Hospitality is at the very heart of New Orleans—this is a city that says, loud and clear, “Welcome! Grab a stool, order a drink, and stay a while.” Which is exactly what T. Cole Newton did when he wound up in New Orleans after graduating from California’s Humboldt State University. The Washington, D.C., native had come to volunteer post-Katrina with AmeriCorps, but he decided to stick around after his stint was over, first tending bar at the venerable restaurant Commander’s Palace, and eventually running his own joint, the much-acclaimed Twelve Mile Limit in Mid-City. Now, he’s helping to shape visitors’ first taste of the city at The Troubadour hotel, where he’s the resident bartender.
Photo Credit: Zack Smith Photography
What made you decide to stay on in New Orleans after your time with AmeriCorp was up?
A few reasons, I guess. Most of my closest friends in DC had moved elsewhere, so after a year in NOLA I had more close friends here than back home. I also felt tied to the city. My father spent a lot of time here when he was younger – he had a very close cousin that lived here but who died shortly before I was born – and I never realized how culturally New Orleanian I was raised. My parents made gumbo with the Thanksgiving leftover turkey, listened to Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, and drank coffee with chicory. It wasn’t until after I moved here that I realized how much I already fit in.
I moved here to help rebuild and felt that the most important thing anyone could do to continue that work was to stay here and contribute to the reemergence of the city by staying a part of it. I had a good job lined up back in DC, and instead I decided to just be a bartender in New Orleans, and I think the main reason was that it was just too much fun. I was in my mid 20s, single, with no real obligations – this was kind of the perfect town. It’s the smallest city in the world where it still feels like anything is possible.
You’d done a little bartending in college, in northern California, before moving south. What’s different about New Orleans bars and bar culture?
I was a bartender for a semester of college, but it was the one semester when I was home in DC. Bar culture in New Orleans is different because so much more is allowed here. You can drink outside. You don’t have to close. Big picture: people are allowed to make their own mistakes. Full disclosure: I don’t drink a whole lot any more – I’ve had my share – but I don’t know if I would have ever learned that kind of self-control if I hadn’t been in a place where nobody else is going to tell you not to do whatever you want.
That freedom is changing, now, to a certain extent. You can’t smoke in bars. It’s harder to party in the streets without a permit. Noise complaints are shutting down longstanding parties. I get it – I’m growing up, too – but it often feels contrary to the nature of the city.
Photo Credit: Will Blunt
This city is the birthplace of so many cocktails: the Sazerac, the Hurricane, the Ramos Gin Fizz…which classic cocktail means the most to you? Which one says the most about New Orleans?
I think the classic cocktail that speaks the most to me is the Old Fashioned. It’s more than just A cocktail. In a lot of ways it’s THE cocktail. People used to just order a cocktail, and it meant one thing. Then all sorts of alcoholic beverages became known as cocktails, and so when people wanted a REAL cocktail, they had to order it the “Old Fashioned” way. It’s the original, and there isn’t much better than a well-made Old Fashioned.
As for the one that says the most about the city, I think the recent trend in gourmet frozen daiquiris says a lot about where we are right now, balancing the fun and frivolous side of the city with more serious intentions. Bourre, on Carrollton, makes great ones. We’re going to have a frozen 20th Century Cocktail on the roof of the Troubadour.
You’ve been behind the stick at a wide variety of bars: the iconic Commander’s, the trendy Uptown bistro Coquette, your own Twelve Mile Limit, which you yourself have called a neighborhood dive. Any unexpected similarities?
I think high end and low end bars have more in common than they have differences. It’s all about treating people well, giving them what they want, engaging in conversation when appropriate and making yourself scarce when appropriate. The prices at Twelve Mile Limit may be lower than they are at Commander’s or Coquette, but the philosophy is the same.
Photo Credit: Will Blunt
You’ve said that people look to their bartenders for the inside scoop on a city—what would be your perfect, below-the-radar day in New Orleans?
Sleep in, walk around City Park, get some Vietnamese or Mediterranean for lunch, catch a movie at The Broad Theater, head into the Quarter for a Killer PoBoy, maybe a nightcap at the French 75 bar, and then find some weird, kinky show like amateur striptease or Splish, the mermaid sex show that popped up last year.
And lastly. What does the T. stand for? (Don’t worry—we won’t tell a soul.)
The T. stands for Thomas, but I’ve always gone by Cole. My parents just thought that Thomas Cole Newton sounded better than Cole Thomas Newton. Also there’s a celebrated 19th century landscape painter named Thomas Cole, so I’ve got that going for me.