Shortly after Mardi Gras last year on February 25, New Orleans’s restaurant and bar industry came to a halt, alongside the rest of the country. Now Carnival season, which kicks off on January 6 and runs anywhere from five to eight weeks, is here again. It’s a time of year that is sacred to the city and its residents, and that’s far more layered (and lengthy) than its typical portrayal in popular media would suggest.
Really, the festivities start weeks before Mardi Gras day: Small, quirky neighborhood parades (think Star Wars appreciation or satiric shoebox floats) roll through the city’s streets, catching unaware visitors in their path. Daily costumery becomes the norm, parade float motorcades pause cars on Tchoupitoulas Street, and the purple, green, and gold home decor comes out. Restaurants and bars are filled and festive along parade routes and off; locals share bakery king-cake tips and pick up extras for neighbors just because. Usually, Fat Tuesday marks the culmination of a citywide transformation, when streets like St. Charles and Burgundy and private homes become extensions of the communal celebration. Yes, the drinks flow. But really, it’s the unabashed joy and abundance that take over the city’s residents, urging them to hug strangers and dole out boxes of Popeyes and trays of mini muffulettas in crowded backyards, narrow hallways, front porches, and any residential space not yet at capacity.
In November 2020, officials faced the reality that despite expectations, circumstances locally and beyond had not improved enough to approach Carnival season as usual, and canceled all Mardi Gras parades. In 2021, Fat Tuesday falls on February 16, making it a short Carnival season. Perhaps that’s for the best, as New Orleanians are grieving what they’re missing this season, in some cases feeling the absence of gathering with loved ones even more so than during this past year’s holiday season. There are no parades, events, or balls, and unofficial house parties are restricted to current gathering limits — 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors. No Marigny bar crawls after Chewbacchus or Krewe du Vieux, no staking out the balcony of Avenue Pub for St. Charles Avenue parades, no early-morning visits to dive bars on Mardi Gras day.
It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, however, that New Orleanians are finding ways to celebrate. The city is dotted with decor normally reserved for tractor-pulled floats in major parades, with the adapted “house float” installations ranging from Mardi Gras World-bought props to DIY decorations that will blow your best quarantine crafts out of the water. With 3,000 participants, the newly formed Krewe of House Floats has helped solidify “Yardi Gras,” providing neighbors a way to connect and onlookers a chance to admire the handiwork (from a distance, or better yet, online) of the many talented people who call New Orleans home — the same people who would normally spend Fat Tuesday showing off a breathtaking costume in the packed streets of the French Quarter, getting stopped for photographs over and over by locals and tourists alike.
But New Orleanians’ ingenuity hasn’t ended with their abodes. Most would agree that bakeries — especially those that have taken the opportunity to experiment or reinvent operations — are faring well this year, with king cakes taking on a larger-than-ever role as people grasp for a taste of normalcy. Famous New Orleans East bakery Dong Phuong had to stop selling king cakes in-store entirely to keep up with its distribution sites, and the lines at Bywater Bakery and King Cake Hub are intimidating most days. In keeping with the last few months, home bakers are finding success with king cake pop-ups, and Mardi Gras-themed food and drink specials abound. On Fat Tuesday, some locals plan to walk or bike around town, maybe landing somewhere for a picnic if it’s nice out. Some will sit on the porch, make tons of food and drinks as they would normally and try to eat it themselves. Whatever the case may be, everyone will feel pangs of longing for what once was as they look to better years ahead.
The adjustment may be even more painful for the bars and restaurants that would typically be at the heart of the festivities. City officials announced last week that bars, even those with temporary restaurant permits, will be closed entirely from Friday, February 12, through the morning of Ash Wednesday, February 17. They cannot open for curbside and outdoor service, curtailing the city’s famous street drinking. While residents have found some ways to emerge from the isolation of this year’s diminished event, its most vital industry remains mostly siloed from the mini morale boost sweeping the rest of the city.
What has Mardi Gras meant to the New Orleans restaurant and bar industry, historically? What will be the impact of missing a year? How will the city feel, not just without the sanctioned social exchanges, but also without the sense of carefree hospitality and close community that, on a cellular level, seems to make New Orleans so immediately distinguishable from everywhere else? The following stories will provide a peek inside what New Orleans Mardi Gras looks like in 2021, and the ways restaurants, bars, and locals are trying to maintain their livelihoods, celebrate their identities, and honor their icons.