NEW ORLEANS — Visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras season? You'll find pizza, hot dog stands and rolling carts of cotton candy galore along the parade routes, but some of the city's finest fare can also be consumed along St. Charles Avenue, the main drag for the biggest and glitziest star-studded processions of Carnival.
Some restaurants even have grandstands that put viewers at eye level with floats and just above the throngs of street revelers jockeying for beads with outstretched arms.
Herbsaint, a French bistro-style restaurant on St. Charles near the middle of the parade route, offers viewing spots for diners from its grandstands for $35 to $50, depending on the night, but also has dining-room windows fronting the route.
"I can't think of too many spaces where you can actually sit in a restaurant and have that nice bottle of burgundy, that nice meal, and then just sit there and just watch the parades go by," said chef and owner Donald Link. "It's a neat experience."
Link said this will be the restaurant's 14th Mardi Gras, and after experimenting with buffets, special menus and scaled-back menus, what works best is regular dinner service inside with the option of stand-viewing outside. That means the opportunity to indulge in Herbsaint standards like duck confit and dirty rice, beef short ribs with potato cakes and gumbo — all while taking in the Carnival revelry.
"We serve our wine in the right glasses, and nothing changes," Link said. "It's the experience you want to come here for any night of the year."
Like several restaurants, Herbsaint is closed on Mardi Gras (March 4 this year), but most downtown parades happen in the days and weeks before the holiday. Zulu, Rex and two other clubs, known as krewes, parade on Carnival day. More than 30 others are scheduled from Feb. 21 through Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras, including the star-studded Bacchus, Endymion, Muses and Orpheus parades.
"It's a busy time for us, but it's a fun time," said Anthony Scanio, chef de cuisine at Emeril's Delmonico, which is owned by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and is also located along the St. Charles route. There, patrons can watch parades from the main dining area while enjoying a fine meal with some Carnival-inspired touches, like a Mardi Gras "king's cup" cocktail and king cake doughnuts sprinkled with Carnival colors of purple, green and gold.
The menu also includes Louisiana delicacies like spicy cream cheese boudin (sausage) balls, chicken and andouille gumbo and veal braciolone with spaghetti and New Orleans red gravy.
The Brennan family-owned Palace Cafe, which is toward the end of the route where St. Charles turns onto Canal Street, offers fine dining with three levels of parade views.
"We're known for our crabmeat cheesecake, our andouille-crusted fish and of course the white chocolate bread pudding," said Wesley Janssen, spokeswoman for the restaurant. "That's what people come here for. The views are a bonus."
Near the start of the route is Superior Seafood, which opened two years ago serving Louisiana seafood favorites like raw and charbroiled oysters, oysters wrapped in bacon, seafood gumbo and shrimp and oyster po'boys. It's on the corner where floats and marching bands turn from Napoleon Avenue onto St. Charles, fronting the parade route on two sides. It was designed with Mardi Gras in mind, said Aimee Rowland, the restaurant's event planner.
"It's a crazy corner, so we tried to set things up to accommodate as many people as possible," she said. The restaurant boasts an oyster bar and two patios with seating at ground level as well as a large balcony that can accommodate up to 150 patrons upstairs.
A bit farther down the St. Charles route is Superior Seafood's sister-restaurant Superior Grill, a Mexican-style restaurant. To accommodate more patrons on Mardi Gras, stools are removed to make room at the long bar inside, and a walk-up bar is set up outside. The restaurant hires a disc jockey to entertain between parades, and grandstands are available for rent outside.
But the big draw is the food. The menu includes full meals of enchiladas and fajitas or easy-go options like burgers and nachos. A favorite is brisket, marinated in a seasoned dry-rub for 24 hours before being cooked and served in quesadillas, flautas and nachos. On busy parade days, they tend to run out, said McKinley Eastman, managing partner at the restaurant since its opening in 1997.
"We can't make our brisket as fast as we sell it," Eastman said. "But we'd rather run out than cut corners and make a less quality product, even for Mardi Gras."
If You Go...
HERBSAINT: 701 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, http://www.herbsaint.com/ or 504-524-4114.
EMERIL'S DELMONICO: 1300 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, http://www.emerilsrestaurants.com/emerils-delmonico or 504-525-4937
PALACE CAFE: 605 Canal St., New Orleans, http://www.palacecafe.com/ or 504-523-1661
SUPERIOR SEAFOOD: 4338 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, http://www.superiorseafoodnola.com/ or 504-293-3474.
SUPERIOR GRILL: 3636 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, http://www.superiorgrill.com or 504-899-4200.