It's well before noon on a Tuesday and I'm sitting on a high, slightly wobbly barstool, pondering a mysterious shot of booze that the bartender has just placed before me. "What is it?" I ask.
The gentleman to my left, who was already seated at the bar when I arrived smartly at 10:30 AM, turns to me and deadpans, "It's jacuzzi water and rum." He lets out a belly laugh and raises his own shot of tequila in a toast.
This is just some old-school shade, of course. I'm at The Country Club—New Orleans' famed gay bar, restaurant, and pool—trying to go cocktail-for-cocktail with people who clearly have better day-drinking game than I do.
Well, it was a gay bar. Now it's an "everybody place," as I'm repeatedly told.
Housed in an Italianate mansion that dates back to 1884 in the quiet but rapidly gentrifying Bywater neighborhood, The Country Club was founded in 1977 and catered exclusively to New Orleans' vibrant gay community. Since then, ownership has changed hands several times, and the original footprint of the space has grown to incorporate two adjacent properties.
One thing that remained constant throughout this was The Country Club's clothing-optional policy in its pool area. Even in a libertine city like New Orleans, this was a standout amenity, so much so that this "neighborhood secret," as its website claims, eventually began to draw a dedicated straight clientele as well. In the summer of 2014, Country Club frenzy peaked when Beyoncé and Jay-Z stopped by to take a dip—though they kept their clothes on.
That was the beginning of the end of The Country Club's golden nude era, though. That same summer, a young woman named Maria Treme reported being drugged and sexually assaulted there. After a less-than-thorough police investigation and, bizarrely, enduring a hateful flier campaign against Treme, The Country Club ended its clothing-optional policy for good in November of 2014.
More than a year after the last swimsuit came off at its pool, I decided to visit The Country Club to see if the hedonistic character of the place had disappeared.
Indeed, it's no pitch-black fetish dungeon outfitted with sex swings and vending machines full of lube. Nowadays, nary a bottle of Rush is to be found on the grounds, but it is full of affable bartenders who are determined to get me drunk before lunch.
When I arrive, bar manager James Weeser serves me a cocktail that he calls a "mini-Pimm's"—a typical Pimm's Cup that replaces cucumber slices with a jolt of vodka. "I don't believe in weak drinks," he says with a wink. "There's a few of them out there and I'm not into 'em." He's more of a Rose Kennedy man himself.
Like many, Weeser fell for The County Club on his first visit. "Back in the late 90s, when I was a massage therapist, I had this best friend who used to come here, and he was like, 'Man, you've gotta come to this place.' I came here and instantly fell in love."
A couple of drinks in, he encourages me to go out to the pool and have a dip—it's a perfectly clear, 75-degree day—but I haven't brought a swimsuit. "Undies are fine!" he beams back at me, and then points to another patron outside. "That dude's in his undies and he's cool as shit."
When I try to steer the conversation toward the former clothing-optional policy, Weeser skillfully demurs. "It was a bit of a draw. It was a novelty. I don't know if it was a bigger draw than what we're offering," he says. "We got too popular to be clothing-optional. We got too—I hate to use the word 'mainstream,' because we certainly keep ourselves rooted in a funner attitude and atmosphere—but our customers became too broad, and most people really can't handle that. And that's just the reality behind it."
Mixing drinks with the bar's impressive array of flavored vodkas, he adds: "When I started working here, I was constantly wondering, 'How long is this gonna last? Really, how long can we get away with this?'"
While The Country Club was widely reported to be the only clothing-optional bar in New Orleans, Weeser notes that there used to be a couple other nude-friendly establishments in the city: the Club bathhouse, which has since shuttered, and the nudist bed-and-breakfast The Dive Inn, which dropped its clothing-optional policy when it came under new management. "And if you look hard enough," Weeser says, "there's still a couple places underground where, you know, men can be men."
Kristen Bradley, who has worked at The Country Club since 2010, echoes Weeser. "You could certainly say that there was a reputation for this place, over a good ten years ago, for being a place that gay men would come and hang out. And now, it's very obvious that we're open to everybody and everyone."
I ask Bradley if The Country Club saw its revenues fall after the policy was dropped. "We experienced a little bit of a lag in business for a minute. [The clothing-optional policy] was one of those iconic New Orleans things," she says. "But that wasn't because that was our predominant business. And now, even this early in the season, I can tell this is going to be one of the better summers we've ever had."
Indeed, more customers are already trickling in. I notice, however, that many of them appear to be young heterosexual couples, and I wonder if something vital is lost when gay spaces—especially gay bars, which once served as the only place where gay people could drink and socialize without fear of sneers and even violence—become "everybody places."
"I think there was a time when we needed to have safe spaces, and I think the world has changed in a really good way," Bradley says optimistically. "It's not as necessary to have those safe spaces where you know you can go and not be judged. I think that's becoming more [commonplace] everywhere."
She notes, however, that there was a time, both in New Orleans and when she lived in Baton Rouge, that she did feel unsafe because of her sexuality.
"I'm sure some people are like, 'I want this to be my space, and I like being the majority in here,'" Bradley says. She adds that while she doesn't crave gay bars in that way, the community does sometimes offer those kinds of spaces, such as the monthly pop-up dyke bar GrrlSpot. "Whereas the gay men in this community still have bars, the lesbians don't. We have events. They might be monthly parties or something like that. For me, that's enough."
Bradley gives me a tour of the locker rooms, sauna, and pool area, which is outfitted with another bar and a saltwater hot tub. On a beautiful and warm weekday like today, she estimates that they'll see 40 to 60 patrons at the pool. On the weekends in the summer, it's even higher. "You've gotta remember that a lot of New Orleanians [work in the] service industry. They have a more lenient schedule."
That explains the not-insignificant number of patrons here who have already started drinking before noon.
"I was coming here when I was 17 years old," says Paul Gruer, a local lighting designer who is now in his early 50s. Back inside, I've sidled up to him at the bar.
Weeser interjects: "And when he says he was cumming here…"
"No, no, no! My mother said, 'Never step in anything that looks like a petri dish.' So the jacuzzi was off-limits," Gruer jokes. "I'd be here with one of my friends, and one of them would be leaning over a barstool getting fucked, and I'm like, 'Are we going to stay here much longer? Or I'll get another drink if we are.'"
But that was a different time, Gruer tells me somewhat wistfully. "Darling, every place had a laissez-faire sex attitude. It was pre-AIDS. The only thing anyone was worried about was gonorrhea. I remember someone saying, 'If I ever got herpes, I would just kill myself.'"
Slicing into a plate of grilled chicken breast, he notes that even though he's been coming to The Country Club for years, public sex was never his scene. "When it was clothing-optional, it was clothing-optional. It didn't mean you were out for sex. So you could be naked by the pool but not looking for sex."
He adds, "I like outrageous people. You don't have to engage with someone to enjoy them. Just because some drag queen's got her dick out doesn't mean I gotta do anything with it."
Though Gruer claims that he didn't partake, many others did. Later, I speak with Bob Hannaford, the organizer behind the annual Naughty in N'awlins swinger convention. A 20-year resident of New Orleans, Hannaford says he's been to The Country Club hundreds of times with his wife, but he stopped going after the nudity policy changed.
"It's kind of sad to me because [the management] didn't fight for the rights for people to go skinny dipping in the back, which had absolutely nothing to with the woman who had her incident there," Hannaford says. "The girl was roofied, and that happens in bars in this city and other cities all the time." He blames the hospitality industry for not doing more to safeguard customers, noting that friends of his have been drugged elsewhere in New Orleans.
Still, being able to hang out—and more—in the nude was The Country Club's main draw for Hannaford. "We used to be members, and loved the place. We've been twice since [the clothing-optional policy changed] and haven't been back. That was the reason we went."
Hannaford tells me that die-hard naked swimmers are simply going the DIY route these days. "We know at least three other pool owners in the Marigny, and now people go to those pools. We have a lot of people always hitting us up: 'Can we come stop by the pool?' And they call these pools 'the mini Country Clubs' after what The Country Club used to be."
What The Country Club now lacks in nudity and barstool sex, however, it makes up for with quirky offerings like its recurring drag queen-hosted brunches and dinners, and weekend "Build Your Own Bloody Mary" bar. (Even Hannaford claims that there's nowhere better to go in town for Bloody Marys.) The menu is eclectic and ambitious, featuring twists on Louisiana classics like duck gumbo with alligator andouille and house-made boudin balls. At brunch, things get even fancier with its eggs hussarde, a red wine-infused take on eggs Benedict (quite possibly ripped from the menu at French Quarter stalwart Brennan's).
During my visit, pastry chef Catt Rolland—who is due to appear on an upcoming episode of Cutthroat Kitchen—brings me a massive mixed berry and white chocolate bread pudding doused in praline sauce. It's a glorious punch of richness and warm sugar. I'm scarcely able to finish it in between cocktails and mystery shots, which turn out not to be filled with either jacuzzi water or rum, but a fiery blend of bourbon, peach, and pineapple.
Clearly, these are the charms that still draw many to The Country Club: daytime boozing, catty conversation, and potent food and drink.
And if you still want to find somewhere to get fucked in the shallow end, New Orleans will surely provide it in one way or another. As Hannaford says, "People will just go other places and find other ways to get their skinny-dip on."