When Megan and Jay Forman opened Gracious Bakery + Cafe on South Jefferson Davis Parkway, they expected to sell king cakes. They didn't expect to serve Carnival crowds.
"There's one morning when we get a rush," Jay says. "The Endymion den is two blocks away, so on the day they load their floats, we get hammered."
Last year, they opened Gracious' second location (2854 St. Charles Ave., 504-301-9949; www.graciousbakery.com) just weeks before the start of Uptown parades, and they knew what to expect.
"It was crazy, but it was fun," Jay says.
Like last year, the St. Charles Avenue location goes through a Carnival transformation, with a different menu, longer hours and mixed drinks. It's among the many eateries along parade routes and neighborhoods that adjust to heavy traffic during Mardi Gras.
At the St. Charles location, Gracious offers its regular cafe menu during nonparade hours, but as parade time approaches, things change. Service is all to-go, and the menu features mostly hot items not on the regular menu, such as artichoke, bacon and cheese handpies, grilled cheese sandwiches with mostarda and a hot Mississippi-style pot roast po-boy dressed with ranch and banana peppers. King cakes are available whole or by the slice in flavors featuring Valrhona chocolate, cinnamon or candied praline. The queen cake features almond frangipane. The store normally sells beer, wine and spirits to go, but during parade season, it gets a special event permit in order to sell cocktails and allow open containers.
Not far from where Uptown parades either start on Napoleon Avenue or turn onto it from Magazine Street, New York Pizza (4418 Magazine St., 504-891-2376; www.newyorkpizzanola.com) is a casual restaurant and bar. During parades, it transforms into more of a New York-style slice shop, with walk-up service only (and it opens early for parades starting at 11 a.m.). The menu is slimmed down and focuses more on slices, but a few quick- grab items are added. Muffulettas normally are available by half and whole rounds, but during parades, quarter sandwiches are sold, and hot dogs also are available. Also, food is cash only during parades, but the Brooklyn Bar side of the business accepts credit cards.
Cleo's Mediterranean Cuisine & Grocery has been a late-night oasis in the CBD. It recently moved to a new location on Canal Street (940 Canal St., 504-522-4504; www.facebook.com/cleosnola). The new location also has a restaurant and a small grocery and convenience store. It serves food from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m., but during its final hours, food is available to go only. The menu includes beef and chicken shawarma, gyros, various kebabs, vegetarian platters with hummus, baba ghanoush and stuffed grape leaves, grilled seafood, lamb chops and more. In two months, the owners expect to open a second location on Decatur Street.
Some restaurants are adding more than subtracting. At Emeril's (800 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-528-9393; www.emerilsrestaurants.com), desserts include a series of flavored king cake monkey bread specials. The cocktail menu can sound more lowbrow than normal, but the Berry Bacchus combines Cathead vodka, Chambourd, ginger-mint syrup and lemon and lime juices. There also are drink specials at Emeril Lagasse's small plates restaurant, Meril (424 Girod St., 504-526-3745), but it offers a street food menu at the bar and to go.
In the Marigny, owner Chuck Rogers says his Buffa's Bar & Restaurant (1001 Esplanade Ave., 504-949-0038; www.buffasbar.com) always gets a rush of customers when Bourbon Street is cleared at midnight on Fat Tuesday, but the place always is open. During Carnival's final week, the menu is condensed to its more popular items. Buffa's serves breakfast from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the Mardi Gras menu, available any time, includes a couple of popular burgers, sandwiches and Creole favorites. On Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras, music starts early in the afternoon, and there are late sets beginning at 11 p.m.