Finding Fun – and Refreshments – Just Off the Carnival Mainline

The best-prepared Carnival revelers stock up for the parade route as if for a day of tailgating. They have grills and folding tables full of food and coolers loaded with drinks. They look like they have the right idea, but I’m just never that prepared. 

I’m usually arriving at the Uptown parades by bicycle anyway. Sometimes a friend’s house near the route will serve as home base and hospitality central, but otherwise finding proper parade provisions means turning to the bars. 

This approach always seems to take me somewhere new each year, and frankly I think that’s part of the pleasure of the season. The welcoming, convivial, all-embracing spirit of Carnival opens many doors, and some of the bars I’ve happened upon during parade days have attained ritualistic status. Though they aren’t in my regular rotation at other times of year, through that special power of this season they have become part of my Carnival landscape of the city. 

What these places have in common is strategic proximity to the route, without being directly on it. The bars that sit on St. Charles Avenue are fine choices for a go-cup or even a snack, but many, many people certainly have the same idea. I prefer the places just a beat off the mainline. 

Some in this number include the Milan Lounge (1312 Milan St.), a neighborhood joint that doubles as the city’s home base for Chicago Cubs fans during baseball season. During Carnival season, it’s a cozy, friendly, busy, offbeat cove for a few drinks near – but not too near – the bedlam of Napoleon and St. Charles Avenue. Just remember that its name (and street) is pronounced like “my-lyn,” and not like some Italian city spelled in the same way. 

The Mayfair Bar (1505 Amelia St.) is another backstreet classic, this time a good deal closer to the route. This place seems custom-cut for Mardi Gras parades, or at least it’s decorated for them. The ceiling is strung with a kaleidoscopic collection of knickknacks, streamers, flags, stuffed animals and sundry items that’s as varied and colorful as a coral reef. It feels like a bit of the gaiety of the parade route has followed you inside here while you quaff a few cold ones.  

Nearby there’s also Café Prytania, a larger club that hosts live bands on the bigger parade nights. For instance, Rebirth Brass Band performs here on March 4, the Friday before Mardi Gras, this year. 

As a milder option, there’s Still Perkin’, a coffee shop in the Rink shopping center at Prytania and Washington that stays open later than usual for parade nights selling coffee and snacks, plus juice boxes for the kids. The way the weather is shaping up, Still Perkin’ probably will be selling a lot of iced coffee drinks this year.  

Farther down the route, one of my favorite casual Carnival stops isn’t truly a bar, though it functions as one during this time of year. The Big Top is a multi-purpose arts and events space on the edge of Central City. Local rock bands perform here after many of the parades, and there’s always a bar set up to serve draft beer and cocktails. There’s art all over the walls and there always seem to be a few kids romping around too as their parents take a break between parades. 

This year the Big Top should be an especially interesting place, as it’s hosting the festivities around the inaugural Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus. This is a sci-fi themed marching club, masterminded by the creative genius Ryan Ballard of Razzamatazz Productions. It takes to the streets after Bacchus on March 6 with bicycle floats built into spaceships and marchers costumed as all manner of aliens, space adventurers, fantasy creatures and galactic bounty hunters. 

It just goes to show you never know what you might find by venturing off the mainline just a little during Carnival time.

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