— In a city where even funerals turn into parties, New Orleans rarely lacks for an excuse to strike up the band, boil up some crayfish and swirl together a daiquiri.
But with the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras landing this month, New Orleans never has had such a party-intensive couple of weeks, as fans of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, athletes, corporate executives and Hollywood celebrities arrive to heed the city motto: Let the good times roll.
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Ravens fan Sheri Fuller arrived Wednesday, and after checking into her hotel, headed straight to Harrah's Casino, ready to start a fun-filled march to Sunday's game. Before the main event, though, Fuller will have attended a couple of the exclusive, celebrity-attracting parties that fill this week's dance card: Mike Ditka's "Gridiron Greats" fundraiser today and Maxim magazine's fete on Saturday.
"I love the whole atmosphere of the Super Bowl, the parties, the days leading up it," said Fuller, who lives in Baltimore's Butchers Hill neighborhood and works in sales for Radio One.
She regularly attends games at M&T Bank Stadium and won the lottery to buy Super Bowl tickets, traveling here with a dozen friends. Fuller also saw the team win the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2000, but New Orleans, with its renowned food and welcoming ways, is the ideal host city, she said.
"I don't think you can come down here," she said, "and not experience it all."
Even by forgoing sleep, though, you might experience only a fraction of the festivities. Party spaces such as the Metropolitan Night Club in the Warehouse District and restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs are booked with multiple events this week as companies, sponsors, media and NFL teams buy out the places for parties.
"The hard part is I can't fit in my friends. They're really giving me a hard time," chef John Besh said with a laugh.
Besh, an award-winning chef who owns eight restaurants here, is hosting various corporate and team parties this week, as well as the Super Bowl Ultimate Tailgate in the Harrah's Casino Theater on Sunday, featuring TV personality Michael Strahan. Add visiting celebrities such as Alicia Keys, who dined at his flagship August restaurant Thursday night and supped at another one, Domenica, earlier in the week, and chefs like Besh have their hands and kitchens full.
But you won't hear many complaints, because restaurateurs, hoteliers, party planners and others in the hospitality industry say the Super Bowl represents the city's continued recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We simply couldn't be busier, but it's great," Besh said. "We've turned the corner in our re-birth, and this really highlights that."
Besh's restaurants tend to book up even without a Super Bowl in town — sometime New Orleans residents Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among his customers — and he's thrilled that the city's unique cuisine is under an even brighter spotlight this week.
"It's great for everyone, from the classics like Galatoire and Commander's Palace or the po' boy places," said Besh, a Louisiana native. "The food, the music, the hospitality of the city ... it's something identifiable with us. Other cities have lost their identities; New Orleans has really hung on to it. People come here for that."
Ravens fans like Elizabeth Mogavero of Bel Air say they've felt welcomed in the city, with some even extending their stay beyond game day.
"We decided to make a trip of it, Wednesday to Wednesday," said Mogavero, who works as an expediter for Northrop Grumman. "This is my first time here, and everyone's been really friendly. They seem to like Ravens fans."
She and her husband John, along with his parents, strolled raucous Bourbon Street and ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. on Wednesday night, then spent time Thursday at the NFL Experience, a pop-up theme park in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center filled with interactive games, a huge football memorabilia display and autograph opportunities. They saw retired Raven and potential Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden being interviewed.
More family members are due in today, and they're planning to visit Biloxi, Miss., as well.
The amount of Super Bowl-related events seems to grow every year.
"I went to the first Super Bowl in New Orleans in 1970, and maybe there was a dinner the night before, and then the game," said Mark Romig, CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the city's tourism promotion agency.
"Some say it's now a party with a football game in the middle of it," Romig said.