Mardi Gras in New Orleans … The 5Ws and How of dining without the stress

Mardi Gras in New Orleans … the best place in the world to be, right? Well, maybe. Not so much. Kind of. Eh.

I can appreciate Mardi Gras for what it is: family time, events, parties, prized catches. I can even appreciate the festivity feel behind it. What I can’t appreciate, and try my hardest to avoid, is, well … the traffic. And the people. And the crowds. And the parking/stalking-you-with-my-car-as-you-walk-down-the-street wars. The people. The drunks. Screaming children. Crying adults. Did I mention the people?

But really, I think we pretty much can all deal with those … but the most unforgivable of all? The temporary, grueling loss of virtually 80% of my favorite restaurants.

You never think about how much you really want that Four Course Dinner at Coquette until you can’t have it. Or MiLa‘s Seasonal Tasting Dinner. Or even a casual dinner with a thick spicy roux’ed up gumbo with Croque-Madame et Frites at Lüke. Or … or even an early afternoon brunch of Migas and fresh-squeezed Pineapple-Mango-Orange juice at Surrey’s in the Garden District on any weekend during Mardi Gras! This isn’t even to start the many many late-in-the-week-weekday nights I crave (nay, would die for) any of my favorite Chef’s dishes at any of his six locations: Ancora, High Hat Cafe, Rio Mar, La Boca, A Mano, Gusto! (Oh, the movies I’ve missed! Canal Place, I’ll be there soon, I PROMISE!!) It’s a sad state of affairs when this foodie can’t get what this foodie wants. Sad state, indeed.

God. I think I’m hungry. But in all seriousness …

Driving home the other day, listing to WWNO and NPR as always, I heard Ian McNulty‘s thoughtful and demanding Where Y’Eat show, this one titled “Dining Out when the Super Bowl Runneth Over.” I was struck by how truly “New Orleanian” it is to instinctively know how to maneuver around town during Mardi Gras season, and how those same skills help us at other times of the year. The regular gamut of conventions, Essence, Southern Decadence, Bayou Classic (the Grambling-Southern game for those not-in-the-know), and Festivals upon Festivals upon Festivals. Then there are the holidays, New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day, and yes, even Second Lines. Our ability as New Orleanians to withstand the throngs of people to make it to our designated “spot” is not without application elsewhere. We do have to recall, though, when we’re in other cities, that heading toward the lake is not always North, nor toward the River, south (learned that one the hard way in Portland, OR).

So, during Mardi Gras, yes, we make do in a way that we wouldn’t normally. We religiously visit old neighborhood haunts and drive past others, wishing they were open again (you know who you are). Here’s my survival plan for Mardi Gras, and all other things that make getting around the city to enjoy life and dine virtually impossible:

Who: Me, myself and I. No planning big parties, large dinners or even an evening out on the town. Just me, and maybe my bff or maybe my partner in crime. Two person limit. Period.

What: Something easy, usually within a few miles of home and definitely south of Veterans, East of Bonnabel, West of Napoleon and North of Claiborne.

Where: You guys know my faves (in no particular order, of course), but here, let me recap the ones that are more accessible during this time of the year:

  1. Ralph’s on the Park (Not during Endymion)
  2. Lola’s
  3. Cafe Navarre (Not during Endymion)
  4. Mondo (Note — Susan Spicer’s Menu is the header on this blog)
  5. Tea Garden
  6. Impastato’s (not on a Metairie parade night)
  7. Sun Ray Grill Old Metairie
  8. Santa Fe
  9. Doson’s Noodle House (Not during Endymion)
  10. Theo’s Pizza (Not during Endymion)
  11. Parkway Bakery (Not during Endymion)
  12. Ruby Slipper
  13. Wasabi West End

Why: Because they’re all out-of-the-way, easy to get into most days if you go early or late enough, and they’re all rock solid. The food is amazing (as you will recall most of these have been subjects of earlier posts) and this nolafoodie doesn’t eat just anything. After years of working in the service industry, I can admit it … I’m spoiled. Some would say that’s code for snobby. I don’t really care what it’s called, just that under it all, it’s smart.

When: Anytime you can get a table. During the festival/parade season that is New Orleans for a large chunk of the year, the prime times to visit these are actually during the event. Don’t try to go right before a parade (i.e., between 5 and 630) or right after (i.e., between 8:30 and 10). That special time of the night is between 6:45 and 8. If you can get in the door then, take your time, watch the door and when it starts to look like an avalanche of people just fell out of a bus that hasn’t been washed in days, that’s your cue to pay the bill, tip your server well and get out of dodge.

How: OpenTable.com or pre-programmed numbers in my phone. Map out the “back way” and hold on tight. Be ready to hit a rough patch as you cross under the interstate, but know that on the other side, a nice warm comforting meal awaits with some of your favorite owners and servers around. Having good relationships with restaurants will get you everywhere during a busy season. Pet their dog, tip well, introduce yourself, and of course, don’t be a dunce or a jerk … tell them you love them and appreciate them regularly, and all will be well.

Happy eating, NOLA …. good luck getting through next Tuesday.

~ nolafoodie

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