It was a rainy day in New Orleans. Fat drops fell from hanging plants and lamp posts, steady drizzles cascaded from beveled balconies. We lifted our hoods as we crossed cobblestoned streets and bricked alleyways, but the droplets still splashed across our faces, seeping into our shoes and cuffs.
We sought solace under a Kelly-green-and-white-striped awning, the white bulbs along its edge like beacons in the storm. We shed our raincoats heavy with droplets and huddled around a tiny white table, cupping our hands around steaming, chocolatey café au laits. A smiling waiter dropped off the white paper bag and we unfurled its edges, drawing from its powdered innards three warm beignets: dusted with sugar and dense with dough, their shapes yielded softly to our fingertips and lips. My sister and I fingered through the layer of powdered sugar at the bottom of the bag, hunting for sweetened crumbs. With sugar-stained lips and laps as lightly dusted as the doughnuts themselves, we went back to the streets—fuller, warmer, and happier.
It’s a story familiar to most New Orleans visitors. For over a century, Café Du Monde has offered a delicious respite from summertime thunder storms and wintery drizzles, days stiff with hot humidity and clothed in aching cold. Locals and visitors alike gather in the open-air patio, joined together by creamed coffee and French beignets, laden with shopping bags and sugar cravings.
When Café Du Monde opened in 1862, the scene and the customers were of a different sort. Today it’s a picturesque setting in the midst of New Orlean’s tourist center, but in the mid-nineteenth century the French Quarter was wholly working class. Barnacled wharves lined the Mississippi, and the streets were lined with warehouses, their air thickened with humidity and the scent of fish. Smoke from the surrounding railways darkened the wind. Hungry working men, covered in soot and sweat and river water, sidled up to a humbler Café Du Monde for coffee and pastries, a welcome intermission in the weathered day of work.
In a city long populated by folks of French descent, Café Du Monde offered a taste of home. French settlers who nested on the Gulf Coast and shores of the Mississippi River in the early eighteenth century brought their coffee with them; roasted and brewed dark, it became a staple of the New Orleans diet. Café au laits, coffee paired with half and half and warmed milk, mellowed the warm roasts over the years, offering an easy drink for delicate palates. During the Civil War, when shortages of all types racked the nation and coffee was a near-unattainable luxury, New Orleans Creoles brewed chicory with their staple. The woody plant lent a chocolatey flavor to the coffee, and the habit became one of desire rather than necessity. After the War, locals continued to drink their coffee with a hint of chicory.
Acadians, or Cajuns, who had come south from Nova Scotia earlier in the eighteenth century, brought other French traditions and customs into the picture, including the holeless, squared doughnuts known as beignets. The dense pastry was paired with a variety of condiments and toppings, like fruit, jam, and maple syrup, but most people preferred to maintain the pastry’s simplicity and top them with a gentle dusting of sugar.
At Café Du Monde, beginning in 1862 and continuing to this very day, these French staples define the menu—and the experience of thousands of visitors to New Orleans. You’ll find the same few items dotting the wobbly tables and tipsy trays today as a hundred years ago. The menu remains simple: coffee, served black or café au lait; beignets powdered with soft sugar; white and chocolate milk; and fresh squeezed orange juice. The only items that have been added to the menu over the past century and a half, iced coffee and soft drinks, were both introduced in 1988.
Café Du Monde has always called the French Market home, but its location within the market, as well as its owners and clientele, has certainly changed over the decades. When the café opened, the French Market was home to fish mongers, local hawkers, and rough-talking workmen. Fires, hurricanes, and the rugged wear of years left their mark on the buildings, and by the 1930’s the majority of them were in near disrepair. Tourists—of whom the city was seeing more and more—steered clear of the crumbling and stale stalls that lined the Mississippi. But just as the French Market was on the verge of closing, and Café Du Monde with it, the WPA renovated it with the intention of transforming the decaying and dirty marketplace into the tourist destination we know today.
In 1942, Café Du Monde still served its signature drinks and desserts to locals and workers more often than trendy tourists. One such local, Shubert Fernandez, worked at the wine cellar across the street. Fernandez was fond of the little coffee shop, with her warm sticky buns and steaming coffee. So fond, in fact, that when owner Fred Koeniger decided to retire, Fernandez purchased the business. The Fernandez family, along with a later renovation of the French Market that brought the coffee shop to a larger, central location (which formerly housed a meat market), finally brought those tourists to Café Du Monde.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (except Christmas and particularly nasty hurricane days), you’ll find customers, their faces covered in sugar and smiles, under those striped awnings. French for “Café of the World,” Café Du Monde is just that: here you’ll find folks from across the country and from around the globe. They come for refuge from blistering sun and chilling rain, but most of all, they come for the taste of beignets and café au lait—the taste of New Orleans.