H. Begue's Exchange, 1903, Detroit Photographic Co., Library Of
H. Begue’s Exchange, 1903, Detroit Photographic Co., Library of Congress

When New Orleanians talk about their favorite doyennes of New Orleans cuisine, the late Leah Chase, “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” invariably comes up. A century earlier, however, the city’s “queen of culinary art” was Madame Bégué at H. Bégué’s Exchange, as seen here, at the corner of Decatur and Madison streets in the French Quarter. 

Elizabeth Kettenring, later known as Madame Bégué, came to New Orleans in 1853 from Bavaria. She soon married Louis Dutreuil (Anglicized to Dutrey), and the couple opened Dutrey’s coffee house (saloon) at the corner of Decatur and Madison. After Louis died in 1875, Elizabeth married Hypolite Bégué, a butcher and reported “picturesque character” at the French Market. They changed the saloon’s name to H. Begue Exchange. Elizabeth served only one meal a day, a “second breakfast” that catered to local butchers and workers. 

That one meal was a doozy. Looking back, here’s how a 1925 Times-Picayune article described her menu: “One started with a shrimp salad, ham omelette and chicken blanquette. Then liver a la Bégué, for which the restaurant was famous, veal chops with green peas and potatoes browned in butter, salad, dessert and coffee.”

Madame’s “liver a la Bégué” apparently impressed writer William Sydney Porter, alias O. Henry, for he was a regular at Bégué’s during his brief stay in New Orleans in 1896 while on the lam from Texas law.  A fictional Bégué’s was even a setting for the 1945 movie “Saratoga Trunk” based on Porter’s short story.

Bégué’s caught on quickly among locals and out-of-towners. That same 1925 Times-Picayune look back gave a colorful description of Bégué’s clientele: “The Bohemianism of it appealed; it became quite a fad. For a number of years the blue blood of New Orleans sat to breakfast with the shirt-sleeved, coatless butchers of the French Market.”

Upon Madame Bégué’s death on Oct. 19, 1906, the Daily Picayune (forerunner to the Times-Picayune) wrote a florid tribute, dubbing her “Queen of Cooks” and “queen of culinary art.”

“The name Begue,” the obituary continued, “has been associated with the highest expression of epicureanism not only with the people of this city, but with men and women, some of whom are famous in literary and artistic circles in this country and abroad, who have enjoyed a breakfast at Begue’s, and have returned home to sing the praises of that excellent rendezvous of lovers of savory and original menus.”

Hypolite remarried and with the second Madame Bégué, Francoise Laporte, operated the restaurant until his death in 1917. Later, says New Orleans food writer Poppy Tooker, Francoise went bankrupt, lost the building but continued Begue’s at various locations until it finally closed in 1941 (Madame Bégué’s was unrelated to the more recent but now closed Begue’s at the Royal Sonesta Hotel).

As to the Madison and Decatur site seen here, Tujaque’s restaurant occupied that spot for over a century until it moved to its new location in 2020.

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