Chatting with an octogenarian barkeep in the French Quarter I mention that I’m staying in the Marigny and he raises his eyebrows. Frank is right at 90 years old and his New Orleans is one that simply no longer exists.
I protest that the Marigny is a fine neighborhood. “Well, maybe it is now but when I was young it’s where you went to get knifed or get a hooker”.
Things indeed change.
The historic New Orleans district of the Faubourg Marigny has had a colorful history since its creation in 1805 by Marquis Bernard De Marigny a French nobleman.
In its early years the neighborhood was a suburb filled with thousands of Haitian refugees who came to New Orleans upon being expelled from Cuba by the occupying Spanish.
This diaspora doubled the population of New Orleans and led to New Orleans being declared the USA’s “Creole Capital”.
The neighborhood has had its’ ups and downs in the last two hundred years but one constant has remained:
Overseeing every migration pattern, coffee has played a vital role since Napoleon Bonaparte transferred Louisiana to the United States in 1803.
According to Martin’s “History of Louisiana” New Orleans imported 1438 bags of coffee at 132 pounds each that year. Scarcely a century later that number had skyrocketed to over a million bags.
While the majority of these imports found their way inland to towns all over the U.S, New Orleans citizens enjoyed fueling themselves with thousands of pounds of beans before they could make their way more than a few blocks from the sailing vessels that had carried them to Louisiana from South America, Africa and all points in between.
New Orleans is the dominant coffee import city in the US by a wide margin. The city boasts 14 warehouses with more than five million feet of storage space and six roasting facilities within 20 miles.
As for bulk coffee bean processing the city is the home to Silocaf Inc. It’s the largest on earth.
“It has been said that the best barometer of the destiny of the Port of New Orleans is coffee,” wrote T.J. Conroy in the New Orleans Port Record, in 1943.
The same holds true over a half century later.
When drinking coffee in the Marigny the conversation begins with Cafe Rose Nicaud. Named after a slave who eventually bought her freedom from her owners, Rose, a woman of color is credited with owning the first coffee stand in the French Quarter. New Orleans coffee scholars believe this to have occurred around 1841.
Rose’s cries of “cafe noir” and “cafe au lait” provided her a steady stream of customers with one famously comparing her coffee to….”the benediction that follows after prayer”.
The modern Cafe Rose Nicaud is on Frenchmen Street across from the Christopher House, a retirement community. I’ll always remember the morning, years ago, when a shiny Dodge automobile pulled up out front with some lonesome blues at top volume.
A long legged Black man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and walked up to my table. I inquired after the music and he informed me that it was him playing on a cd. Alabama Slim made a very fine table companion as we sat around for a couple hours discussing the blues greats of the Deep South.
Bringing in a morning at Cafe Rose with a rich cup of cafe noir and the Times Picayune is a wonderful way to start your day.
Deeper into the Marigny is Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop. This is where the punks like to get their morning, afternoon and evening cups. It’s small, hot and like as not somebody will be banging away on the old piano in the side room. We love to sit under the deep canopy of vines on the sidewalk and watch the world walk by.
At the other end of the coffee shop spectrum we have Who Dat Cafe. If I were to take my mom out for her morning cup in New Orleans this is where I would bring her as it’s immaculately clean, nicely decorated and has a full cafe next door.
The sidewalk seating area has a waterproof awning so you can do your morning internet work without your laptop getting wet in the frequent torrential downpours that bless New Orleans. You really begin to appreciate rainstorms when you live in the high desert of Austin Texas.
Who Dat Cafe carries some delicious sweets from local bakery of fame Billy Bites. This is another great cafe to sit outside with your morning cup and a scratch sweet treat while watching the neighborhood come to life.
On my inn keep’s recommendation I travel to Cake Cafe, the former home of the old Ferrara’s Grocery [est. 1906]. Cake is famous in the Marigny for its delicious cupcakes and hot breakfast plates with fried eggs and boudin but I’m here for the coffee. The cafe noir is delicious with a little sugar cane mixed in and the sidewalk hang is perfect.
A couple gals walk by conversing as I settle in “It’s been a good night” “Uh, it’s morning” “Not to me it’s not”. Such is the pace of things in the Marigny.
Reading through the Times Picayune, New Orleans excellent daily paper I take note of an historical piece regarding the practice of dueling in City Park in the late 1800’s. As I offer the paper to an elderly table mate he glances at the paper and proclaims “That’s what this city needs more of-DUELS”. I nod my assent and gather my things to leave.
Deeper into the Marigny, Sound Cafe is an oasis of peace as it’s very lightly attended. I’ve never seen more than 3-4 people here and for me that is a huge bonus. I love a coffee house where you can daydream, write and wool gather without any interference. It’s a tricky proposition as most public spaces are just that; public.
Half of this small cafe is a book store where I found the most recent Cometbus. A million words have been spent gushing praise over author Aaron Cometbus and I have to say they’re all warranted as he is one of the great writers of our era.
A morning spent relaxing on the sidewalk at Sound Cafe with the words of Cometbus and a cafe noir is as fine a morning as New Orleans has to offer.
Finally, our last stop on the trek through Marigny coffee houses brings us to the Orange Couch. I resisted going in here for the longest time as the name is offensively uncreative. The owners have an orange couch. So they named their coffee shop…..Orange Couch.
For some reason this did not sit well with me. But eventually I gave in and visited. The little cafe sits right on Royal Street so it affords some very fine people watching. The atmosphere is pure study as the clientele rarely glance up from their laptops or thick textbooks.
This is the only coffee shop where my hearty good morning to a fellow patron was greeted with a cold stare. That being said I quite like it here. The staff are friendly, they have ice cream they will sell you by the scoop and the sidewalk seating is comfortable. It’s the least New Orleans-y feeling coffee house in the neighborhood but I’ve enjoyed some good mornings here.
This concludes our trip through the coffee shops of the Fabourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. I’ve been visiting this district for many years as this is where I set up base camp for my adventures as I fan out across the city documenting, the best I can, a side of New Orleans I fear is vanishing.