During the nightly theater of dinner service, waiters become minor acrobats, lifting, bending and balancing trays of cocktails, beer bottles and wobbly champagne flutes or martini glasses. The annual Bastille Day Bartender and Waiters Race brings this skill to its absurdist apogee, when service industry professionals face off in an outdoor tray-carrying competition.
Under a usually-blistering July sun, bartenders and waiters speed-shuffle toward a finish line with a fully loaded tray of glassware and props. Points are docked for spills, and past races have disqualified contestants for dropping items from their trays.
Two-time competitor and Bourbon House captain Marc Giangrosso says the key to success may be in managing the heat and, like Tour de France competitors avoiding llamas, keeping an eye open for hazards in the field.
“Carrying a tray for short distances around a dining room, as opposed to the bumpy streets of the French Quarter — it’s a little different,” he says. “The rough road as opposed to the smooth dining room floor … is what threw me off.”
According to a press release, the French-inspired race returns this year to its original route near the Old U.S. Mint after a longer route and increased participation dragged out race times and wore on competitors, many of whom appear between “double” lunch and dinner shifts.
Contestants also navigate the inevitable sidebar to any New Orleans event: the effects of overindulgence in pre-race Champagne or drinks, though this occupational hazard is well-known among hospitality types.
“If you can’t wait tables in the French Quarter intoxicated, then you really probably shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place,” Giangrosso jokes.
It’s free to enter and watch the race, but arrive early to secure a good spot for the 4 p.m. race viewing. There’s also pre-race music by Harmonouche, a dance performance by Les ReBelles NOLA and an awards ceremony that follows. Other Bastille Day events also are scheduled throughout the city.