“Did you see the Chris Owens special?” A wiry gentleman, in cargo shorts and Tilley hat, leaned back in a plastic chair and lit a cigarette. He was speaking to a Midwestern couple with daiquiris in hand, drunk and jovial on the back patio of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
Mele and I sipped Abitas at the next table over.
The Midwestern couple shook their heads.
“Had one of my zedonks on there. If you see a rerun, look for him.” This was the local breeder’s grand reveal, having already boasted the best collection of miniature mules in the South. He’d joked earlier, “Sometimes I like to walk ‘em down Bourbon, make the tourists think they’re too drunk already.”
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, arguably the oldest continuous bar in the United States, caps off Bourbon Street before the dark patch between the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Marigny. Still, from the back patio, we could hear the clicks of high-heels and the louder claps of mules pulling carriages. By this time we’d made the trek down the infamous avenue often enough to know never to do it again. One Pat O’Brien hurricane was three too many.
Meanwhile, every fifteen minutes, an over-enthusiastic guide led a group through Lafitte’s patio, a regular stop on the French Quarter’s many “haunted” tours, and tourism-approved ghost stories drowned out the bold claims of the zedonk breeder and cheapened the centuries old history of the setting. This was typical of our experience in New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, from the Texan cougars giggling around Monteleone’s rotating Carousel Bar to the fifty-somethings in suits, biting their cigars, grasping at elaborate ironwork to keep upright after too many sazeracs. The sights and sounds of the city’s tourism machine never stopped haunting the periphery of one of the awesomest milieus I’ve ever visited.
“Go to Rome, Italy.” That was my friend’s response when I explained how trapped I felt by the contours of New Orleans tourism. Unfortunately places worth visiting inevitably become places made for visiting. Kyoto taught me that. But I felt something different happening in New Orleans. My impression of the French Quarter, once the morning shone its light on the chachki shops and vomit hoses, was of an alcoholic Fisherman’s Wharf, right down to the long line outside the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Except, when visiting San Francisco, tourists aren’t expected to stay on Pier 39 for three straight days.
It’s not the tourists’ fault. There’s a system in place, well oiled by fast food slushies and old world old-fashioneds. It’s not the city’s fault either, because the influx of spenders marching down Bourbon Street have helped fund a “Post-K” return to glory. But it’s no secret that New Orleans has made it a priority to fix up the neighborhoods under the paths of airplanes and on the routes of tour buses. Tourism funneled uptown has saved the city by drawing lines in the ground, to the point where, once, when Mele and I hailed a taxi in Carrollton, the cabbie asked, “What are you two doing so far from the French Quarter?” As if the rest of New Orleans wasn’t zoned properly for out-of-towners.
Of course, there are worse ways to spend three days than in the Vieux Carré. The wining and dining isn’t dumbed down for outsiders to the extent that Hawaiian culture is repackaged in Waikiki. For every Emeril Lagasse cash grab there’s a beloved sandwich shop, and for every slushie machine there’s a bar where Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner used to drink gin fizzes. Tourism’s effect on the French Quarter’s culture is more simulacra than censorship. The question isn’t where one can get crawfish etouffee, or a po’ boy, or a Pimm’s Cup; but how one should decide between the countless options. Should I walk the couple extra blocks to have a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s or just step into the nearest bar? Should I buy a dozen pralines at Loretta’s, or Aunt Sally’s, or the Royal Praline Co? Should I stop for live jazz in this restaurant, or that cafe, or this alley, or that sidewalk?
The must-do list for a first-time visitor in the Big Easy is long and rich, but when it comes to the French Quarter, the conversation starts and ends with one particular edible: beignets. Like everything else synonymous with the neighborhood’s tourist machine, chicory ice coffee and beignets are available almost everywhere you turn. The difference is, where the best setting is undecided for daiquiris, pralines and live music, the answer to the question “Where should I have beignets” isn’t up for debate. Morning, afternoon, and evening, and then morning again, the correct answer is Cafe du Monde.
At the heart of the quarter are two locations of Cafe Beignet, suspiciously championed by Alton Brown on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. At the other corner of Jackson Square is New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee, with the same green and white awning, an effective decoy to the drunks unwilling to walk farther down the block. But neither place’s product compares to the beignets at Cafe du Monde, where each bite balances crisp fried dough with a soft center more bread pudding than doughnut. Paired with an iced cafe au lait on a hot day, Cafe du Monde’s one-hit wonder has established a leading role on the NOLA landscape.
The 24-hour institution is also the tourist machine, illustrated. The field of bistro sets, crumpled napkins and styrofoam cups is more funnel cake stand than quaint courtyard. Vietnamese waitresses turn over clueless customers, like ranch hands branding cattle while the rest of the herd stand awkwardly between tables. The menu is streamlined for coffee and beignets, the to-go line resembles an amusement park queue, and every table includes at least one open guidebook and the question, “What should we go see next?”
Across the street, full-sized mules clop impatiently at the head of their carriages. Local artists stand in front of colorful paintings of saxophonists and below eaves with railings of wrought iron. They solicit tour groups who stop for photos in front of Jackson Square or climb the stairs to see a Mississippi River resigned to the gulf. My chair keeps knocking against a nearby dad’s fanny pack. Another family stands over us, asking if we’ll be finished soon. An already drunk gaggle of women laugh over the sound of our voices, somewhere in the sea of powdered sugar, but we don’t care, because the soft music from the guitarist on the sidewalk fits the humidity, we’re eating the best beignets we’ll ever have, and the chicory iced coffee resets each bite back to innocence.
Tourism powders the streets of the French Quarter like sugar on the floor of Cafe du Monde. You can’t miss it. Unless, like the mules, you’re wearing blinders, or affected by a good cocktail, or engrossed in a rich roux sauce, or relaxing to some good music, or biting into the perfect beignet.
Cafe du Monde
800 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70116