PICTURED: Sazerac and French 75 at Rabalais’ Bistro. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer

Rabalais’ Bistro
861 E. Main St., Santa Paula

When one thinks of Rabalais’ Bistro, the things that probably come to mind are beignets, fried green tomatoes and po’ boy sandwiches — classic Southern-fried cuisine that has made the Cajun and Creole restaurant in downtown Santa Paula renowned inside and outside the county. Over the summer, the now 10-year-old establishment found yet another way to distinguish itself, with the opening of a New Orleans-style cocktail bar. 

The bar shares space with Rabalais’ coffee counter and bakery — next to the espresso machine are a collection of top shelf spirits: WhistlePig and Michter’s bourbon, Bombay Sapphire gin, etc. A few high-top tables have been set up in the back for seating. It’s not a big space, but it’s bright and airy, and the atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious with just a touch of Southern refinement. Happy hour is offered Wednesday through Friday, 3-5:30 p.m., and locals are making liberal use of the drink specials and small plates such as bourbon-glazed pork belly bites, deviled eggs and a decadent dip made with collard greens and artichokes.

A friend and I arrived just a bit too late for happy hour proper, but drinks can be brought to tables in the dining room as well. So we decided to enjoy a nice, leisurely dinner with a few of Rabalais’ house libations to whet our appetites.

Yes, martinis, Manhattans and Cosmopolitans are readily available. But care has been taken to celebrate the unique cocktail culture of New Orleans, with classics that hearken back to an earlier time and Louisiana’s renowned French influence. The sweet, mint-and-bourbon-filled mint julep is a Southern standard, of course. For something zesty and refreshing, there’s a Pimm’s Cup (lemonade and ginger ale with gin and an herbaceous liqueur called Pimm’s No. 1). The fruity, rum-laced Hurricane is guaranteed to wash the edge off the roughest day.

On this humid July evening, my friend went for the perfect summer sip: a lemony French 75, where the gin is sweetened with a touch of honey and champagne adds a delightful lightness and fizz. I’m used to this drink served over ice in a goblet, but Rabalais’ makes an elegant presentation of it, serving the pale yellow liquid straight up in a martini glass and garnishing it with a thick slice of lemon zest. Easy to drink, and so pretty and effervescent — a wonderful way to cool off on a hot day.

I wouldn’t allow myself to order an old fashioned — my standard go-to, and one which came highly recommended from our waiter (keeping notes for a return trip). Instead, I satisfied my deep and abiding love of whiskey with a Sazerac, made with Sazerac rye (a personal favorite, with lots of spice character) and Herbsaint aka Legendre Absinthe, which takes its name from the famous restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. Herbsaint is essentially a wormwood-free absinthe, with a floral aspect and a more gentle anise flavor. Mixed with the rye and a touch of bitters and Demerara sugar, it made a surprisingly balanced drink. The licorice essence receded into the background, rounding out the vanilla, honey and pepper notes of the rye, keeping the finish long and persistent. This was served neat, so as not to dilute the blend, and garnished with orange zest. Pure sipping pleasure.

Rabalais’ Bistro has always been a great gathering spot for friends, whether you’re chatting over coffee, enjoying a well-prepared meal or indulging in something delicious from the dessert case. Adding a bar has just given locals yet another reason to keep coming back. Straight up or on the rocks, there’s plenty of Southern charm being poured out here.