Exactly six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and New Orleans' levees failed, Mardi Gras day arrived to sunny skies. Families ate jambalaya on the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue as the Krewes of Zulu and Rex paraded by. In the rubble of the Lower 9th Ward, a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians—African Americans in lavish beaded and feathered costumes—chanted and danced. In the French Quarter, revelers dressed as FEMA trailers and chocolate bars drank and celebrated.
Was the crowd smaller this year? Yes. But local restaurant owners believe it was a good warmup for upcoming events—Jazz Fest, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience and the first major summer convention, which will bring 20,000 people to town. And for locals, it was a chance to feel normal again—in their own particular way. As a famous Mardi Gras song goes, "It's Carnival time and everybody's drinking wine."
New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras 2006 with a mixture of joy and solemnity, remembering all the things the city has lost since Katrina's floodwaters rushed in, yet celebrating the fact that it is rebuilding. The restaurants were full, the parade routes packed and the revelers creatively costumed, as usual. But large swaths of the city still lie in ruin, only 350,000 people turned out (compared with 1 million in an average year) and half the city's population watched the party from other cities. Behind the joy, there was a fear that Mardi Gras and the city will never be as before.
Some questioned whether it was even appropriate to have Mardi Gras. But most locals said yes, for two key reasons. Carnival provided residents with a chance to forget their cares. And it provided the tourism industry—the restaurants and hotels —with a chance to prove that the city is ready for visitors. "We need to rebuild our economy if we are going to rebuild our neighborhoods," said Melvin Rodrigue, general manager of the prestigious old restaurant Galatoire's.
On the Friday before Mardi Gras, Galatoire's first floor dining room was filled with some of the city's wealthiest residents, all generously imbibing and having a raucous good time. Elegant women in expensive dresses and feather boas chatted with men in three-piece suits and ridiculous hats. One table of diners quickly drained a jeroboam of Château Pétrus 1979 they had brought for the occasion.
Lunch at Galatoire's on the Friday before Mardi Gras is a New Orleans tradition, and people usually brave standing on line for hours to get a seat. But this year, the restaurant auctioned off its 24 tables two weeks in advance, raising $96,000 for two Hurricane Katrina relief charities. The highest bidder spent $12,500 for a table for 12, and that just got him the table—it didn't cover the lunch tab.
For restaurants like Galatoire's, the Carnival season is filled with lavish meals thrown by the krewes (the clubs that organize the parades and balls), this year an economic boon to venues that have reopened. Restaurant Cuvée, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner downtown, hosted a dinner Saturday night for several members of the Krewe of Bacchus. Owner Kenny LaCour is a member, and the next night he and his compatriots climbed aboard a float shaped like a whale to throw beads decorated with the Roman god of wine's smiling face to cheering crowds. On Monday, several hundred members of the Krewe of Proteus ate lunch at Antoine's, even though scaffolding covers the 1840 restaurant and many rooms remain closed. Afterward, they held a block party outside on St. Louis Street.
Just around the corner, though, Brennan's remained shuttered. The Brennan family is still rebuilding the Grand Award winner, which suffered extensive damage when rotting food in its walk-in coolers ate through floorboards, allowing the coolers to crash through to floors below. An insurance company has auctioned off the 35,000-bottle wine cellar, ruined during the weeks of 90° F temperatures that followed the storm. A single buyer bought the wine and plans to sell parts of the collection, which included gems like a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild 1870, on eBay.
In the Garden District, Commander's Palace, an Award of Excellence winner owned by another wing of the Brennan family, also remains closed. The owners of Camellia Grill are thinking about walking away and never reopening the popular eatery, according to Slow Food local director Poppy Tooker. Of the 1,882 restaurants in Orleans parish, the heart of the city, only 506 opened in time for Mardi Gras, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
Those numbers left the open restaurants packed with diners, despite the smaller turnout. Uptown, the parade route was crowded with families, but they were largely white. New Orleans' population was 70 percent black before the storm, and many of those families have had the hardest time returning.
Down in the French Quarter, crowds were thinner than normal, even on Mardi Gras day. It was easy to walk into the historic Napoleon House bar and order a Pimm's Cup or a Sazerac. Pat O'Brien's usually sells 1 million rum-filled Hurricanes during Mardi Gras, but a manager reported sales were drastically lower.
Katy Casbarian, whose family owns Arnaud's and Remoulade, said that while the elegant Arnaud's did better-than-normal business this year, sales were sharply down at the more casual Remoulade, as college kids stayed away. In fact, many visitors to the city were actually pre-Katrina New Orleanians who have been unable to return home so far. A young former waiter at Antoine's, now living in Houston because he can't find lodging in New Orleans, came for Mardi Gras and ended up helping out during the Proteus lunch, happy to be back in the restaurant for a day.
The owners would love to have him back full-time, even at the much higher wages New Orleans restaurants are having to pay these days. Antoine's reopened for business on Dec. 28, but is struggling. CEO Rick Blount and 50 staff members—there were 150 before the storm—have managed to restore about half the dining rooms, but the others remain closed, including the main dining room at the entrance. Patrons now enter farther down the street, through the Mystery Room, where Prohibition-era customers once secretly drank. Heavy roof damage and a wall collapse on the fourth floor allowed water to pour everywhere, and much of the plaster needs to be replaced. But even though the restaurant carried $10 million in insurance, Blount has seen just one check, for $250,000. That's stalling further rebuilding. "We're tapped out," said Blount. "We spent everything we had to reopen."
As for the 12,000-bottle wine collection: "It's gone—we cried about that for a while." Blount said that for now he's only buying small amounts of wine because he worries he'll get other bottles that weathered the storm. "I don't want to add to my vinegar collection."
Blount vows to restore the entire restaurant by next Mardi Gras, so it can once more host 1,200-person krewe banquets. This year, only Proteus members could attend the lunch; their families dined at Arnaud's. And the smaller Antoine's staff had to work an exhausting day to pull it off. But every restaurant has to take advantage of the opportunities it gets. Scott Boswell's Stella!, an Award of Excellence winner, remains closed until later this month, but the chef's casual restaurant, Stanley, opened in late September and business is booming. The Brocato family is now baking its Italian cookies at La Spiga, a fellow bakery in the Marigny neighborhood. Randazzo's Bakery in hard-hit Slidell, which makes tens of thousands of traditional King Cakes every Mardi Gras, managed to reopen in January.
Uptown, Peter Menge and Aaron Wolfson's Savvy Gourmet is actually prospering. Menge and Wolfson opened the store just 10 days before Katrina. They had planned to make money selling high-end kitchen supplies, offering cooking classes and catering functions. When they returned after the storm, they had a badly damaged store in an empty city—and a dead $3,000 refrigerator with 60 decomposing guinea hens inside. After they dragged it outside for cleaning, someone stole it.
Realizing people needed food more than sets of shiny All-Clad pots, they borrowed tables and chairs and began serving lunch. Several months later, lunch and weekend brunches are still packed and the evening cooking classes are often sold out. "The whole idea of a restaurant—especially in New Orleans—is more than the food," said Menge. "It's about people coming together and having a good time." The Saturday after Mardi Gras, they're hosting Leah Chase, the owner of Creole landmark Dooky Chase, who is living in a FEMA trailer.
As much as the restaurant industry is struggling—and many industry members believe several restaurants could fail in coming months—the food and wine of New Orleans still seems to be its biggest salve. Five different food- or wine-themed krewes partied in the streets during the Carnival season. Members of the Krewe de Food held a costume bash at the Savvy Gourmet the weekend before Mardi Gras, and a week earlier, the Krewe of Cork paraded through the French Quarter; more than 400 members dressed in wine-themed costumes and toasted in front of restaurants. Sunday, the Krewe of Box of Wine handed out free wine and cheese to the crowd along the Bacchus parade route. And Bacchus, at least on this Fat Tuesday, was smiling once again on the Crescent City.