The Ritual of the Shift Drink: NOLA’s Cure

cure new orleans

If family meal is the nourishing, bread-breaking prelude to a dinner service for chefs and servers at a restaurant, the shift drink is its tie-loosening cousin, the time when bartenders de-frock and unwind with a drink in hand.

How a bar treats its shift drink is often a fine litmus test for the values of the space itself. At Cure in New Orleans—a place where no detail is left unattended—their reverence for the process of building cocktails and wink-and-a-grin approach to top-flight service ensures that the end-of-night ritual is a time where business and pleasure find a way to easily fit together, like a hand around a glass of rye.

With a soaring back bar and museum-like glass cabinets that highlight the beauty of the bottle, Cure wears the cloak of buzzing hot spot and subdued, closing-time hangout with equal panache. As the evening fades towards witching hour, the (impeccably curated) music selection comes back into focus over the waning noise of the crowd. Stillness settles in around the bar’s plush nooks and crannies. It’s a tangible sigh of relief.

When the Freret St. bar opened seven years ago, the end of the night was a time for the then-small staff (who were often working 15-hour days or more) to let loose while still handling the business of closing up shop. Often, this took the form of experimenting with quirky or rare bottles of liquor and sometimes downing them in one go. Unsurprisingly, shift drinks regularly went hand-in-hand with shenanigans like 4 a.m. football in the deserted street.

Seven years later, late-night road sports would likely be a death wish. The bar helped plant the seed for the resurgence of the Freret St. neighborhood, with a swell of businesses—from tricked-out, mural-covered music venues to the city’s best burger spot—now ensuring that the area is buzzing seven days a week.

Cure has also served as a training ground for some of the city’s best bar talent, building a web of alumni across the city—including Nick Detrich, who manages proto-tiki drink Mecca Cane & Table, and Ricky Gomez of the recently opened Compère Lapin—who can all trace roots back to time spent clinking glasses post-work in Cure’s fauna-covered courtyard.

While they may not pull down oddball bottles for sampling as often, the sanctity of the shift drink at Cure remains unwavering. The nightly routine includes healthy portions of the house shot (El Dorado 5-year rum from Guyana) and a cheers at the end of each happy hour. Post-close, the task of documenting the nightly goings-on (from broken chairs to giant tips) often happens while sitting at specially designated table in the bar and over a bottle of Luxardo Bitter. After the initial shift drink at Cure, the staff’s dive bar of choice has long been the mustardy, creaky haunt Brothers III, where shots and beer are a top priority.

Bartenders Braden LaGrone and Ryan Gannon and owners Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal weigh in on the legacy of the shift drink at Cure—past, present and future:

Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner

Shift Drink: “In the early days we drank a lot of old chartreuse.”

On the importance of the shift drink: “The shift drink is the moment when you can let your guard down. It’s like the House of Many Faces on Game of Thrones. The things that make you ‘work you’ are starting to fade into ‘pleasure time you.’ I feel like it’s this moment when you become yourself again.”

On post-shift drink shenanigans: “There have been some fights at The Saint [a local dive bar] after work. With one fight, one of our bartenders calmly said, ‘I’m going to punch you in the fucking face!’ and by the time he got it out, the guy had hit him. There’s a lot of that. It’s bad decision making at 4:30 in the morning. This is New Orleans. If you tell someone you’re going to punch them in the face, you better get ready to be punched in the face.”

Ryan Gannon, bartender

Shift Drink: “After 10 hours of making stirred drinks, I want cheap beer and a shot of Old Granddad.”

On ritual: “When our happy hour ends, we do a ‘happy hour shot’ that’s just a tiny nip of El Dorado 5 year… We’ll cheers the people sitting there, cheers each other. It’s bonding among the staff, but also makes guests a real part of things.”

Braden LaGrone, bartender

Shift Drink: “Blanco tequila.”

On the importance of shift drink: “Shift drink is an important time to recall the events of the night and bury any hatchets. You can clock out and leave it there.”

Kirk Estopinal, co-owner

Shift Drink: “Early on, we’d kill a bottle of Barolo Chinato.”

On post-shift drink shenanigans: “On the last night of one of our bartenders, we drank down a bottle of Red Hook Rye, and then we were all going to go to Snake and Jake’s afterward. He saw Nick [Detrich’s] bike, and said, ‘Oh, man, let me ride your bike there!’ He got on the bike, didn’t realize it was fixed gear, and stopped pedaling. He was riding away into the sunset then the next thing you know he’s on the ground, bleeding.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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