I like to think that Mardi Gras is something everyone should experience at least once in their life: to see the spectacle of the floats, the costumes, the beads, the display of color that is so abundant on the streets. And to enjoy the food and drinks, of course. So I tapped my cousin, Dawnne Keeney, who grew up in New Orleans and has attended Mardi Gras every year of her life, to tell us how to truly do it right! Lucky for us, she agreed to share her day-by-day, play-by-play secrets below. Happy Mardi Gras everyone!
Guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Having been born during the Mardi Gras season, I have always planned a varied-yet-comprehensive five-day schedule that literally starts and ends in the same place – the French Quarter – and leaves no stone unturned.
The weekend officially begins on the Friday morning before Mardi Gras when at 10 a.m. I attend the “Greasing of the Poles” at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. This is a well-loved tradition born of necessity! The French Quarter gets pretty crazy during Mardi Gras and revelers will sometimes try to climb up to the balconies via the 200-year-old wrought-iron columns. The staff at the Royal Sonesta Hotel found that the best way to deter this potentially dangerous practice was to “grease” the columns with Vaseline prior to the onslaught of revelers. Word got around and, in true New Orleans style, people came to witness this truly “only in New Orleans” moment. The hotel invites local news anchors to be the Celebrity Greasers who are accompanied by a brass band, the Saintsations (the official cheerleading squad of the New Orleans Saints), the King and Queen of Zulu (a Mardi Gras organization), and local dignitaries.
After the Greasing of the Poles, it’s on to any one of New Orleans’ world-famous restaurants for a five-hour luncheon where everyone table-hops with champagne in hand. A native New Orleanian chooses from one of the following restaurants: Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Dickie Brennan’s and the Rib Room. It’s all about catching up with friends you haven’t seen all year. Around three o’clock everyone heads to the Absinthe House Bar on Bourbon Street where the bar provides sidewalk service and people spill out into the street. If you want a decent glass of wine, stroll about a block in any direction and order by the glass from Galatoire’s upstairs bar, the Hermes Bar at Antoine’s, or the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s. Lunch officially ends around sunset.
For dinner, we usually go casual to a New Orleans favorite like the Bon Ton Café on Magazine Street, Cochon in the Warehouse District, or Tommy’s Cuisine on Tchoupitoulas. You can see a parade from the windows of any of these restaurants. Later, there are fabulous music acts to see so take your pick of larger venues like the House of Blues, Tipitina’s, the Republic, and the Joy Theater. Or you can head to the small music clubs on Frenchmen Street or to Rock ‘n’ Bowl, a bowling alley that has live bands, a fabulously huge bar and great food – not to mention a hardwood dance floor.
Saturday morning finds me wanting to go Uptown to see the daytime parades – but breakfast comes first. Everyone knows about the beignets at Café du Monde but I recommend them as a midday pick-me-up or a nighttime snack. For breakfast in the Quarter, head over to Stanley near the St Louis Cathedral. In the CBD/Warehouse district head to Mother’s on Poydras or the Ruby Slipper on Magazine if the line at Mother’s is too long. If you are heading Uptown then you must go to Camellia Grill. All of these places will have lines and all of them are worth waiting in! Then I head to a friend’s house on Napoleon Avenue where I can see the floats and bands line up and wait for the parade to begin. Imagine towering live oaks creating a canopy over a grand boulevard with high school marching bands practicing drum lines. Before parade time we head over to the Columns Hotel, which is more of a bar and reception venue than a hotel (it only has about 10 rooms). A beautiful Belle Époque mansion, it has what is probably the most fabulous veranda on the avenue. Friends of mine host an all-day brunch there and we often invite tourists to join us and have a “real” New Orleans experience!
After a day of parades, I head back to Mid City to catch one of the largest and most beautiful parades called Endymion. There are three “Super Krewes” and this is one of them (Bacchus and Orpheus being the other two). Endymion is the only parade that still uses the Mid City Canal Street route and since this is where I grew up, it’s the only place to be on the Saturday night before Mardi Gras. I have a friend who grew up one block from the parade and her parents still live there so we all congregate at her folks’ house and eat incredibly tasty yet unhealthy food and watch the parade, which lasts about three hours. Recommended restaurants in the Mid City area are Mandina’s on Canal, Venezia’s for Italian on Carrollton and a really cool new restaurant called Redemption housed in an old church just a short walk from Canal and Carrollton Streets.
Sunday morning is “take stock” time. Since I go to the Bacchus Ball Sunday night, I need to decide if I need some rest time on the couch or if I should throw my ball gown and shoes in the car and go back uptown. Last year, I chose the latter option and ended up lounging in the backyard of one of the city’s most famous restaurant families eating fried catfish po’ boys and boiled shrimp! All around were debutantes, police officers, political figures, local actors, you name it. Great places to grab a bite in the Uptown area are Tracy’s on Magazine for po’ boys and The Irish House on St Charles Avenue. Or, if you’ve always wanted to go to Commander’s Palace and don’t feel like getting all dressed up, then this weekend is your chance to wear jeans to one of the city’s finest restaurants.
Around 4 p.m., it’s time to get the car and head downtown to a hotel near the convention center. A bunch of us usually rent a room for Sunday night as a home base since it can be hard to get cabs. The Bacchus Extravaganza is not a traditional Mardi Gras ball; it’s truly an extravaganza. About 4,000 people wear strictly formal black tie and buy tables of 10 at the convention center where there is live music and dancing. When the parade reaches the center, the doors open and the whole procession – complete with marching bands, police on horseback and gigantic floats – winds its way into the convention center passing all of the tables. Every year I try to bring at least one person who has never experienced this event, and I just love watching their face throughout the night. Last year, we had six people from Hattiesburg, Mississippi and guess who is coming back this year? If I were not going to the Extravaganza then I would have booked a table at the Palace Café on Canal Street and asked for a table by the windows on the second floor so I could watch the parade or venture outside in between courses.
Monday is Lundi Gras and the best thing happening that day is a party at the end of Canal Street at Spanish Plaza. There is the Acme Oyster House in the Hilton Hotel and if it’s not too crowded get a seat at the bar and order chargrilled oysters. You’ve never tasted anything like them in your life! Outside there are bands and food and lots of fun. At 6 p.m. the King of Zulu arrives by boat and is greeted by Rex, the King of Carnival. Zulu is the oldest of the African-American social aid and pleasure clubs and the only one that still parades at Mardi Gras. Rex is one of the oldest of the old line Mardi Gras Krewes and the king each year is considered to be the king of carnival. After the Lundi Gras celebration, we head over to St. Charles Avenue to see the Orpheus parade, which was started by Harry Connick, Jr. and some friends. It’s another of the Super Krewes and is just a beautiful spectacle to see. For dinner reserve a table at Café Adelaide in the Loews Hotel or Grand Isle on Fulton Street or try the new sports bar called Manning’s and owned by you-know-who! It just opened and the food is spectacular!
Tuesday – Mardi Gras
On Mardi Gras Day, restaurant choices can be dicey since most are on limited menus and staff. Many don’t bother to open. The Rib Room at the Royal Orleans Hotel is a great place to cap off a long day with wonderful prime rib. The Desire Oyster Bar on Bourbon is open all day and has great gumbo and fried seafood in addition to fresh raw oysters. Most hotels have full-service restaurants that are open all day so I would recommend a good old fashioned hotel breakfast buffet to start the day. Then look for street vendors along the parade route. If you see someone grilling in a parking lot, venture over and find out first if they are selling the food (there is usually a sign) and if so, you are in for a real treat!
My Mardi Gras morning begins with a repeat trip to my friend’s house on Napoleon Avenue to see Rex’s paper mache floats line up. The lieutenants and float riders are all masked and are not allowed to reveal their identities so this is really the proper time to go “visiting.” Before the parade begins we jump in the car and head to the Garden District to meet friends who rent an apartment on the Avenue just for the Mardi Gras season. We watch Rex’s and then get back in the car and go through the area of the city called Central City, which is one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans and ride around looking for the Mardi Gras Indians (you can usually catch them gathering at the corner bars on Washington Avenue or on Second Street). The Mardi Gras Indians are African-American men’s clubs where membership is handed down through the generations. Various tribes perform elaborate song-and-dance routines that culminate in a “meeting of the minds” of the chiefs. Eventually all of the Uptown Indians congregate in one area and the Downtown tribes congregate on Claiborne Avenue. Further information can be found at the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
After seeing the Indians, I head to the French Quarter to watch the revelry from the balcony of the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. From my perch I can see all of the costumes and decorations and antics of the people below. To wrap up the weekend, we always leave the Royal Sonesta Hotel around sunset and head to Popeye’s for a big bucket of the best fried chicken in the world, which we take home so we can watch the TV coverage of Mardi Gras. If you can stay up until midnight you can watch the meeting of the courts of Rex’s and Comus on TV, which is the meeting of the two oldest carnival organizations with kings, queens, debutantes and pages all in a very formal bal masque-like performance.
A Note on Hotels:
Depending on how well you know the city or how adventurous you are, there are many hotels you can choose from. New Orleans is a very walkable city and the French Quarter, CBD and Warehouse District are adjacent to each other. In the French Quarter, I like the more classic hotels such as the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, the Monteleone on Royal Street and the Omni Royal Orleans on St Louis Street. If you want a smaller hotel in the Quarter, I highly recommend the Hotel Provincial, Bienville House and the Place d’Armes. For Central Business District (CBD) hotels, the Loews, the W, and the JW Marriott are all located on parade routes and provide easy accessibility for public transportation and taxis. Be warned that the French Quarter is closed to traffic over the Mardi Gras weekend and even taxis may not be able to get you to the door of a French Quarter Hotel. The Warehouse District is the city’s most recently developed area and boasts a plethora of hotels, restaurants, bars and music venues.
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