By Greg Wahl
February in Chicago doesn’t usually offer much in the way of mass public celebration, so it’s only natural that we look to the balmy south for inspiration around this time of year. While Carnival season celebrations are manifest in many forms around the world, the centuries-old New Orleans version remains the benchmark for pretty much all of North America. Chicago’s kinship with all manner of time-honored boozy traditions ensures we’re well-prepped for carrying the Fat Tuesday torch, so cast the February doldrums aside, find your inner Bacchus and let the “bon temps rouler.” Here’s a guide to some of the destination Mardi Gras venues and events happening in and around town.
115 Bourbon Street
Big Easy-themed 115 Bourbon Street gets the party started on Friday, February 17 with the annual “Queens of Mardi Gras” female impersonation show (reservations recommended). Fat Tuesday night continues the southern celebration with a lengthy lineup of live music, including headliners Infinity and Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band Blue Moon Swamp.
To start the Fat Tuesday festivities a little early, join the roaming, reveling masses in Wrigleyville on Saturday, February 18 for a Mardi Gras-themed pub crawl. Compete for prizes by collecting numbered beads at a variety of destinations along the route while decked out in your best Mardi Gras gear. Last year’s event had a crowd of over 1,200, so expect similar numbers this year.
New Orleans ex-pats get a taste of home at Lakeview’s Blue Bayou. While the LSU-friendly restaurant/bar brings the Big Easy vibe everyday, the heat kicks up a few notches this time of year, with specials on Abita brews, Hurricanes and an array of Cajun specialties.
If you work a long day in the Loop and aren’t up for a full-on Tuesday night throwdown, pop in to the Cactus for a taste of Mardi Gras before heading home from the office. For a bit more than a taste, become a competitor in the Crawfish Eating Contest, beginning at 6:00 p.m. on February 21. Entry is $25 per person, which includes a souvenir t-shirt (and, of course, a heaping helping of crustacean niblets). Proceeds benefit New Orleans Habitat for Humanity.
Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe
A beacon of barbeque goodness on the southwest side, Chuck’s serves up a taste of New Orleans all year ‘round. Of course, this time of year is a big one at the Café, and the menu features a new twist on Cajun specialties every day. The Mardi Gras party starts a bit early, with festivities and specials planned for both Monday and Tuesday of next week.
Uptown’s Fat Cat has been throwing a Mardi Gras bash for the past few years, and the burgeoning tradition continues with the restaurant/bar’s 4th Annual Mardi Gras Party. Dig into a Crawfish Boil and sample from a Cajun menu of jambalaya, po’ boys and king cake in an all you can eat buffet for just $9.95 on February 21. The party includes specials on Abita beers and Hurricanes. Tickets may be purchased in advance.
Heaven On Seven
600 N. Michigan Ave.
111 N. Wabash Ave. Ste 700
224 S. Main St.
Jimmy Bannos’ trio of temples to Cajun cuisine attract a steady stream of southern comfort foodies all year ‘round, and Mardi Gras time makes them all the more magnetic. Celebrate Fat Tuesday with southern fare and live bayou boogie from Steve Rohbock & Band (Naperville) and Professor John (Rush Street), with music TBD at the Wabash location.
O'Donovan's Pub & Restaurant
The 100+ year-old North Center neighborhood destination O’Donovan’s gets in on the Mardi Gras spirit on February 21 with specials on Hurricanes and Abita beers, New Orleans-themed team trivia, and Zydeco & blues jams in the beergarden all night. A special menu will offer red beans & rice, gumbo, po’ boys, jalapeno corn bread and crabcakes beginning Saturday, February 18.
Rush & Division Streets
If Chicago has an equivalent to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, it is undoubtedly the stretch of Division Street east of Clark in the Gold Coast. Fat Tuesday-style revelry can be found on most weekend nights around Rush & Division, but the neighborhood embraces the Mardi Gras spirit on several fronts this time of year. February 21st festivities will include street freaks and stilt-walkers tossing beads, specials on Hurricanes at Rush & Division area bars, and comedy events at venues such as Mother’s Too, She-nannigan’s and Bootlegger’s. Proceeds will benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.