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T. Cole Newton On The Importance Of Neighborhood Dive Bars

The reliable local as gathering place and refuge, both for fancy cocktail fans and light-beer die-hards.

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T. Cole Newton goes by “Cole” and owns two bars in New Orleans—cocktail bar Twelve Mile Limit and wine bar The Domino. Like all bars and many restaurants in the city, both are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and are offering gift cards and merch to help support staff and their eventual reopening.

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I can trace a lot of who I am back to my childhood. For one, I’ve had a connection to New Orleans since before I knew what New Orleans really was. Sure, I had come to Mardi Gras a couple of times in high school and college, but I’m talking way before that.

I was born in Washington DC. So why were we making turkey gumbo with our Thanksgiving leftovers? Why were the sounds of Dr. John and the Neville Brothers swinging through our house? Why were my parents putting chicory in their coffee?

Honestly, I didn’t really give it a second thought. I was a little kid. It’s just what we did, and I assumed it’s what most everybody else did, too.

I was only partially right. It is what most everybody else did, in a far-off place called New Orleans. I later learned my dad visited a cousin there fairly often in the 1970s and 80s and—like most who visit New Orleans—he fell in love with the culture. He brought that back to DC and to my childhood.

Another thing I can trace back to my childhood is the importance of caring for others. My dad was a civil servant—a lawyer with the Department of Justice—and my mother was a doctor. Caring about others is how I was raised, so it’s probably not a complete surprise that after I graduated college, I decided to volunteer for a year with AmeriCorps.

I served in the City Year program, specifically, which had a big presence in DC. But, then, Hurricane Katrina hit NOLA my senior year of college.

To me, it felt like the Pearl Harbor of my generation—a defining moment. And when someone asked me “What did you do after the storm?” I wanted to have an answer I was proud of.

I decided to apply to the Louisiana corps, and I worked in the New Orleans school system for the year. I’m really proud of that work. Also, there’s no better place to be single and in your 20s than New Orleans. When City Year ended, I had a job prospect back in DC, but I didn’t want to leave.

I didn’t have a job here. Or family here. Or much of a plan, for that matter, aside from some vague notions about graduate school. But I had developed some close friends, and I totally understood my dad’s obsession with the culture. I walked across the street to the restaurant nearest the house I was crashing in, and I submitted an application to be a bartender.

That restaurant happened to be the iconic James Beard Award-winning Commander’s Palace. The Commander’s Palace: with the aqua-blue and white stripes, around for 130 years, made famous by the legendary Brennan family and the institution that launched the careers of culinary greats like Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.

I, on the other hand, only had just a few months of formal bartending experience. But Commander’s had been heavily damaged by water during Katrina and was just opening back up. I guess they needed people. Any people. They told me I was starting on Friday.

I wasn’t completely unprepared to be a bartender, though. That’s also something I learned as a child. My parents were that last wave of Boomers who taught their kids how to make their favorite drinks for them. “You can reach the liquor cabinet? Finally. Here’s how I like my martini.”

My family had a pretty laissez faire attitude toward drinking. We lived in the Chevy Chase neighborhood near the DC-Maryland border, and the bar near our house was called the Chevy Chase Lounge—still there, but very different now. Back then it was the place to hang out with neighbors. It was a community gathering spot.

So my parents used to bring my sister and I there, too. We loved it. We drank Shirley Temples and learned to do that thing where you tie cherry stems with your tongue. My mom got the measles one time, and my dad, sister and I basically spent a week quarantined from her at the Chevy Chase Lounge. The word “pub” is derived from “public house,” and I saw that bar as a living room for the whole neighborhood.

You don’t have to get drunk there—we didn’t, as children—it’s just a place to spend time together as a family and as a community. I remember thinking as a kid that it would be cool to own a bar like that.

Now I own two, and New Orleans was a great place to learn the craft. Anyone who’s visited the city for even a weekend knows how robust and accomplished our food and cocktail scene is, especially for a city of our size. I took advantage of that.

I was at Commander’s Palace for a year and that was obviously a good education. Then I moved on to another fancy bar—Loa at the International House Hotel—for a year, and then spent two years bartending at Coquette.

To this day, I still think Coquette is the best fine-dining restaurant in New Orleans. When I was working there, they were brand new. Watching them bet on themselves and win—that’s where I really caught the entrepreneurial bug.

My parents had put some money aside for me to go to graduate school, but enough years had passed that the money was free to be used as I wanted. I Googled “bars for sale New Orleans,” and they were all pretty much out of my price range except for this one bar, called “Marvelous Marvin’s,” that was in pretty bad shape and in a dodgier stretch of the Mid-City neighborhood.

I bought Marvin’s, cleaned it up, rebranded it as Twelve Mile Limit, and—from the beginning—I strived to make it the gathering place I knew bars could be. I know people say you can’t be all things for all people, but I wanted everyone to feel comfortable here.

My background was in an elevated style of bartending and fine-dining hospitality, where we were trained to be ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen, and that the sun could never set on a customer’s complaint.

But elements of that can still work in a dive bar! I wanted each individual guest to know that Twelve Mile Limit really cared about them, and—to be honest—that was pretty easy early on: if you walked in the door and gave me a dollar in those first lean months, I really did love you!

We have thoughtful, creative craft cocktails, and a lot of our customers come to us for that. But I also wanted a place where someone could order a Captain and Coke and not feel judged. I wanted the Coors Light drinkers to have what they wanted, the Miller Light drinkers to have what they wanted, and the craft beer drinkers to have some options, too. If you want to watch sports, no problem, here are the TVs and a couch.

Why take ourselves so seriously that we can only be one thing? Our goal is to be a gathering place for our neighborhood and our city, both of which are diverse. Our clientele, our prices and our offerings should all reflect that.

We have trivia, we have DJs, and we have comedy shows. We also host fundraising events, because that kind of work is important to the community, it’s important to me and I want that to be reflected in my bar.

Bars as communal space isn’t a foreign concept to New Orleans, though. It’s part of the reason I think this pandemic has been so tough on residents here. This is a famously social place. We celebrate everything. Creole tomatoes are in season? Let’s party!

To not be able to hug, and toast, and gather together in these community spaces—that pulls at the very fabric of who we are. It also doesn’t help that 12 percent of the metro area’s workforce—72,000 people—work in hospitality. Most of those people have lost their jobs.

It’s a problem especially acute in New Orleans, but it’s obviously a nationwide issue. I serve on the National Board of Directors for the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and we’re doing our best to support bartenders around the country who are in need—which is pretty much all bartenders right now.

The board is focusing on getting monetary relief into the pockets of industry workers through the USBG National Charity Foundation. We’ve received $6.5 million in funding—and we’re so grateful for it—but it’s not enough. We’ve received more than 285,000 applications for individual grants so far, so that $6.5 million is truly a drop in the bucket. We’re screening applicants as fast as we can with the plan to award approximately 20,000 of the neediest with small grants of a size we hope can make a difference for them.

Unemployment pay is starting to filter to workers, so thankfully that’s going to help individuals, but businesses are still in limbo. I’ve applied for two different emergency grants for each bar, and received two, but the process has been opaque and difficult.

I get the impression the Small Business Administration is overwhelmed, but I guess that’s what happens when you spend decades systematically dismantling the federal government. The initial grants will help, and I have money saved to get us through a few months, but it could be too little too late.

Deep down, though, I’m optimistic the New Orleans service industry is going to come back strong from this. We battled back from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many of us were able to emerge from the BP Oil Spill even stronger in 2010. Then, it was a corporation forced to pay, but it was also our government fighting for its citizens during a disaster. That can happen again. There’s a lot to be optimistic about in the stimulus package that was passed by Congress. It’s just a matter of getting that money disbursed in time.

I have a lawyer who can help guide me through this process, but I’m worried—as is often the case—that those who need the help the most are the least equipped to navigate the process of applying for that help. I don’t think we’ll know how they’re doing until bars and restaurants are allowed to reopen, and some just don’t. But I think most will be back, and I plan on being in that number.

There’ll probably be some sort of phased reopening when the time comes. Maybe it will be to-go drinks only, at first, or maybe we’ll have to limit the number of guests we can serve. Whatever it is, we’ll comply with what’s necessary to keep our city safe.

But when the time comes to open back up in full— let’s call it “V.V. Day”—Twelve Mile Limit and The Domino will be ready to provide that community gathering space I’ve appreciated in bars since I was a kid. I think we could all use a place like that right now.

Top photo and baby: Lelia Gowland.