For a taste of old New Orleans, Café Du Monde is a must-visit
My good friend Paul moved away many years ago, but he drives in once a year to reacquaint himself with New Orleans. A creature of habit, he concludes every visit with a 9 p.m. trip to the takeout window of Café Du Monde for two orders of hot beignets and a large steaming cup of café au lait.
Once upon a time, in the mid-1800s, Paul would have had his pick of numerous coffee stands dotting the open-air stretch of the bustling French Market, mixed in among produce, seafood and meat vendors. The French Market was the place where merchants sold goods and residents “made” groceries. And coffee with chicory—having been brought to the area by the French who had discovered that roasted chicory added a rich dimension to coffee and helped to stretch the brew in times of scarceness—played a central role in the day-to-day trappings of life. The French introduced the idea of adding hot milk to coffee, and they are also responsible for the fried fritters, often filled with fruit or sprinkled with sugar, called beignets.
Café Du Monde sits in the city’s oldest marketplace, and it is the French Market’s oldest tenant. In 1862, when the coffee stand was established, the French Quarter was a neighborhood of the working class, bordered by the industrial enterprises of the wharves and railway that ran along the Mississippi River. Workingmen routinely sidled up to the small coffee stand for the dark brew and fried doughnuts that were destined to become the legacy of Café Du Monde.
On a recent sunny afternoon, I met Jay Roman and Burton Benrud Jr. at the café. Both men are vice presidents of H.N. Fernandez Inc., the family-run company that owns Café Du Monde. Roman is the grandson of the company’s namesake, the late Hubert Fernandez, and Benrud joined the family through marriage. At nearly every table in the now spacious café sat tourists, telltale powdered sugar dusting their clothing. We walked under big archways, through the crowded patio and into an interior dining room where we sat at a small round table against an arch that was long ago glassed in. A petite Vietnamese lady dressed in a white Café Du Monde uniform and paper forage hat delivered cups of coffee, the aroma of sweet chicory filling the room.
“This building was once the meat market,” Roman said. “This inside covering didn’t exist.” He gestured overhead. “All these arches were open. There were a number of these small little tabletop coffee stands throughout the market.” Pointing to a row of large framed black-and-white photographs along a wall, singling out one depicting an old coffee stand, Benrud added, “See the guys just sitting on stools? That’s all there was. This current incarnation of Café Du Monde dates back to the 1975 renovation of the French Market.”
Café Du Monde grew over the years, but it has always occupied the central area it does today. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration renovated the French Market building and added the colonnade that extends from the roof, creating a covered walkway along Decatur Street. The café thrived under its owner at the time, Fred Koeniger, but the area continued to be less than desirable and attracted no casual visitors: The air was pungent with the smell of seafood, and the French Market Fisherman Supply Shop sat opposite the café, catering to the piscators crowding the wharves.
“My grandfather, Hubert Fernandez, came back to New Orleans [from Honduras],” said Roman. “He was running the train operations for the United Fruit Company,” Benrud added. “And he went to work for his uncles at Fernandez Wine Cellar in the ground floor of the Pontalba Apartments directly across the street from the café,” said Roman.
Fernandez frequented Café Du Monde, and when Koeniger retired in 1942, he bought the business. The family was expected to contribute: Fernandez’s only sister, Nora—who today at 90 years old heads the company with Fernandez’s daughters, Silvia and Cynthia—worked at the wine cellar while her husband helped to run the café. “I started sweeping the floors when I was twelve,” said Roman.
The second big renovation of the French Market in 1975, led by the French Market Corporation, transformed the market’s open stalls into individual stores and turned streets into pedestrian malls and pathways. “There [used to be] a street in front of us, the alleyway behind us was a street … this was actually a city block,” said Roman. “You used to be able to park in front of the coffee shop and you had curb service where the waiters would come out with a tray,” added Benrud. “The families would have their kids in the backseat in their pajamas.” Entertainment and tourism were the driving forces behind the renovations. But unlike Café Du Monde, not all merchants found it possible to survive the construction. The café evolved with the city and expanded to occupy the enclosed area where we sat.
Today, Café Du Monde is known worldwide. Anyone who travels to the city makes a stop at the café. Presidents and celebrities visit; movies vie for a chance to film at the café; and television networks, like the Travel Channel and Food Network, feature the café, whose menu of beignets and coffee and chicory hasn’t changed for 147 years. “New Orleans has embraced the tourist industry, and we’ve benefited from that,” said Benrud. “Just because of where we’re located and how long we’ve been in business, we’ve captured the imagination of a lot of people.”
Café Du Monde is iconic for locals (who insist on their coffee and chicory), visitors and people like Paul who fall somewhere in between. “It is [iconic],” agreed Roman, “but for us it’s what we grew up with. It’s just what we do.”