LRA Names Pat O'Brien's First Recipient of Icon Award
By Wendy Waren and Nicole Koster
**Story originally posted on 11/15/2022
New Orleans’ history is tightly woven with the restaurant & hospitality industry, and Pat O’Brien’s is one of many strong threads holding that fabric together. It’s the iconic Hurricane cocktail, Dueling Piano Bar and lush patio with the flaming fountain that have all solidified Pat O’ Brien’s as an icon of New Orleans southern hospitality. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, it has been the outdoor place to visit to experience the joie de vivre. After all, their motto is simply to ‘Have Fun!’
Storm’s a brewin’ in the Vieux Carré
The Pat O’Brien’s bar known today began in prohibition as a speakeasy on the corner of St. Peter and Royal Streets, known as Mr. Pat O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, owned and operated by Benson Harrison “Pat” O’Brien. The Tennessee native met Charlie Cantrell, a native of North Carolina. The two became fast friends and started running Club Tipperary together. If guests wanted to partake in the good stuff they had to say the password, ‘storm’s abrewin.’ Pat O’Brien’s went legit on December 3, 1933.
The pair wanted to do things bigger. Eventually, O’Brien and Cantrell purchased a building down the block at 718 St. Peter Street. Built in 1791, 718 St. Peter Street was once known as the St. Peter Street Theatre, first to open once Spain took rule over New Orleans. This was the site of the first ever opera performed in America, Sylvain, by André Ernest Grétry. Over the years, it changed hands and became a private family residence of the Deflechie family. O’Brien and Cantrell purchased the property in 1942, and the rest is history.
Live Entertainment and Original Cocktails Come Ashore
The new location offered space to go bigger and better with two baby grand pianos. Thus, the original Dueling Piano Show was born. Shelly Waguespack, the 3rd generation Owner and President of Pat O’Brien’s, says it’s the piano bar which placed Pat O’s on the map for top notch live entertainment.
“Dueling pianos are as important to Pat O’Brien’s success as the hurricane,” said Waguespack. “Our performers are fantastic and have been with us for decades.”
Together, pianist Vicki Amato and percussionist Alvin Babineaux have been entertaining the crowds for over 40 years. Amato began as a pianist there in 1980. For both musicians, Pat O’s is a second home.
“They have brought all of us in and treated us as family,” said Amato. “From the stage point of view, it’s a really gratifying experience to know that we are able to bring happiness to other people.”
Babineaux has a musical background as a drum player; his mother Mickey Graza was a famed Pat O’s entertainer for 18 years. He started at the bar in 1970 first as a porter, then bartender, then to the legendary tray. He’s been faithfully playing the tray since 1973.
“One of the best compliments I ever got,” Babineaux says, “was a man came in here, and he said ‘I’ve never been to New Orleans but when I walked through the door and saw what you were doing, that’s exactly what I expected New Orleans to be.’”
Waguespack says the piano bar embodies their mission to always have fun. Paired with one of their classic cocktails like the hurricane, singing along with the musicians will release endorphins.
“My favorite song to sing along with is Sweet Caroline,” said Waguespack. “Have a hurricane and sing your heart out. It’s good for the soul.”
An estimated half a million of those hurricanes are served from Pat O’Brien’s every year. The hurricane cocktail itself is a captured moment in time. When whiskey and other domestic spirits were in short supply during World War II, there was a high surplus of rum. You could only have the whiskey if you purchased a case of rum too. As luck would have it for bartenders everywhere, Americans did not have a taste for the spiced spirit. They had to get creative.
The story goes that O’Brien and Cantrell had to move rum fast, so the two of them, with their General Manager (Waguespack’s grandfather) George Oechsner Jr., started messing around with ways to make rum taste better. Originally, the recipe was aged Jamaican rum, lemon juice and a passionfruit syrup called fassionola. They served the dark red drink in a curved glass shaped like a hurricane oil lamp, and it was a smashing hit.
George and his son Sonny bought the bar from O’Brien in 1978. They have stuck to the bar’s beginnings and have moved it into the future. Now, you can purchase Pat O’ Brien’s drink mixes online and have them shipped across the U.S. and to Canada. One can even partake in the French Quarter fun at either their Orlando or San Antonio locations. Waguespack and VP of Operations Charlie Bateman have worked very hard to keep Pat O’Brien’s authentic, and preserve the elements which make the place so special for both tourists and locals.
Not just for tourists
There is something for everyone at Pat O’Brien’s. Beyond the expansive patio and the piano bar, there’s a main bar that immerses patrons into what looks and feels like a neighborhood bar. The L-shaped patio is the perfect spot to soak up the sun.
“I’ve been to Pat O’Brien’s countless times,” said Stan Harris, President and CEO of the LRA. “Pat O’Brien’s is the place to kick off the weekend festivities when we have people in town to entertain.”
As a younger man, Harris recalls hanging out at Pat O’Brien’s with his friends as the lead up to a night out bar hopping along Bourbon Street. As an adult, he uses the venue to impress upon visitors an authentic experience only New Orleans can offer.
“I love hosting groups at Pat O’Brien’s,” added Harris. “It’s the casual party vibe, open to the sky, with the flaming fountain that provides a subtle soundtrack accompanied by the sounds of laughter, chatter and cheers.”
If only that fountain could talk, and share stories of all the fun had in that courtyard. Bateman remembers a time when someone climbed into the fountain, only one memory among the thousands that must be in his head.
“He sat in there for a good few hours,” said Bateman. “Finally, he got out. We didn’t bother him. We have a lot of kindness for our customers. We don’t put up with unruly behavior, but we know how to handle it when we see it.”
Every day, Bateman wonders what he and his staff can do to make the guest experience at Pat O’Brien’s even better. That challenge is what has kept him around, since 1976. It was Bateman’s father who was a good friend of Sonny, whom offered him a job after college. Through the decades, the local crowd has fizzled but there are still the local New Orleans loyalists of Pat O’s who always come back for more.
“We’ve paid for ubers and cabs to get our locals home,” said Bateman. “We work very closely with our local clients because they’re very important to us.”
Waguespack loves the French Quarter and stands behind her family’s business as her platform to “help New Orleans along,” she says. The changes and obstacles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic were things she never thought would ever happen, but she and her team were able to adapt, and pivot to where they are now.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” said Waguespack. “No matter how successful you are, how much money you have in the bank. Especially with the last two years, things can happen.”
There is so much history packed into the property, which expanded in the 1990s when they purchased 624 Bourbon street to add a restaurant and space for special events. This also greatly expanded the courtyard to a full patio bar, and patrons can enter through either street.
The 4,000 square foot L-shaped patio wows guests every time, and still wows Waguespack everyday she walks through the doors. Waguespack attributes the fanfare and patronage to an outstanding team and improved efficiency. The team takes pride in welcoming everyone who walks into the bar.
“Just the feelings—the ambiance, and the passion and the dedication that customers and our employees have to this place,” Waguespack said. “Then, it kind of dawned on me, whether I was working as a cashier, bartender, host in my late twenties, how cool this place is.”