup and Zucca, an Italian aperitif made with rhubarb, citrus and spices. Simple as can be, yet it was a completely new flavor combination for me.
Aside from the drinks, I just plain like the feel of the place. The brick and wood interior is nicely balanced with some low-key lighting and a few colorful flourishes, like fresh flowers and a cornucopia of garnishes, fruit, herbs and ingredients for cocktails along the bar. As far as themed bars and restaurants go, this one is on the money. The only thing that could make it more New Orleans is if the bar stayed open until sunrise, but alas, we're stuck with these boring old Florida laws. Given the rest of the positives, I'm willing to let this technicality slide.
Contact Justin Grant at [email protected] Follow @WordsWithJG.