One of the wonders of Carnival time in New Orleans is its ability to transform. Your normal neighbors can become temporary monarchs, if only of a krewe of their own. The streets of our daily commutes become stages for fantasy, imagination and generous masked strangers. And the humble, everyday watering hole suddenly offers box seats at the greatest free party on Earth.
Any place serving drinks in the orbit of a Mardi Gras parade is bound to change its persona, as restaurants shift over to bar duty and normally upscale lounges shift down for quick service and take-away libations.
The dives, the joints and the corner bars, meanwhile, can suddenly, if briefly, become hot spots. Every walk of New Orleans life jams in for as long as the parades and the good times roll. There may be some accommodations for crowd control, but these downscale spots are also remarkable for keeping their essential qualities intact – cold beer, quick no-frills cocktails, maybe some hot food, a chance to take your feet off the street for a spell. If they are homes away from home for their regulars, at Carnival they become the homebase for revelers by the route.
Here's my selective scouting report on favorite spots that fit the bill on the Uptown route, divided by zones.
The low, narrow streetscape of upper Magazine lends a small town feel even as parades are at their height, and the little bar rooms tucked between the stores and homes have been part of its texture for ages.
St. Joe’s Bar (5535 Magazine St., at Joseph) — The gothic/Catholic themed décor may feel right if you need to confess some parade route sins, the pagoda patio hidden in back is a good spot to count your blessings.
Henry’s Uptown Bar (5101 Magazine St., at Soniat) — Around since 1908, Henry’s is a survivor from the days when corner bars like this were common Uptown. Draft beer is a relatively new addition; so is an outlet of the Big Cheezy grilled cheese eatery.
Le Bon Temps Roule (4801 Magazine St., at Bordeaux) — There’s a stage in back, but during Carnival the show is right outside the big front windows of this Uptown mainstay, with a good draft selection and a story etched into every cranny of the rambling old joint.
The Brothers Three (4523 Magazine St., at Cadiz) — Under perhaps the lowest ceiling of any New Orleans bar, this unreconstructed dive feels a bit like a country honky tonk. It’s like stepping into another world right off the route.
Ms. Mae’s, the Club (4336 Magazine St., at Napoleon) — Holding down a key junction where Magazine turns to Napoleon, it’s always the same old Ms. Mae's, with cheap basic cocktails and a forgiving, perpetual twilight ambiance. Now there’s a much-improved canned beer selection, ideal for the parade route.
One for the Bands
45 Tchoup (4529 Tchoupitoulas St., at Cadiz) — This low-key, low-slung watering hole sits beside one of the great preludes of the processions. For parades that lineup on Tchoupitoulas Street, marching bands are arrayed right in front of the doors and they traditionally partake in battle of the band sound-offs before departure.
Parades are at their most majestic on Napoleon and St. Charles avenues, but even this grand setting of mansions and oaks offers unassuming bars ready to set you up.
Fat Harry’s (4330 St. Charles Ave., at Napoleon) — This is the Gallier Hall of parade route watering holes — every Uptown parade passes its doors and they all seem to celebrate a bit more as they do. A glimmer of Carnival energy sticks to this place year round, and each parade recharges that battery.
Milan Lounge (1312 Milan St., at Prytania) — A hub of Chicago Cubs fans (and a madhouse during the team’s World Series run last fall), the vintage jester sign outside makes clear the Milan’s dual role as a Carnival outpost, two short blocks off St. Charles Avenue.
The Mayfair Lounge (1505 Amelia St., at Prytania) — An old-school lounge started in another era by the widow of a river captain, the Mayfair has a faded mural of river life and ceilings encrusted with a reef of throws and lights and beads that changes a bit after each parade passes by.
Aline Beer Garden and the Sovereign Pub (1515 Aline and 1517 Aline street, at Prytania) — These related bars, and the adjacent Orleans Coffee Espresso Bar (3445 Prytania St.) and the Prytania Bar form their own little district of contiguous drinking spots a block back from the route. The Aline Beer Garden has a specialty in German brews and food pop-ups; the Sovereign keeps a cozy calm befitting its British theme.
Verret’s Lounge (1738 Washington Ave., at Baronne) — A rare find two blocks on the Central City side of the route, this longtime corner joint (once the Turning Point) was revamped a few years back with an updated look and covered patio while keeping the same easy welcome.
Igor’s Lounge (2133 St. Charles Ave., at Jackson) — There’s laundry on spin cycle in back, pool balls scattering on the felt and burgers sizzling on the grill at his 24/7 haunt, and none of that necessarily stops as the parades pass by. This place is a throwback, so you might as well get the hurricane. See also the related Lucky’s (1625 St. Charles Ave., at Euterpe) and Buddha Belly (4437 Magazine St., at Cadiz).
The Avenue Pub (1732 St. Charles Ave., at Polymnia) — The Avenue is always a destination for serious beer aficionados in New Orleans, and as Carnival takes over, it's still the spot for the best beer on the route.
Barrel Proof (1201 Magazine St., at Erato) — The menu heads upscale at this stylish whiskey bar, but it will still furnish a good shot-and-beer combo and mix a proper old fashioned for the road. Go a few steps farther for Courtyard Brewery (1020 Erato St.), a micro-brewery with growlers to go.
The Circle Bar (1032 St. Charles Ave., on Lee Circle) — A lonely townhouse that seems dropped here beside its bigger neighbors, the Circle Bar is in just the right place on the curve of Lee Circle to catch the blare of marching bands letting loose under the nearby overpass.
Krewes find their own way home once they clear St. Charles Avenue, with varying final routes to their ending point. There are few true neighborhood bars left downtown, but some contenders remain. Down Tchoupitoulas Street, a few somewhat-more-polished taverns step into the same role for the handful of big krewes that make it that far.
South Market Pub & Grill (725 St. Joseph St., at Carondelet) — The name refers to the massive new development reshaping nearby blocks, though this hole in the wall has no relation beyond its proximity. That also puts it steps from the parade route. The hidden patio in back is a nice find.
Bienvenue Bar & Grill (312 St. Charles Ave., at Gravier) — The longtime home to FredRick’s deli is a CBD lunchtime standby that goes into bar mode for parades, with a much expanded array of drinks for the route.
Cajun Mike's Pub (116 Baronne St., at Canal) — A dive just across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel, this is always a much cheaper alternative for a quick drinks to go. It’s well positioned for the tail end of parades that make the loop up and down Canal Street.
Barcadia (601 Tchoupitoulas St., at Lafayette) — The tavern and vintage arcade game room is all but open to the street with its roll-up doors, offering a view of the floats even from the bar.
Vic’s Kangaroo Café (636 Tchoupitoulas St., at Girod) — The post-shift service industry crowd normally keeps this resilient, cavernous dive hopping in the wee hours, though with parades rolling it holds down prime territory.
Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar (701 Tchoupitoulas St., at Girod) — A stalwart of the downtown drinking scene now has a greatly enlarged bar. The newest addition, finished just in time for the parades, is an iron balcony granting a new perspective on the downtown finale.