Any town that likes to party should have a good late-night scene. But in New Orleans, putting on Mardi Gras, a party like no other, also means getting an early start.
With weekend parades rolling before noon, the pregaming often begins hours earlier. And on Fat Tuesday itself, even the normally temperate show no hesitation in trading their morning coffee for higher-octane eye-openers.
It’s just another part of the all-encompassing character of Carnival here. New Orleans bars are ready with routines worked out for days that are anything but. Even for bars that never close, nearby parades and DIY revelry changes the pace and clientele drastically from the normal 24-hour cycle.
Preparing entails more than just stocking up on canned beer and go cups for take-away business. There are also the specifics of catering to morning tipplers, like stockpiling orange juice for mimosas and screwdrivers and buying Bloody Mary fixings in bulk. Staffing has to change to pair normal late-night hours with temporary morning ones.
The bar still has bands and DJs into the wee hours, but when the morning crowd starts stacking up outside on the parade route, this little town house bar goes into its annual morning mode.
“You have to be ready and have a plan,” Clements said. “If you don’t, it’s like a war zone.”
Bars need not be directly on the route to feel the effects. The Rusty Nail (1100 Constance St.), for instance, sits in an otherwise quiet nook of the Warehouse District. But it still sees plenty of thirsty customers coming through en route to the parades, or sometimes whole marching clubs and other groups rallying there. The bar opens in the morning for them and stays open hours before its normal schedule kicks in.
Co-owner Ivan Burgess said it can feel like a nonstop operation over the whole busy weekend, and the bar really does function 24 hours straight from Lundi Gras through Fat Tuesday.
“We may close for an hour just to hit reset,” he said. “At that point, it’s good to make a distinction between who is just getting there and who’s been there all night.”
Far Uptown, St. Joe’s Bar (5535 Magazine St.) has a darkly gothic ambience that might appeal to a vampire. But with morning parades starting nearby, the bartenders pull the curtains open much earlier. They sometimes find people peering back in, eager to get the party started.
On Sunday, when Thoth lines up just a few blocks away and rolls right past its door, all bets are off. So heavy is demand for bloody Marys that bartenders usually post signs declaring the St. Joe’s signature blueberry mojito off limits until after the parade clears through.
By Lundi Gras, night and morning meld into one continuous schedule at 45 Tchoup (4529 Tchoupitoulas St.).
“We just roll on through,” said Debbie Schatz, a co-owner of the bar. “It’s the funniest mix because it’s people who are still up, and people just getting up.”
Proximity to Tipitina's, with its all-night Carnival time shows, brings people through its doors. But the low-slung bar also doubles as a de facto costuming workshop as neighbors and regulars gather through the wee hours gluing, sewing and otherwise finishing off their finery for Mardi Gras. Some fuel up on the bar’s “triple jitter,” a cocktail of coffee concentrate, espresso vodka, Kahlua and milk.
Sometime after sunrise, the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians turn up at 45 Tchoup and hit the streets.
The one parade that rolls in Mid-City doesn’t start until late in the afternoon, but since that parade is Endymion, of course the neighborhoods around its route are buzzing with activity long beforehand. With plenty of fanatics camping out to “claim” neutral ground spots, bars along the route become de facto way stations.
The Holy Ground (3340 Canal St.), an Irish pub across from the Canal Street neutral ground here, pours drinks for campers late into the night and then opens early on parade day for the bleary-eyed seeking a restart.
“It’s like a Bloody Mary extravaganza around here,” said pub proprietor Stephen Collins.
He’s learned the hard way that during Endymion his bar can never stock enough vodka, that prime ingredient for bloodies and screwdrivers. The coffee maker is constantly running too in the morning, making the base for spiked Irish coffee, especially those years when the weather turns cold.
If Carnival changes the whole city’s cadence, it doesn’t impact all bars the same way, even those directly on the parade routes.
The Avenue Pub (1732 St. Charles Ave.), best known now as a serious craft beer destination, still keeps the 24-hour schedule of its dive bar roots. That brings it a year-round early-morning clientele of first responders and others just getting off shift at daybreak. But during Mardi Gras those police officers and medical staff are working overtime.
“What it means is our graveyard shifts are not as busy during Mardi Gras as the other 50 weeks of the year,” said Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts. “We tend to think the whole city is partying during Mardi Gras, but there’s a lot of people who are working more than ever.”
When public safety personnel finally do get off the clock after Mardi Gras, however, some beeline to the Avenue Pub. For years now, the bar has hosted a brunch around sunrise on Ash Wednesday for local first responders, with a spread of food on the house and discounts at the bar.
“It’s just something we do for them,” Watts said. “And then the minute the last one leaves, we close the bar for 24 hours.”
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