November 20, 2014

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar in New Orleans

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar exterior

photo by: Martin Pilat, Flickr

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar is estimated to have been built between 1722 and 1732.

A powerful purple “voodoo” drink and a healthy dose of pirate history are just two great reasons to visit Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, located on New Orleans’ storied Bourbon Street.

Hailed as possibly the oldest bar in the United States and most definitely the oldest building currently in use as a bar, Lafitte’s is housed in a French-built structure that dates from roughly 1722 -- the details, like so much of New Orleans lore, are sketchy.

While it’s undoubtedly true that every brick in the walls of Lafitte’s tells a story, the bar is also known for the colorful characters that have darkened its doorways throughout its long history. The property is believed to have been used by brothers Pierre and Jean Lafitte as a front for their smuggling operation between 1772 and 1791, which involved partnering with privateers who stole goods from foreign ships and covertly bringing these goods into the city while avoiding pesky government fees and taxes. The building, which Jean Lafitte operated as a blacksmith shop at the time, provided a perfect front.

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar interior

photo by: Gary J. Wood, Flickr

Lafitte’s is located on legendary Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Legend has it that after the Embargo Act was passed, which forbade American ships from docking at foreign ports, the Lafitte brothers moved their smuggling business to the island of Brataria in Louisiana’s Brataria Bay, just a short distance from New Orleans. The operation was eventually shut down by the government and the Lafitte brothers were arrested.

After tipping off U.S. authorities about an impending British attack, however, Jean Lafitte earned freedom for himself and his brother, and fought bravely in the 1814 Battle of New Orleans. Instead of mending their ways after their pardon, the Lafitte brothers moved their operation to the Gulf of Mexico and targeted Spanish ships for profit, staying true to the outlaw lifestyle until their deaths.

In more recent years, the meticulously preserved two-story “brique entre poteau” (brick-between-post) structure has become a popular spot for tourists to come and sample the powerful “voodoo” grape daiquiri, served, as all drinks at Lafitte’s are, in a plastic cup. The interior remains candle-lit during the nighttime hours, and a small area in the back holds a piano and, frequently, a live performer.

Like so many of the best places in NOLA and particularly the French Quarter, Lafitte’s is rumored to be haunted. Patrons and bartenders have allegedly spotted Jean Lafitte himself peering out through the fireplace grate and sitting at a table in the back of the piano bar, drink in hand. A mysterious female ghost has also been known to prowl the premises, sometimes appearing in a mirror on the building’s second floor.

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar facade and sign

photo by: lucyblueart, Flickr

Slate roofing (still used today) saved Lafitte’s from burning in two late-18th-century fires that claimed much of the French quarter at the time.

If ghosts, grape daiquiris, and bayou history are right up your alley, then Lafitte’s is your perfect New Orleans destination. Here’s what you should know before taking a walk down Bourbon Street:

Location: 941 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, LA 70116

Hours: 10 a.m. “until everybody leaves,” i.e. 5 or 6 a.m. Open 7 days a week.

What to order: Partake in one of the extra-strong hurricane drinks that Bourbon Street is famous for, or a locally brewed beer available on tap.

Leave room on your schedule: Lafitte's is featured on a Haunted History Ghost Tour of the city. Take the full tour, if you're brave enough.

Best Yelp review: "The crowd was fun, the pianist decent, the drinks good, and the idea of it all very historic. Worth checking out. My friends tell me that the purple drink will rock your socks off ... I didn't have the courage or the alcohol tolerance myself."

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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