Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans
Long before I started this journey, long before Adam Richman began his original quest on the Travel Channel, long before I met Amy and long before I began my since-ended journalism career, I received a memorable piece of advice from then-Missouri women’s tennis coach Blake Starkey: multitasking is simply doing a lot of things badly.
Starkey was discussing his tendency to focus on one goal at a time and prioritize the most important tasks, but I’ve noticed that his point has shown up on quite a few occasions in the restaurant business in a different format. In the restaurant business, multitasking takes the form of a restaurant diversifying its menu to include a lot of different choices meant to appeal to many different palates. Of course, in their effort to please everybody, the result is that these restaurants, which are usually large chains, end up pleasing nobody.
They don’t upset anybody, but they don’t make anyone go out of their way for them either. They just exist, which is fine in terms of making money, but doesn’t do a thing for reputation. In this day and age, newer chains such as Chipotle (burritos/tacos), Five Guys (burgers) and Raising Cane’s (chicken fingers) have learned from the mistakes of the older chains and opted to focus on doing one thing well, which has earned them a much better reputation than their predecessors.
But down in Louisiana, Cafe du Monde has never needed to learn that lesson, because a narrow and focused menu has been the only way that it’s done business since 1862. Yes, that’s right, Cafe du Monde has been around since before the end of the Civil War, which means that because of Reconstruction, it’s actually been operating for longer than Louisiana has continuously been part of the United States (the Pelican State rejoined the United States in 1868). When any business has been around for that long, it has to be doing something right, and in the case of Cafe du Monde, it’s doing two things right: beignets and cafe au lait.
It’s had to do those two things right to be in business, because for the first 126 years that Cafe du Monde was in business, that was almost literally its entire menu. From 1862 until 1988, Cafe du Monde’s entire menu consisted of beignets, cafe au lait, black coffee with chicory, orange juice, chocolate milk and white milk. In 1988, they made three changes, adding iced coffee, frozen coffee and sodas to the menu. If one counts water, that means the Cafe du Monde menu is now up to 10 items after 152 years in business, and nine of those items are beverages. In fact, the menu is so small that it fits on the side of its napkin dispensers. If you want something to eat here, beignets are literally your one and only option.
That’s a good thing, because beignets are nothing short of incredible. In France, where beignets first began, they can be served with a filling inside the pastry and can be either sweet or savory, but in New Orleans, beignets are basically square doughnuts without the hole that are covered in powdered sugar. They came over from across the pond when the French settled in Louisiana, and in 1986, they became the official state doughnut of Louisiana. I’m not sure why it took them so long to get around to that, but better late than never, I suppose.
At Cafe du Monde, an order of beignets always means three of them. I’m not sure if it’s so they can justify the large amounts of powdered sugar on the beignets, if it’s because one beignet is never enough or if it’s some other reason, but beignets are always served in threes. Again, that’s a good thing, because these things are so good that you won’t want to stop at eating just one. Beignets are fried when you order and served hot to ensure that the pastry is at its peak, and the taste is fantastic. The pastry is light, chewy and airy, working beautifully with the heaping amount of powdered sugar. Truthfully, it’s so good that it tastes outstanding even if you get a bite without the powdered sugar. As soon as Amy and I tasted these, we knew that as much as we love each other, we weren’t sharing these. Some things in life are too good to keep secret, these are too good to share.
But having just the beignets on their own would be leaving out the other part of what has made Cafe du Monde a New Orleans institution. I speak, of course, of cafe au lait, a New Orleans specialty that’s unlike coffee anywhere else. That’s because New Orleans coffee is different from other coffees and has been since the Civil War, when coffee beans became scarce. However, the French-born residents of New Orleans still loved their coffee and couldn’t fathom going without it by exhausting their supply of coffee beans. What to do? Simple: add something.
That something proved to be chicory, a root of endive lettuce. With chicory involved, the amount of coffee beans needed to make coffee dwindled, achieving the intended purpose. But the chicory did something else: it actually made the drink better in the eyes of New Orleans residents. Much like New Coke did with Coca-Cola, chicory reduced the bitterness in coffee while enhancing the flavor that the Crescent City already enjoyed. Unlike New Coke, however, coffee with chicory gained immediate acceptance and became even more popular than coffee ever was. That formed the basis for cafe au lait, which is a 50-50 mix of coffee and hot milk, along with a slight chocolate taste courtesy of the chicory. 50-50 mixes of two good things have worked before, and this is no different. Basically, there’s no need to add cream or milk to your coffee here, and in fact, it’s not even an option. Sugar, however, is provided.
However, it’s really not necessary. Cafe au lait is an acquired taste, and the way you acquire it is simple: dunk your beignets in it. This takes the flavor of the beignet to the next level by having the strong cafe au lait flavor counteract the sweetness of the beignet, making for an even better taste than what already existed. It also has the benefit of making the drink sweeter as you enjoy the beignets, because the mountain of powdered sugar is simply too much for the beignets to hold. Thus, the powdered sugar falls off into the cafe au lait with every dunk and makes the cafe au lait sweeter as time passes. By the time you’re down to your last beignet, the cafe au lait has the perfect amount of sweetness and has cooled off enough to be ready to drink. This is the perfect example of another great phrase: you can’t rush perfection.
Some things just go together, and beignets and cafe au lait are certainly on that list. When you’re as good at this simple combination as Cafe du Monde is, you really don’t need to focus on anything else. There’s a reason New Orleans has been coming to this spot in the French Market for more than 150 years with such a simple menu. It’s because this combination is really, really good. Along with the small waters provided to have something to drink while waiting for the cafe au lait to cool and sweeten, there’s really nothing else you could want here. The hype is most definitely justified here. New Orleans’ original coffee stand always has been and always will be a must-visit in the Big Easy.
Time to go: Anytime. Cafe du Monde’s stand in the French Quarter is open 24 hours a day, 362 days a year. It closes every year for Christmas at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and reopens at 6 a.m. on Dec. 26, so it’s closed for a total of 36 hours a year at its main location. It also operates seven satellite locations in the New Orleans metro area that have more normal business hours.
Wait during my visit: None, but this is not typical. Basically, the way things work at Cafe du Monde’s main location is that there are tables under the tent, and if one comes open, you grab it and get served. As soon as it’s cleared off by the staff, that’s your cue to swoop in and sit. If none comes open, you either wait or you go to the to-go window and get your order that way. The line can get long, and I’ve heard stories of a guy having to wait three hours for a spot once. At the satellite locations, you can stand in line for quite a while, as it’s pick up and find your seat.
Location: Cafe du Monde’s main location is at 800 Decatur Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Cost: This is about as reasonable as it gets, as an order of beignets is only $2.42, which averages out to roughly 80 cents per beignet. The cafe au lait is the same price, which means one person can get out of here for six dollars after tip. However, one thing to keep in mind here: Cafe du Monde is cash only. Don’t even bother taking out your plastic or metal, it’s useless here. The good news is that wait staff does carry change, and will give you exact change unless you stop them, so tipping is not the least bit difficult. For a party of two, $12 should be perfect.
Parking: Are you kidding? First rule of the French Quarter: don’t drive through it. As New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, the French Quarter was designed before cars even existed, which means it is a VERY car-unfriendly place. As such, I don’t even think there is a parking lot by Cafe du Monde, and if there is one close, you’re going to pay quite a bit for the privilege, something like $20 or more. Basically, your best bet is to either walk (it’s no more than a 15-20 minute walk from most of downtown New Orleans) or take a streetcar if it’s running. This is a big if, because during most of our trip, the Riverfront Streetcar only ran every 40 minutes, if at all. It doesn’t run at all after 10:30 p.m., so if you want a late-night snack, your options are to walk or take a taxi.
Seating arrangement: Small tables and chairs. If you’re on the bigger side, you might have to fight to get some space, as the tables are in close quarters. At any size, you’ll have to watch out for divebombing pigeons. During one of our trips here, we had a bird guest try to make ours a table of three for a few seconds.
Website: Cafe du Monde. There’s no menu on here, mainly because there isn’t a need for one because everyone knows the menu. This site is to sell coffee mix and beignet mix, plus souvenirs, worldwide.
Specialty items: Beignets, cafe au lait