Coffee, Community, and Camaraderie
Coffee shops play an important role in the social needs of a community while embracing the gastronomical pleasures of food and beverage. For me, they are a blend of restaurant and bar without the fuss or muss of either. I have always held restaurants in high esteem. Fancy or casual, these culinary establishments are dear to me, but, sometimes, I just want an outing that doesn't require a plan and fits my budget even between paychecks. And lord knows I certainly have never met a bar I didn't like. Bars can be a retreat from the chaos-a cozy place to read a book and sip a glass of wine. Yet, sometimes, I simply need that barroom vibe without the booze, and at eight in the morning, coffee shops provide a similar camaraderie.
Often I have written about my life under the tray. Years of food service have blessed me with fabulous friendships and a forever ache in my back. My memory bank is filled to the brim with experiences and all come with a sharp sense of smell as I recall the foods that I prepped, served, and spilled. The same goes for bars—bars that I worked and bars that I patronized. But I've not revisited in print coffee shops that also shaped my social life and fed my emotional needs. A great coffee shop is so much more than the caffeine within a cup or the baked fluff of sugar and flour that cling to your waistline long after the coffee buzz is gone. As important to the experience that food and drink are, it is the ambience, the people within these cafes, that deliver the moments you recall decades later.
La Marquis Bakery was my first. Over thirty years ago I was introduced by my friend Paul to this unique French Quarter coffee shop with its glass display case of exquisite pastries. How he could ever move from New Orleans and such incredible food is still a mystery to me, but he did pass the torch to me, and I am forever grateful for the many years I spent starting my days off with a visit to what is now a time-capsule memory in French Quarter bohemia. Like all good coffee shops, "the regulars"—those who sit daily at the same table with the same friends—determine if an establishment is truly worth being a part of. For all the fancy cappuccinos or French pastries, it really comes down to the folks who frequent the café. Actually, the vibe is often set the moment you walk in by the person behind the counter.
Tzarine was everything a barista should be. She was the face of La Marquis. And while chef/owner Maurice Delechelle baked magic into each tartlet, croissant—oh heck, there was such a large array of goodies that I am gaining weight just remembering them—we who love coffee shops know that it's the energy of the people who work there, and those customers that imbue the place with personality. Tzarine knew how to orchestrate the patrons as well as execute a multitude of orders and effortlessly create magnificent cappuccino froths.
I was privy to a wonderful period of French Quarter life. And much of this experience took place inside this 625 Chartres Street café and courtyard. I met folks from all walks of life—world famous artists, eccentrics, shop keepers, struggling writers, successful writers, and tuxedoed waiters bracing themselves with shots of espresso before dashing to their jobs.
I came to know many local activists during these morning visits to La Marquis—Brad Ott being one of the most committed. Brad worked for Maurice as his delivery guy (at this point in time, the baking was all performed at Croissant D'or on Ursuline—Maurice's other location). Many dear friends were introduced to me by Brad and many a plot to save the world was discussed over coffee.
Through the years, I have experienced much of New Orleans by way of her cafes. Those early years as a Quarterite were fueled by the energy and camaraderie of these establishments. A large percentage of my friendships were formed within La Marquises, Croissant D'or (my weekend morning haunt for years), and later CC's on St. Philip Street, where I met my boyfriend (husband now).
While many relationships, both platonic and romantic, begin in bars (my other favorite social setting), I must say I caught boyfriend/husband/aka Philipe stone sober in CC's Coffee Shop. The atmosphere of CC's back then was such that the regulars and the baristas were like family. The old school neighborly vibe made it a daily must. Philipe lived on one end of the Quarter; I on the other, and even in pouring rain we'd show up every morning to hold court in our favorite chairs among our favorite coffee klatch friends. Once again, solid friendships grew for me within a coffee shop—and a marriage to boot.
I have found that even places that are not typically considered a "coffee shop" can become one in the social sense. When we moved our former/now closed cookbook shop out of the Quarter, our morning coffee/snack/newspaper ritual was transplanted to Whole Foods Market on Broad Street. A small row of booths line the front window/wall and at the time they sold cups of self-serve coffee at their bakery counter. We estimated over 1,400 everything bagels, over 1,000 vegan chocolate cookies, and 2,920 cups of dark roast coffee were shared by us until the pandemic determined our morning ritual to be a possible super spreader for the Cootie Monster. More than adopting a food and drink routine, we contributed to the growing sense of community that sat and sipped there on Broad Street.
I hope to continue this homage to our caffeine culture next time with a shout out to all the coffee shops that have grown during, and in spite of, the pandemic. Cheers!