It began with a bottle of Txakolina. The Spanish white wine, a slightly effervescent, highly refreshing liquid approximation of SweeTarts candy, was the fortunate result of a blind reach into the cooler one recent Sunday night at Bacchanal. An astute cashier then suggested a hunk of Humboldt Fog, a goat cheese from California with a Brie-like rind and a similar cloudlike texture, along with a hearty terrine of country paté. Soon, these were joined by a Merguez sausage link atop leaves of arugula and cornhusks stuffed with piquant tamales " a cornucopia to be consumed on a torch-lit patio to the sounds of free-jazz ensemble Magnetic Ear and visiting West African percussionist Seguenon Kone.

Bacchanal, it goes without saying, is not your average area bar. A retail wine and spirits store for the majority of its business hours, it's actually not a bar at all. But three nights a week, the casual, tropical backyard is the place to be in the Bywater: fine wines sweating in the sweltering summer heat, guest chefs dishing out Zagat-rated fare on paper plates and top musicians performing on overturned buckets in the corner. The Bywater hotspot is one of a clutch of alternative spaces " the Contraflows, if you will " whose drinking scenes have come to rival those of their more traditional tap-and-pour counterparts.

Like its crosstown cousin, the Wine Institute of New Orleans is a full-time wine retailer whose nighttime tasting events have carved out a unique niche among the Warehouse District's high-rise offices and high-rent condos. Every Tuesday, amateur winos get together to discuss such eternal grape expectations as 'California v. France" and 'Que Syrah/Shiraz." Oenophiles also can sample " with impulsive credit-card quickness thanks to the dangerous, self-serve Enomatic draft system " up to 80 different wines by the ounce, from the bargain-happy Santa Carolina Carmenere ($1) to the go-for-broke Opus One Meritage ($17). A selection of beers, cheeses and pates is also available.

Peeking behind the curtain, the local theater community has its own assortment of alternative drinking locales; the most frequented, the 'bar noir" at Le Chat Noir, is as much a character as Ricky Graham or Becky Allen. Open one hour before showtime, the well-appointed CBD space is a popular meeting place for performers and stage enthusiasts to sip Scotch whisky and martinis and to discuss the current production. Similarly, the beverage bar at the Big Top Gallery keeps audiences finely lubed at the 3 Ring Circus' eclectic lineup of craft shows, art exhibitions and Friday night music camps.

In April, coinciding with V-Day, Chris Rose performed his Eve Ensler-spoofing A**hole Monologues at Vintage, a new space above the Savvy Gourmet. The small bar, typically open only on Thursdays, also serves a changing assortment of small bites like cheeseboards, charcuterie and antipasti plates. Given its savvy, gourmet backers, additional offerings should be in the offing.

The crowd gets thick in the courtyard at Bacchanal on Sunday evenings. - BRYCE LANKARD
  • Bryce Lankard
  • The crowd gets thick in the courtyard at Bacchanal on Sunday evenings.

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