Recently while dropping in on several favorite neighborhood bars in search of a cold one to escape the summer heat something just hasn't felt right. It's as if my conscious is God forbid telling me I am wasting my time. Yes, the beer is cold and I am able to eat some good grub too, but there is still a little voice telling me what you are looking for you are not going to find ... yet.
As I glance up at the TV screens, I realize what the problem is. They are all either carrying soccer or baseball, while my heart yearns for football which just isn't on yet. Softening the blow from the emotional letdown that seems to come with the end of the football season are NFL free agency, the NFL Draft, and college football recruiting.
Of course in New Orleans there are also other forms of live entertainment that effectively help fill the void such as Mardi Gras and festival season. Yet, when I catch a whiff of fresh cut grass in the summer heat, it reminds me of high school football two-a-days and the desire for the season to start strongly returns. Then when I go to fulfill that desire and am only met with soccer, baseball and golf, I must take a deep breath, or actually another sip, and tell myself this is part of the process, we are not there yet.
In less than a month, my hunger for football will get some relief in the form of the NFL preseason leading to widespread speculation if what we see from the Saints in preseason will match what they do in the regular season, good or bad. There will also be a new life and energy thrusted into the sports bars, restaurants and neighborhood watering holes across New Orleans. Instead of each of them being preoccupied with their own personal lives they will all be united under a common purpose and asking the question, "Who Dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?"
When this happens in the the near future my time in such establishments will be time well spent, and the only little voice I will be hearing will be asking, "Where in the hell should I go watch the game?" While I will never turn down a ticket to see the Saints live, watching Drew from a favorite watering hole does have it perks. Besides, the obvious benefit of saving money on tickets, avoiding long lines for food and the restroom - two high in demand needs during the course of a game - is a definite plus.
Emotions are also running just as high inside a bar as they are at the stadium, providing a smaller version of the same thrill of feeding off of fellow fans. A word of caution though that the sports bar crowd factor can cut both ways. You want to go somewhere where the crowd is big and lively enough that you will be able to feed off of each other, but is not so jam packed that a lack of personal space interferes with your ability to pay attention to the game.
The number of neighborhood watering holes in New Orleans and the outgoing nature of New Orleanians in general, gives Saints fans plenty of quality options for game watching if they can't be there in person. One great neighborhood bar that has become my mainstay for watching Saints games is the Rusty Nail. A friend who had moved to New Orleans from Nashville introduced me to the Rusty Nail during Mardi Gras about six years ago as it had become her "hang out" and we had dropped in while transitioning between Uptown and the Warehouse District for parade viewing.
Tucked away in a corner beneath the interstate bordering the Warehouse District and Garden District on Constance Street, the Rusty Nail is hard to find but well worth the search. From the outside it looks like a vintage New Orleans middle class home that could stand a few repairs, but inside it is one big game-watching house party. With stadium seating and up tempo music playing during commercials, the Rusty Nail does a solid job of recreating a live game atmosphere. An expanded side patio with TVs spread across it is ideal for game watching during nice weather and handling overflow crowds. There is a "Cheers" like atmosphere inside as everybody appears to know each other. Food wise, there is a grill on the patio where you can order hot dogs and hamburgers, but food truck cuisine seems to be the main option as there are always one or two parked outside.
While this may tarnish its image for some readers, the Rusty Nail is also the headquarters for watching Alabama football for Crimson Tide Alumni living in New Orleans. From what I understand it is the largest game watching gathering spot for Crimson Tide fans outside of the state of Alabama. Maybe you can even catch Mark Ingram and Roman Harper there on a Saturday, but let's hope not unless it is a bye week.
Finn McCool's in Mid City is another classic New Orleans neighborhood bar. Not to be grouped in with the chain of Finn McCool's Irish Pubs across America, this one on Banks Street. After my dissing of soccer earlier, this truly Irish owned pub serves as a "home away from home" for European ex-pats who gather their to watch their version of "football" and some across the pond bonding.
My first visit to Finn McCool's came during the Saints Super Bowl run to watch an away game against the Bills. Taking place inside was one of the most creative bar themes I had ever seen, "Cook the Competition." Each week fans go potluck, bringing in dishes they cooked at home that are native to the city of the Saints opponent. With Buffalo being the opposing city, were dishes of buffalo chicken parmesan and buffalo wings as customers lined up to fill their plates and watch the game. Of course, nothing can compare to New Orleans food, but if the Saints can eat their opponents on the field, I'm willing to do my part to "eat them" at the table.
Perhaps, the most notable New Orleans sports bar is Cooter Brown's, located at Carrollton and St. Charles. Named after the legendary drunkard by which the highest levels of inebriation is judged by in the phrase, "drunker then Cooter Brown," the Uptown institution is sure to have the game you're looking for, as well as satisfy your thirst and hunger.
Placing your order directly from the grill located off in a side room, it is a gold mine of fried, greasy bar food. Helping to wash down the over 400 beers on tap are seafood platters, po-boys, hamburgers, muffalettas, philly cheese steaks along with french fries and onion rings. My favorite food item they serve, though, goes uncooked. Their raw oysters are large, plump, and juicy and about the size of bullfrogs.
In full disclosure, even though I have been to Cooter Brown's a handful of times, I have never actually watched a Saints game there. I have tried, but got there right at kickoff and could barely even squeeze in the door so had to seed out other options. Even though I have never watched the Saints play from the unlimited number of TV screens that surround the walls of Cooter Brown's, I have actually been on TV myself there talking about the Saints.
Going back to another post I had submitted last July, a friend who was a Tulane alum came down from D.C. to celebrate her 40th Birthday in New Orleans, and brought a group of friends with her from their neighborhood suburbs of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Wanting to retrace her college days, they kicked off the weekend by going to happy hour at Cooter Brown's which is where I met up with them.
This also turned out be a glorious day in the city of New Orleans as Drew Brees had earlier ended his long contract hold out and re-signed to a long term deal, effectively ending a wave of unspoken anxiety that had overtaken Who Dat Nation. Our group of about a dozen people were really the only customers in Cooter Brown's at the time, after all it was just soccer and baseball season. Local Fox 8 reporter Natasha Robin and her cameraman then arrived on scene to get fans reactions to Brees's re-signing.
However, a group of ladies from Chevy Chase, Maryland were not exactly who they were looking for to be the moutpiece for defining what Brees's re-signing meant to the Saints. The birthday girl still gave a joyous shout out to Brees on camera and then referred Robin to her father and myself for further analysis which we were happy to provide. Her father, a history professor at Millsaps College, also added about his experience in meeting Brees when the Saints held training camp at Millsaps between 2007-2008.
With the holidays approaching, the Saints second to last home game against the Buccaneers would be my last opportunity to come to New Orleans during the 2012 football season. All of the defensive flaws that had been prevalent throughout the season had suddenly disappeared as the Saints put a 41-0 whipping on the Buccaneers. After enjoying the pre-game festivities at Champions Square, I declined all last minute ticket offers from street scalpers and made the short walk a block away to Walk-On's, the well known Baton Rouge estalishment that had opened up a second location on Poydras St.
Despite it's proximity to the Superdome, Walk-On's was far from just being a Saints only bar. Inside, jerseys from across the NFL were represented with plenty of high definition TVs that were able to accommodate all of the early round of 12:00pm games. I managed to find a spot leaning up against the main bar where I could successfully watch the Saints rip apart the Bucs. Warming up with a Coors Light, I then upgraded to a Blue Moon and placed an order for pulled pork nachos topped with sour cream.
On the TV next to me, the Bears and Packers were battling it out on the frozen tundra as several thick talking midwesterners were watching anxiously. Emotional outbursts between myself and their groups led to inquiries about what was taking place in our respective competitions. We eventually completely bridged the NFC North-NFC South divide, by buying a couple of beers for each other and exchanging handfuls of nachos and french fries. It was like the first Thanksgiving.
Having gotten my fill on beer and pork nachos, I was starting to crave something sweet, so I then managed to get into the daiquiris, which is an understatement. As the Saints were playing on a higher level than they had all season, the daiquiris were also taking me to a different level. I was even beginning to think that the highly attractive girl bartending was taking an interest in me beyond our repetitive cash-for-daiquiris swap. The more I drink, the funnier I think I become, and I was assuming she was thinking the same thing. I thought wrong.
The Cheesehead fan and I stayed on and watched the second round of afternoon games, followed by the post game highlights and were still there when the NBC Football Night in America was about to kickoff. It was then that the cheery, bombshell bartendress underwent a personality transformation and said that she would not serve me anymore (and rightly so). Apparently, I had become drunker than Cooter Brown. After realizing that she was not kidding and that refusal of service also extended to food, Cheesehead fan and I left. I then grabbed a cab and headed back to my cousin's Uptown apartment where I crashed for the night before making the early Monday morning drive back to the Coast.
The boundaries of Who Dat Nation extend beyond the Louisiana state Llne and across to the Mississippi Coast. In addition to a strong fan base forged by the naturally close proximity, many New Orleans natives also now reside there or have second homes on the Coast to truly make the Saints a regional team. As such, bars and restaurants from Waveland to Pascagoula are constantly competing with each other in trying to attract their share of Saints fans spending money with them during game time.
Several years ago on a hot, muggy, early August evening I decided to venture over to the bristling bar and restaurant hubub of downtown Ocean Springs to catch the Saints preseason opener against the Houston Texans. My destination turned out to be outdoor bar and patio of Leo's Pizza. Despite the love for the Saints on the Coast, a preseason game did not generate a heavy crowd and I had no problem finding an open seat at the bar with a perfect view of the TV screen straight ahead of me.
Gradually the crowd started getting bigger as tables started to fill up and small groups of people started gathering and standing behind me. While all eyes were not on the Saints game, Leo's patio fit the bill for a hot summer night and a band was scheduled to play later. The only other person as into the Saints game as me was a member of the Mississippi National Guard who was sitting next to me and had fought overseas. He was a Leo's regular.
While gorging down my three-meat pizza and watching defensive tackle "Mama's Boy" Mitch King have his way with the Houston Texans offense, something else caught my attention in the corner of my eye. I turned and looked and there was a live rooster going from table to table working the crowd. The serious minded Saints fan in the stool next to me informed me the rooster was also a regular and went by the name of Carl. Later, I then learned that Carl was actually a local celebrity and even had his own Facebook page called 'Carl The Downtown Rooster.' Wanting to make sure I caught that wave, I became a fan.
While Carl certainly caught my attention, like Drew Brees on a game winning drive, I kept my focus on the game. However, with a yard bird now on the loose negotiating for cheese droppings, I still kept a close guard on my remaining pizza. The captivating performance by Mama's Boy's meant a lost awareness on the whereabouts of Carl, who had since made his way onto the sliding metal rafters hanging above me, which he had reached via the back fence column.
Standing right behind me was a group of about 5 or 6 people socializing and kind of halfway watching and checking with me periodically on what happened after one of my occassional loud outbursts. A bigger outburst soon came however than the ones I was making. A piercing, screeching sound followed by a squall of fear came from above. I looked up and in a matter of seconds Carl had fallen off of the roof, landed on a girl's head, bounced off and hit the ground. The boisterous and confident yard bird had just discovered Newton's Law of Gravity.
Carl survived the fall, but left Leo's in a state of embarrassment. This chicken was crossing the road figuring whatever was on the other side had to be better than the one he had just left. As for the girl whose head of hair helped break Carl's fall, she just smiled and brushed it off. It did not appear to be the first time she had been out drinking and have a rooster fall on top of her.
Eating chicken has long been a big part of my football watching experience. I've had BBQ chicken, fried chicken, chicken wings, chicken strips, chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, and chicken shish kabobs, all while watching the big game. However, I have never had a live chicken come into the picture until Carl came along. And just like Carl the Rooster, Mama's Boy also had to learn what goes up must come down. Following his rise to stardom in the 2011 preseason, he was relegated to seldom used back up during the regular season before being released in June of 2012.
While I'm sure chicken of some variety will be eaten that day, on this September 8th it will be a bird of a different feather and in need of a cleansing that I hope to devour. Besides anxiously awaiting how the Saints defense will look against Matt Ryan, Steven Jackson and Roddy White under new coordinator Rob Ryan, I have also been contemplating hard about what I will do for the game. I'm quite sure the season opener festivities at Champions Square will be hard to resist. Should a game ticket against the Dirty Birds manage to escape me, there is an air conditioned venue with plenty of TVs just a block away where I could pick up where I left off ... in a downscaled version.
If only I knew now if Walk-On's will still let me walk in?