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Big Easy Coffee

by Elaine Sosa

Where else but in New Orleans, a city that loves good food, good living and a great party, will you find an establishment that has enjoyed unprecedented success and world reknown by serving one kind of coffee and one type of doughnut? When you do things, even if it's only two little things, perfectly, there is no reason to mess with success, and the folks at the Cafe Du Monde, located in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter, couldn't agree more.

A sign near the door gives you an idea of what to expect: "The original French Market coffee stand serving cafe au lait and hot beignets 24 hours a day year round." The cafe has been in operation since the 1860s, perched at one end of the venerable French Market, the end which is closest to lovely Jackson Square, the historic heart and sweet soul of the French Quarter. An indoor-outdoor space, the cafe is quintessential New Orleans: tall pillars graced by green and white-striped awnings which flap in the light breeze (as well as during sudden downpours) go hand-in-hand with shiny black ceiling fans whirring softly over a sea of tables and chairs. People laugh and smile and joke here all at once. Poses are struck, flashbulbs sparkle.

On the tables, the diner-variety chrome napkin holders serve two purposes: paper dispenser and menu board. The menu reads like this:

Coffee (cafe au lait or black) $1.00
Decaf $1.00
Beignets (order of 3) $1.00
Cold milk (white or chocolate) $1.00
Fresh squeezed o.j. $1.35

That last item must have been added as a concession to modern tastes. The Du Monde is one of those places that beseeches you to stick with the basics, if only because they are unbeatable. A distillation of the delights which await you follows.

The Process

Cafe Du Monde is open 24 hours a day, but that doesn't mean you should assume there's a slow time of day to come here. The cafe is busy all day, any day, and well into the midnight hour. When you walk through the peach-colored portals, you'll be greeted by a receiving line of waiters and waitresses. No directions are offered, but you'll quickly get the message that it's every man for himself with respect to finding a table and chairs. Once blessed, say another prayer and hope that your waitperson will get to you before caffeine withdrawal sets in. You may have to practice your hand signals (a big, yelpin' "YO!" might help, too), but eventually someone will come over to take your order. From there, it should be only a matter of minutes before your treats arrive.

The Coffee

If bold is what you wish for, your dreams will come true with your first sip. The house coffee is laced with chicory, an herb which is widely grown for its roots. The dried, ground and roasted root of the chicory plant is often used to spice up the flavor of coffee, and at Du Monde, it's done to perfection. You can order your coffee black, but I strongly suggest the cafe au lait, served in equal parts of warm milk and hot coffee. The chicory flavor is clearly present but not overpowering. Your au lait is a strong cup of coffee, mildly spicy yet very satisfying. It's also the ideal counterpoint to the sweet beignets which will surely accompany it.

The Beignet

A doughnut with a French pedigree, the square beignet is a soft, airy pillow of dough which is deep-fried but by no means heavy. The tops are liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar, and that's it. And it is a dream, the moist and chewy dough vying with the snowy sugar for your affections. It should be noted that this little doughnut is a ten-napkin job, and that's because if you're not careful, the powdered sugar will be all over your clothes. Wear black at your peril. The folks at Du Monde are kind enough to include three beignets per order, so you pay about 33 cents per. If this isn't the best deal in town, I don't know what is.

The Scene

The round, formica-topped tables and green vinyl chairs are cheek-to-cheek and run the length of the long cafe. There is a small section with indoor seating, but avoid it at all costs. The action, and the fun, is outdoors, where you've still got a roof over your head (no walls). There is a clatter of chatter amid the clinking of cups and the chomping of dough. Most of the patrons appear to be tourists, if only because they are lugging cameras. This may be what led to the somewhat stern sign nearby: PLEASE WATCH YOUR VALUABLES. The idea is for you to leave with your camera. Safe to say, though, that the locals are also part of the scene at Cafe Du Monde -- maybe not mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when they're likely to be at work, but certainly late into the night, when the locals do it up just right.

The Musicians

Sure as there is sugar on those doughnuts, there will be a musician playing on the sidewalk right outside the cafe. Often a horn player, these musicians play for the crowd, and to the crowd, everything from "Amazing Grace" to "As Time Goes By." Time goes by slowly at Cafe Du Monde -- and give that guy a tip, please.

The View

Jackson Square is diagonally across from the cafe, its statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback serving as a perpetual reminder of who counts in the Big Easy. This square is one of the most romantic plots of land in the Quarter, and is especially serendipitous during the early morning hours, when it is often enshrouded in fog. Old, charming St. Louis Cathedral watches over the square, its tower clock keeping time. The graceful, wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter are in evidence directly across the street from the Du Monde, a continual reminder of the special nature of this city. The Mighty Mississippi roars a stone's throw away -- if the cafe were quieter, you might hear it. Take another sip and smile at your good fortune -- you're having coffee in N'awlins. Lucky you.

The Marketing Angle

Yes, you can take it with you. Cafe Du Monde sells its ground chicory coffee in one-pound cans (regular or decaf), and you can buy packages of beignet mix as well. The good news is you can enjoy these goodies in the privacy of your own home. But what about the horn player? And that gal from Kansas with powdered sugar on her nose, her husband having fun with her? The scene here is half the fun, and I'm not sure you can take that with you.

Part cafe, part carnival, all pleasure. Don't miss Cafe Du Monde on your next visit to New Orleans.
800 Decatur Street, New Orleans
(504) 525-4544.
Open 24 hours a day year-round (closed only on Christmas Day).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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