If your sweetheart’s ideal Valentine’s Day involves a pre-Endymion crawfish boil at your buddy’s house near Orleans Avenue or just hanging out somewhere Uptown after Tucks rolls, then this year should be a breeze. For anyone else expected to gin up a romantic dinner out on the town, however, Valentine’s Day 2015 may require a more careful approach.
Known to the rest of the restaurant reservation-seeking country as Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14 doubles this year in New Orleans as the Saturday before Mardi Gras. With parades in full swing, what is normally one of the busiest days for restaurants is presenting some curveballs.
Arnaud’s Restaurant (813 Bienville St., (504) 523-5433; arnaudsrestaurant.com), for instance, is this year treating Valentine’s Day as a movable feast, pushing back its annual holiday prix fixe menu by two weeks, to serve it Feb. 27 to March 1.
“We decided we can try to fight Mardi Gras and for sure not win, or we can delay the celebration of Valentine’s Day, so that’s what we’re doing,” said Katy Casbarian, who runs the family-owned restaurant with her brother Archie.
The old-line restaurant is a traditional spot for many krewe luncheons and dinners, so Carnival time is especially busy at Arnaud’s anyway. Casbarian said they decided to wait not merely until after Carnival but until the end of the month for a Valentine’s promotion in order to give people a chance to get back to their post-Mardi Gras routines. The three-course menu has dishes in line with the gently modernized approach Arnaud’s has been taking lately, and heart-shaped balloons will make a late appearance around the dining room.
Near the Metairie parade route, Andrea’s Restaurant (3100 19th St., (504) 834-8583; andreasrestaurant.com) is keeping its normal schedule, with an a la carte Valentine’s Day menu and special desserts. But manager Tia Sommerville has learned to prepare for the unexpected on those years when Valentine’s Day falls in close proximity with Carnival.
“It sneaks up on people,” she said of Valentine’s Day. “They’re focused on Mardi Gras, so they call in much later or their plans change. Some people stretch it out. They’ll come on the day before or the day after depending when their favorite parade is. It’s very unpredictable.”
These vagaries of Carnival time can loosen up what in other years would be very hard reservations to land for Valentine’s Day. That’s even true at Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave., (504) 899-8221; commanderspalace.com), where Steve Woodruff, director of operations for the Garden District restaurant, said the rhythms of Carnival shift the highest demand for tables from dinner to festive lunches.
“In a way Mardi Gras trumps Valentine’s Day because Mardi Gras is for everyone,” he said.
There will be Valentine’s Day couples in the midst of it all, Woodruff predicted, though the focus is on Carnival.
“We decorate the dining rooms with purple, green and gold, with paper crowns on the tables and balloons,” Woodruff said. “As soon as people come in they’re in the mood to party. You’ve never seen so many grown adults wearing paper crowns around the dining room.”
Elsewhere though, restaurateurs are preparing for Valentine’s Day as usual. The timing is particularly fortuitous for Uptown restaurants, which see the last of the day’s parades pass in the early afternoon, creating something of a hiatus along the Uptown route that evening as the Mardi Gras momentum shifts to Mid-City.
“Endymion is actually one of our big nights,” said Patrick Singley, proprietor of Gautreau’s Restaurant (1728 Soniat St., (504) 899-7397; gautreausrestaurant.com). “People who aren’t going to the parade want to do something normal, so we’re packed.”
He said Valentine’s Day bookings were so far on par at Gautreau’s and at his newer French Quarter restaurant Marti’s (1041 Dumaine St., (504) 522-5478; martisnola.com), which marked only its first Valentine’s Day last year.
The situation is quite different in Mid-City itself, where long stretches of the neighborhood essentially become pedestrian malls as Endymion prepares to roll. Some restaurants will simply close or sell parade packages only on Feb. 14 or sell drinks and take-out food only. But Canal Street Bistro (3903 Canal St., (504) 482-1225; canalstreetbistro.com) has a different plan in mind this year. It will turn its normal Saturday brunch into a Valentine’s prix fixe brunch, served from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (four courses for $45, including a glass of sparkling wine).
“The parade rolls right past our door, so we’re pretty inaccessible later on. But this way people can do something special earlier,” said manager Ingrid Peters.
After 2 p.m., the restaurant will shift to a take-out-only menu of Latin American-style street food, including Cuban sandwiches, roasted corn and fish tacos.
However, a short distance can make a big difference during Carnival. At Café Degas (3127 Esplanade Ave., (504) 945-5635; cafedegas.com), for instance, proprietor Jacques Soulas has found that his French bistro is just far enough from the Endymion parade route to avoid the crowds. Sure, getting to the restaurant from some other parts of town may require a circuitous route. But in typical years his regulars make their way and this year his Valentine’s Day bookings have been rolling in, though sometimes on an altered schedule.
“It’s always busy (for Endymion) because people have guests in town, they want to go out, even after the parade,” Soulas said. “What we’re hearing this year is that someone’s partner will say, ‘OK, we won’t go out because it’s Endymion, but don’t think you’re off the hook, you still owe me dinner.’ ”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.