For a Mardi Gras without parades, New Orleans restaurants find new roles
As if there was any doubt, the Mardi Gras spirit is manifestly clear at Commander’s Palace now that the restaurant has joined the growing ranks of New Orleans house floats.
Through a program that’s creating jobs for Mardi Gras artists in a season without parades, the restaurant’s Caribbean-blue façade is decked with float-style renderings of its signature desserts, cherubs bearing Champagne and the late jazz great Pete Fountain, whose Half Fast Marching Club always starts its Fat Tuesday procession at the restaurant.
But what unfolds behind the walls of this and countless other New Orleans restaurants may well also help define the can-do character of Carnival in pandemic times.
“We’re trying anything we can to make this time more festive and give people a way to take part,” said Commander’s Palace co-owner Ti Martin.
In this year of the house float, New Orleans restaurants large and small are hoping to be the home away from home for Mardi Gras celebrations reduced to a single table or a special meal. This is playing out through themed menus, expanded hours, small private events and new partnerships, adapting the business and social relationships that run through Carnival in normal times.
At Arnaud’s Restaurant, it takes the form of giant parade float flowers, bottomless bubbly and a lot of flair.
“It’s us asking how we can create some of the energy that might be missing from the streets,” said Katy Casbarian, co-owner of her family’s historic French Quarter restaurant.
Like all the city’s old line restaurants, Arnaud’s is normally bustling during Carnival, between annual krewe lunches and post-parade suppers. Now, its many private dining rooms are reconfigured for individual tables, and menu packages are revised in recognition that, without parades and balls, the meal is likely the night’s main act.
That includes open bar and kits of wigs and hats and beads, assembled through a partnership with Mardi Gras supply retailer Plush Appeal. For the weekend leading to Valentine’s Day, which coincides with the final weekend of Carnival, the restaurant will serve a seven-course tasting menu that includes the option to add the type of sculpted flowers that normally adorn parade floats.
Arnaud’s partnered with float builder Mardi Gras World for the offer, which Casbarian said is intended to create more jobs for people who are normally busy crafting floats.
“It’s to bring that spirit and also to support other businesses that are struggling right now,” she said.
Setting the table, under limits
Restaurants themselves have struggled mightily for nearly a year now, facing reduced business and varying restrictions. Missing the annual boon of a full-fledged Carnival comes as another hard blow.
Many neighborhood restaurants rely on the business that comes from parade days. In Mid-City, the Saturday of Endymion is by far the year’s busiest day for Neyow‘s Creole Cafe.
“All of Mardi Gras is good and that’s the cherry on top,” said chef and founder Tanya Dubuclet.
Losing the parade day will hurt, Dubuclet said. But she believes people will still look for safe activities on the erstwhile parade days. That’s why Neyow’s will stay open on Fat Tuesday, a day it’s normally closed.
At the Treme restaurant Willie Mae’s Scotch House, owner Kerry Seaton-Stewart is banking on continued demand for takeout and catering, especially since her family’s restaurant is famous for fried chicken, a staple of Mardi Gras. She also decided to keep the restaurant open on Fat Tuesday this year.
“It would be too depressing if we did nothing, so we’ll embellish what would be a normal Tuesday with a little glitter and king cake and keep going with the flow as we should,” she said. “We’re trying to perpetuate Mardi Gras any way we can.”
Many other restaurants are doing the same, trying to set the stage for whatever celebrations people can muster this year and get whatever business they can.
“I think we’ll see these pop-up communities of Mardi Gras celebration around the city, and restaurants are places where people can do that in a safe, responsible way,” said Mia Freiberger-Devillier, who runs Justine and La Petite Grocerywith her husband Justin Devillier.
The two restaurants also are adding more hours to accommodate small groups looking to dine out on normally festive days, and she said reservations have been steady.
“People still want to go out, and restaurants are one of the few things they can still do,” she said.
Plans, roles, cakes
Many operators say their plans for the final stretch of Carnival hinge on the local level of coronavirus infection rates and the decisions by city and state officials over reopening phases.
Antoine’s Restaurant is deeply imbued in Carnival culture, with krewes traditionally holding events there at the peak of the season. With big gatherings off this year, the restaurant has more of its many private dining rooms open for individual diners, and these rooms themselves are decked in Carnival memorabilia and artifacts.
Antoine’s is running special Mardi Gras prix fixe menus with wine pairings “to say, here’s a way to safely celebrate with a nice dinner,” said manager Lisa Blount.
Ralph Brennan, proprietor of Brennan’s Restaurant, Ralph’s on the Park, Red Fish Grill, Napoleon House and Cafe NOMA, said his teams has found ways to contend with the uncertainties of planning by bringing part of the restaurant experience to customers’ homes.
Using a template refined for takeout holiday meals over the past year, they’re devising complete “boxed” feasts for curbside pickup, along with package deals in the dining rooms, all tailored to Mardi Gras. The restaurant this year also started a major king cake program, which is now producing hundreds of cakes daily, shipping them nationally and creating work for more restaurant employees who would otherwise be idled under the dining room restrictions.
“People are looking for ways to support the restaurants, they understand the situation now, and also it’s helpful for them, for whatever they’re doing at home,” Brennan said.
Carnival always requires restaurants to be flexible and creative, especially those near parade routes, said Brian Landry, co-founder of Jack Rose in the Pontchartrain Hotel. The restaurant’s doors open to St. Charles Avenue, and in normal years it books many private parties to serve as a boozy home base for paradegoers.
This year, with parties reduced to single tables, the restaurant devised a new menu to begin in February with fine-dining versions of Carnival staples, like red beans and rice with a pork porterhouse or jambalaya with duck confit. The hotel’s famous dessert, Mile High Pie, will get a Mardi Gras makeover, with ube, mango and pistachio ice creams representing the purple, green and gold of the season.
“Everything we do is geared toward giving us an opportunity to make the best of it in these times,” said Landry. “Mardi Gras is different, but at this point, the gymnastics of trying to keep the doors open is familiar.”
The new house float tableau at Commander’s Palace was created by the Royal Artists, the local company that builds floats for many prominent krewes, including Proteus, Krewe d’Etat and, since 2020, Rex. It’s part of the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist campaignorganized by the Carnival marching group the Krewe of Red Beans, which has led many creative responses to the pandemic.
Commander’s Palace co-owner Lally Brennan said the tableau is worthwhile even if it just gives passersby a reason to stop and smile (Lally Brennan and Ralph Brennan are cousins, though their businesses are separate).
“I think Mardi Gras this year will be in small moments,” she said.
Her restaurant is trying to meet those moments in different ways. Each lunch, Commander’s Palace will surprise customers by dubbing one as the king or queen of each dining room, with a tablecloth cape and chef toque crown. The restaurant’s new takeout shop is pitching po-boys and casual dishes for people getting festive at home or embarking on self-guided house float tours.
“It’s New Orleans, people are going to find a way to have fun,” Brennan said.