The next time you're out to a boozy lunch in New Orleans, flicking quarters onto the bar for your third 6-oz. vessel of 25-cent vodka, thank James Carter. Not City Councilman and former U.S. Congressional hopeful James Carter — James Earl Carter Jr., aka Jimmy, the 39th president and still the only peanut farmer ever granted access to nuclear weapons.
Along with airline deregulation and the Chrysler bailout, Carter's scant time in office had another wide-reaching consequence: the complete and total evisceration of the three-martini lunch. Before 1976, it was common practice for politicians, businessmen and other buttoned-down alcoholics to indulge in midday, gin-pickled "business meetings." On a campaign trail through the heartland, Carter railed against the American tradition of writing off $50 liquid lunches while the hoi polloi "cannot deduct [a] $1.50 sandwich." Months later he seized the White House, and the rest is history: 18 percent inflation, the rise of cocaine and Duran Duran.
We kid President Carter, of course; even the Gipper would've had a hard time blaming him for "Girls on Film." Decades later, a survey of Crescent City eateries reveals that it's not the liquidity of those lunches that needed changing, but rather the $50 people were paying for them. No less than four restaurants currently offer noontime nickel-and-dime martinis, none of which will set you back as much as Carter's pitiable 1976 po-boy.
Like many New Orleans dining inventions, the trend can be traced back to the Brennan family. "It was Dottie and Ella," says Stephanie Graf, marketing manager at Commander's Palace. "Around '99 or 2000 they were trying to think of something fun to do, and Dottie Brennan suggested they bring back the quarter martini lunch."
A popular promotion in the '60s and '70s at Brennan's on Royal Street, the revived discount was an instant hit at Commander's Palace and is now as much a calling card as the Creole bread pudding souffle. Classic martinis, Cosmopolitans, the house martini (with white vermouth and blue Curaçao) and Ray's Melon Martini all can be had for a single coin with any weekday lunch entree. (Sister restaurant Cafe Adelaide, in the CBD, runs the same special.)
"It's incredibly popular," Graf says. "It's really cool when it's a pretty day, people are outside on the patio and all the tables are full of these brightly colored martinis. It really is the type of sophisticated revelry that we love around here."
But why stop at 25 cents? For tipplers looking to squeeze every ounce of alcohol out of their couch cushions, Bayona raises — er, lowers — the bar with its limited-time, 19-cent martini. The French Quarter dining staple introduced the special as an anniversary celebration in 2003, and demand for it created an annual tradition. General Manager Shannon Fristoe says it's not uncommon for the summertime promo to stumble into fall. "It's normally only through August, but every year we extend it," she laughs.
To ensure the revelry stays sophisticated, however, Bayona institutes a few rules: The drinks must be accompanied by a two-course, $19 prix fixe, and only classic martinis are poured. There's also a limit of three, but Fristoe admits the policy is "kind of open, depending on who it is that's asking for that fourth martini."
On the days it's offered — Wednesday through Friday — lunch business often triples, Fristoe says. "I was amazed at the response. We've been doing it every year since our 13th year. We've been open 19 years; next year will be our 20th. So the inflation has set in."
A little discount-martini humor, sure, but Fristoe also knows that once you offer a cocktail — and change — for two dimes, there's no going back, particularly when there's a 10-cent competitor five blocks away. At Bacco, from Monday to Saturday, two dimes buys you two martinis when you buy any entree, making the Ralph Brennan restaurant New Orleans' lunch limbo champ. For now, anyway.
New specials continue to crop up, but so far, none seems willing to attempt the unthinkable: the nine-cent martini. Restaurant Cuvée entered the fray in May with a downright conservative 20-center, available on weekdays with any food purchase. A recent call during the 11 o'clock hour found the conceit to be working — and not just on Jimmy Carter's fat-cat antagonists.
"I'm looking at a dining room right now where 30 percent of the people have it," the host relayed.
And the other 70 percent?