New Orleans's most infamous morning meal is also its most chaotic: Each day starting early, under the green-and-white-striped awning on Decatur Street, visitors queue – sometimes by the dozens – for pillowy beignets blanketed in powdered sugar and café au lait at the 155-year-old Café du Monde. Those in the know skip the line and weave through the clusters of small, round tables, eyeing seated patrons, laps dusted with sugar, ready to pounce the second they stand up.
But the beignet crush shares little with the city's farthest-reaching culinary legacy. For that, you'll have to cross the street and head a block north to the corner of Decatur and Madison. Step inside the French vanilla-coloured stucco, past the wood-topped stand-up bar, reclaimed from a Parisian bistro and shipped over wholesale in 1856, which takes up most of the length of the narrow room. Keep walking – through a door at the back with a neon sign reading "dining room," across a hallway the colour of pea soup and lined with wooden shelves stuffed with local artifacts – and you'll find yourself in the room where the first restaurant brunch was served.
New Orleans is widely known as the birthplace of such indulgences as cocktails, including the Sazerac and the Hurricane; it's the city where Buddy Bolden riffed the first jazz notes. But it's a lesser-known fact that this southern town is also where brunch – second breakfast, as it was first christened – was born.
Windowless and seating just 30, the back room of Tujague's looks virtually unchanged from when Elizabeth Begue, a German-born immigrant, served the city's first brunch back in 1867. "Here in this area, it was the only place that would serve you a meal before lunch," Tujague's general manager Jay Turney says of Dutrey's Coffee Exchange, as the restaurant was originally named (it later became Begue's Exchange, before Tujague's took over in 1916). "Tujague's was in a prime spot. It was right next to the market, so they had butchers, seafood and all the fresh produce."
Tujague's – pronounced Two Jacks – location gave it easy access to ingredients, but what it more essentially provided was a captive, hungry customer base: butchers who started their day at the crack of dawn, heading into work on nothing more than a cup of coffee and a croissant. Begue's own brother worked in the market, and – after noticing how hungry he was by the end of his shift – began cooking seven-course "second breakfasts" for him and his colleagues.
Those brunches – replicated today at Tujague's and other historic restaurants throughout the French Quarter and historic Garden District – bear little resemblance to the breakfast-centric meals I line up for on Sundays back in Toronto, where yoga pants and bed head are acceptable attire and the menu is an assortment of breakfast options for late risers. When I arrive for my 9 a.m. reservation at Brennan's, a 71-year-old icon located nearby, the tables surrounding mine are full of dressed-up patrons sipping glasses of brandy milk punch and watermelon juice with sparkling wine, the menu comprising such lunchy options as gumbo and turtle soup, a local delicacy made with spinach and sherry and, yes, turtle meat.
Brennan's concept is similar to Begue's original menu, which began with shrimp remoulade – another still-ubiquitous offering – and moved on to beef, braised with tomato and red-wine vinegar, herbs and, since this is New Orleans, spicy Creole mustard. The dish, one of Begue's most famous, honoured her Bavarian roots and was prepared according to a recipe that's used by the restaurant to this day (Tujague's only introduced à-la-carte offerings about five years ago, but the offerings remain remarkably similar to Begue's originals).
"There's always French toast, there's always an artichoke or spinach dish, a sausage dish," says Turney, of the typical NOLA brunch. "Brabant potatoes," he says, naming another classic, potatoes cubes and fried with a rich butter sauce. "Eggs Sardou" – a Creole Eggs Benedict-style dish – "these are all throwback dishes. If you see pancakes, it's going to be a twist on Bananas Foster. It's not going to ever be just pancakes with maple syrup. You don't see a lot of breakfast casserole dishes. You don't see a lot of frittatas, you don't see a lot of omelettes. If you do see an omelette, it's a seafood omelette or it's got to have some kind of sausage in it."
Booze, too, played a key role, thanks largely to Begue's French husband. "They were real advocates of French liqueurs. They brought the grasshopper here, they brought whisky punch," Turney says.
At the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in Uptown – where brunch, by the way, is a cheffy twist on classic Southern comfort food (think biscuits with crab-fat butter, melt-in-your-mouth pork cracklings and boudin burritos) by former Top Chef finalist Isaac Toups – founder Liz Williams says the proliferation of brunch tells a uniquely New Orleans story. "There's virtually nothing you can't learn about the city from its food," she says.
"In those days, a lot of people lived in rooming houses and boarding houses and there wasn't always board. So you were eating in a restaurant because you had no refrigeration and no way to feed yourself. If you were a single person, you wouldn't have had a kitchen and you wouldn't have had access to a kitchen. There was a lot of street eating and a lot of restaurant eating. I think that contributed a lot to the idea of brunch. And then the city became famous for it."
But the city's nightlife – fuelled by cocktails and jazz bars – also propelled the concept. "Whereas other places were more likely to have church on Sunday, we had a very French attitude towards church, so it wasn't hard to skip it," Williams says. "People would go out late Saturday night and they'd wake up wanting brunch and a little hair of the dog, all of the eye openers. We've never stinted on our drinking."
Today, imbibing remains a common thread, but as New Orleans's culinary scene evolves, so does brunch. At Maypop's dim sum brunch, it's head-cheese and blue-crab-soup dumplings and milk punch kicked up with Korean chili flakes; Lula Restaurant Distillery, in the Lower Garden District, serves up homemade fried pickles, boiled seafood and an epic vodka bar. At SoBou, in the W Hotel, my "legs and eggs" – southern-fried soft-shell crab benny – grew cold as I watched a middle-aged man in a baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt do the Charleston alongside a barely dressed dancer at the restaurant's burlesque-themed brunch. While out in the Garden District at Cavan, my travel companion and I ate hush puppies with honey butter and key lime pie among a crowd of elegantly dressed locals in an equally elegant 19th-century mansion that was once a private home.
Suffice it to say that by the time my Brennan's reservation rolled around on my last morning in town, I was brunched – and boozed – out. I skipped the preset menu and ordered a salad of heirloom tomatoes and corn and the juice of the day. But my best attempts to resist proved futile when three separate servers each told me that the Irish coffee – served with a lashing of cinnamon – is still made just the way the original Mr. Brennan liked it. Why fight tradition?
The writer travelled as a guest of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Ace Hotel. They did not review or approve this article.
Located in the up-and-coming Warehouse District – within walking distance from the French Quarter – Ace Hotel New Orleans provides ample local character, great live music and two on-site restaurants, both of which serve brunch.
Rooms from $159 (U.S.), 600 Carondelet St. acehotel.com/neworleans
Southern Food & Beverage Museum: Housed inside an old market terminal, the 16,000-square-foot museum is dedicated to the food and drink of the American South, with a large collection of citizen-collected artifacts as well as a cocktail museum, demo kitchen and on-site restaurant.
1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. natfab.org/southern-food-and-beverage