Cafe Culture: Cafe Du Monde

Special Advertising Section for the Toronto Globe & Mail (online)

The Cafe du Monde has occupied the same spot in New Orleans’ historic French Market since 1862, and not a whole lot has changed in its 150-year history. People still come to sit in the open air cafe and people watch while lingering over an order of cafe au lait and piping hot beignets.

The cafe au lait is made with hot milk and a distinctive blend of coffee and chicory, an additive introduced by the city’s early French settlers. Beignets – deep fried crispy doughnuts – are also a French legacy, and come three to an order, doused in piles of powdered sugar.

“For the most part, we have stayed the same,” says Jay Roman, vice president of HN Fernandez, the family-run company that has owned the cafe since 1942. “We have our niche and we do it as best we can.” Roman says that iced cafe au lait wasn’t added to the menu until the early 1990s, and “adding orange juice took a two-year debate.”

Indeed, cafe culture and the traditions of New Orleans are inextricably linked. In the early 1800s, a slave by the name of Rose Nicaud began selling coffee on Sundays to churchgoers in Jackson Square (then known as the Place d’Armes) across from what is now the Cafe du Monde. She later set up her own popular coffee stand in the French Market, and legend has it that she bought her freedom with the money she made. 

“The city remains one of the largest coffee ports in the U.S.,” explains Liz Williams, president and director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. “We had coffee coming in from Caribbean ports, and later Central and South America. That’s how we developed this cafe culture. … Coffee has always been so abundant here.”

Colleen Rush, editor of local site NewOrleans.com, recalls spending her childhood Sundays with her family at the cafe. “We would go to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral [in Jackson Square], and the big treat for behaving was going to Cafe du Monde. I remember being all dressed up and getting doused in powdered sugar!” 

Of course Cafe du Monde is by no means a strictly local haunt. “It’s such a cliche to say that a place is beloved by locals and visitors alike,” Rush says, “but in this case it’s totally true.”

Cafe du Monde is also a symbol of the city’s health. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the shop only shuts down for 36 hours on Christmas. After Hurricane Katrina, however, the cafe closed for nearly two months, “longer than we ever had been closed for our entire history,” Roman says. “That stops your world … it was a great day when we re-opened, a symbol of the city getting back on track.”

Throughout its storied history, the cafe has been frequented by a host of literary figures, celebrities, and politicians. Native son Truman Capote wrote about the Cafe du Monde of his youth in his essay collection The Dogs Bark: “The market’s chief gathering place was a cafe that served only bitter black chickory (sic) coffee and the crustiest, most delicious fresh fried doughnuts. I had discovered the place when I was 15, and had become addicted.”

Bill Hunt, who grew up near New Orleans and visits the city frequently, had an unforgettable encounter at the cafe on a cool, foggy night in the late 1960s. He and a date arrived at the cafe, intending to sit at their regular table overlooking Decatur Street. 

“An older gentleman came up and said, ‘You’re sitting at my table.’ This took me aback, as there were plenty of vacant tables around.” The man asked if he could sit and drink a cup of coffee with the pair, and they agreed. 

“He said his name was Thomas Williams, and that he was a writer and a poet. He also mentioned something about a streetcar. … “ It was only after the mysterious stranger left that Hunt’s date turned to him with a realization. “‘Do you know who that man was?’” she asked. “That was Tennessee Williams.”

More recent celebrity visitors have included Jay Leno, Ron Perleman, and Bill Clinton. “The first time [Clinton] came he was running for re-election,” Roman says. “He arrived with a quarter-mile long motorcade. Now he pulls up in his Suburban and stands in line for coffee all by himself. It’s quite a contrast!”

The variety of the clientele is quintessentially New Orleans, Liz Williams says. “It’s open 24/7. You could go in your prom dress. People go after work. Because it’s inexpensive, there might be people there who are down on their luck. You’ll see everything from people in formal wear to really grungy clothes.”

She adds, “It’s so wonderful, that mix of humanity. We really do mix it up here in New Orleans and not draw the same lines as a lot of other places.”

WHERE The French Quarter, 800 Decatur Street, New Orleans, LA

WHAT Cafe au lait and beignets

WHO An eclectic  mix of tourists, locals, and the occasional celebrity or politician

WHEN There’s always something to see on busy Decatur St, from parades and street performers in the daytime to eccentrics and revelers late at night. Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are particularly busy times.

STYLE: The French Market was renovated in the 70s, and the exterior is a nod to the arcaded Spanish style, as the Spanish built the city’s first covered market