See the Mardi Gras in New Orleans like you live there

Mardi Gras parade in The Marigny
Local residents walk in a Mardi Gras parade in The Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. To reach The Marigny walk northeast on Bourbon Street. When you cross Esplanade Avenue you are in The Marigny. Bourbon becomes Pauger Street in the Marigny. Continue on Pauger until you reach Dauphine Street. Turn right and walk two blocks until you reach Frenchmen Street. (Photos © Doug Hall)

It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans but you can have Bourbon Street and Canal Street.

Bourbon Street drag awards
Much of the Mardi Gras is redundant. Beads, beads, beads. The Bourbon Street Awards are one of a kind. Now in their 50th year, the awards celebrate New Orleans’ place as a world capital of drag.

I don’t mind the debauchery and perversion. Instead I can do without the over-commercialization, over-crowding, over-hyping and over-pricing.

Luckily, Mardi Gras is far more than a one-day bacchanal on Bourbon and Canal streets.

For locals Mardi Gras involves some 60 parades that run this year from February 15 until Ash Wednesday. Many of the best parades and parties happen outside the French Quarter and away from downtown’s Canal Street.

Imagine if your town or city had dozens of festivals going on and every neighborhood had its own parade, ball or street party – all within a two-week period.

So if Mardi Gras is on your bucket list, take my advice: spend just half a day on Bourbon and Canal Streets. Then head to the other neighborhoods of New Orleans to see how New Orleanians really celebrate.

Tip #1: If you’ve seen one bead-tossing parade on Canal Street you’ve seen them all.

Tip #2: Try to catch at least a half-hour of the Bourbon Street Awards, now in their 50th year. Your religious beliefs might feel violated but you’ll have a good time if you just remember it’s all camp.

Now let’s look at some differences between the Mardi Gras on Canal and Bourbon streets and the Mardi Gras in the adjacent residential neighborhood Faubourg Marigny, or just The Marigny. Hint, the g is silent.

Camellia red beans costumes
The parades on Canal Street are filled with enormous commercial floats. These mothers and daughters marched along Esplanade Avenue in sacks made for Camellia red beans.

While both Mardis Gras have multiple parades, the parades in The Marigny are decidedly more home-spun and organic. There are no giant commercial floats here nor has-been Hollywood grand marshals. The most memorable parade I’ve seen in New Orleans appeared out of nowhere on Esplanade Avenue and disappeared almost before I could whip out my iPhone. I did manage to grab a snapshot of the cutest parade contingent, a couple of mothers and their daughters dressed in Camellia red bean sacks.

Another day I took Ivar, my Miniature Schnauzer, for a walk and discovered the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus parading down Frenchmen Street. I watched as streams of Marigny residents poured out of their homes in costumes at mid-morning and made their way to the parade route. If you’ve followed the HBO series “Tremé” then you know that no self-respecting New Orleans musician wants to play on Bourbon Street. Instead, the most talented jazzmen clamor for gigs on Frenchmen Street, at venues like Snug Harbor or The Spotted Cat.

Frenchmen Street cafe
Cafe Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street is a quiet place to get away from the crowds. Rose Nicaud was a slave who earned her freedom selling coffee.

One Mardi Gras morning I enjoyed an almost sacred tranquility in the Cafe Rose Nicaud at 632 Frenchmen Street. Rose Nicaud was a slave in the early 1800s who saved enough money selling coffee in the French Market to buy her own freedom. Great story and great coffee too. Unbelievably this sanctum is just a few blocks from the craziness of Bourbon Street.

Open house in New Orleans neighborhoods
New Orleanians will move the furniture out to make room for lavish buffets and then invite friends, neighbors and strangers in for a cocktail.

If you venture into the residential neighborhoods local dwellers will likely invite you into their homes for a sazerac or other libation. If you’re lucky there will also be a sampling of New Orleans culinary delights. I was invited to a double shotgun home on Burgundy Street. The owner cleared the living room of furniture to make room for a sprawling buffet of New Orleans and Mobile dishes.

There is a debate whether New Orleans cuisine is Southern cuisine but this host split the difference. Instead of King cake there was a glorious white coconut layer cake. He also converted the dining room into an well-stocked open bar. A steady flow of friends, neighbors and at least one stranger filed through the house all day.

Mealtime may be the best reason to avoid Canal and Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. A person could stand in line for an hour in the rain to eat a muffuletta in a touristy French Quarter grocery store (that would be me). The same person could venture into The Marigny and seek out La Peniché at 1490 Dauphine Street. I would also send you to the very popular with the college crowd Port of Call, only a four-minute walk away at 838 Esplanade Avenue, but odds are there would be a long line at the Port of Call too.

La Peniché is open 24 hours. It offers good food, good prices and quick service even during Mardi Gras.

La Peniche in The Marigny
La Peniché on Dauphine Street offers pretty standard fare – po’ boys, steaks, chops, seafood, and breakfast. But the neighborhood eatery is open 24 hours.

Yes, New Orleans is one of the great food cities and La Peniché is certainly not in the top category of dining choices. It is simply a good convenient alternative to the crowds but with that cherished neighborhood je ne sais quoi.

If you become a regular reader of my web site you’ll soon learn that I seldom recommend trendy new places. Instead I prefer to cover the overlooked gems that don’t get many pixels. However, my palate is good and well-trained and I will often recommend other sites for the latest and greatest. For haute cuisine this is a good list of New Orleans’ Top Ten Restaurants for 2013.

The next time you’re in New Orleans during Mardi Gras venture away from the tourist spots. I’ve  touched on just one neighborhood. New Orleans is a city rich in neighborhoods. Let me know what off the beaten path treasures you find.

New Orleans is truly one of the great cities of the world.
Go enjoy it and don’t let Mardi Gras scare you off.

Chewbacchus parade in The Marigny
This small neighborhood parade was discovered just a nine-minute walk from Cafe Du Monde. Seen here is the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus parade on Frenchmen Street in The Marigny.

 

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