Ah, fall, when the weather finally cools off enough to sit outside comfortably and enjoy a sandwich and some quality time with friends – or with your iPad. And this season doesn’t last long locally, which makes these moments even more precious. A good perch for this is at your neighborhood café, a restaurant genre that has seen a marked rise since Hurricane Katrina. Several casual spots offering breakfast and lunch at low prices have popped up around town and offer a pleasant and healthier alternative to a giant fried shrimp poor boy. Here is a look at a few.
The Cake Café in Marigny opened in September 2007, but its groundwork was laid long before then. Owner Steve Himelfarb, a long-time recording engineer, wanted to take another direction in life. “I’d always loved cooking and baking, and some friends of mine suggested I do that,” he says. He sold his recording studio and followed his bliss, starting afresh, baking cakes and selling them door-to-door in the French Quarter, where he became known as the “Cake Man” and did his part to contribute to the funky resident-side atmosphere of the Vieux Carré. “I liken that stage of my development to being a street musician,” he says, “where you perfect your craft little by little as you are out there pounding the pavement every day.”
One thing led to another, and in 2004 Himelfarb opened a tiny café on Exchange Alley (now the Green Goddess) geared toward residents who live and work in the French Quarter. “There were not many places that catered to the locals with an affordable lunch,” he recalls. He lived upstairs and things were going well until August of 2005.
“I stayed for the hurricane and then that turned into what that turned into and I wasn’t able to reopen,” he says. He spent the next two years as a journeyman, running the Jacques-Imo’s up in New York for a while, and then returning to New Orleans to work with the catering crew for the first post-Katrina Jazz Fest. He continued working movie catering gigs and the like, but kept his eyes peeled for a place of his own.
Fate rewarded him with a phone call in July 2007, when Mary Logsdon followed up with him about renting out her former property, La Spiga Bakery in the Marigny. The lease was signed on the second anniversary of Katrina and the Cake Café opened shortly thereafter.
The café is a comfortable fit with the surrounding neighborhood. A limited amount of sidewalk seating is available and the café’s walls are decorated with local art. For a bellwether breakfast option, try their breakfast sandwich special on a croissant. It comes with a cup of coffee and is a good value. Alternatively, splurge with the lox and bagel plate, served on a homemade bagel with the requisite cream cheese, tomato, red onion and capers.
Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy his French toast, made with homemade challah bread and plated atop orange-pecan syrup. Himelfarb’s cinnamon rolls are good as well, and his offbeat cupcake flavors include Sazerac, champagne and mimosa.
Way on the other side of town, nested alongside Uptown Square at the foot of Broadway Street, is Tartine. Owned by pastry chef Cara Benson, this charming cafe recently celebrated its first anniversary and has quickly become a go-to destination in this underserved area. “We get a lot of customers from Uptown Square, along with neighborhood residents,” Benson says. “And moms. Lots of moms.”
They all come to enjoy Tartine’s assortment of sandwiches and daily specials, served on Benson’s homemade breads. Benson bakes up baguettes, brioche, focaccia, ciabatta and bagels, which serve as the foundation for choices like her pork rillette, served on a sourdough baguette with herbed butter, sweet onion marmalade and tart cornichons. Her country-style house pâté sandwich gets some bite from Dijon mustard and onion confit. If you can’t make up your mind between these two choices, she offers a “Half-and-Half.” Accompaniments might include her chilled Israeli couscous or her black-eyed pea salad dressed with refreshing citrus vinaigrette. The Croque Monsieur, often run as a special, is another tempting choice, says Benson, and the tuna Niçoise salad is popular, too.
Benson’s husband Evan, chef for Joel’s Catering, lends a hand in the kitchen and helps smoke up the essential components of the house-smoked turkey with Gruyère and avocado, along with the smoked portobello mushrooms for the grilled vegetable sandwich. There is a wonderful little patio for outdoor seating, and don’t leave without trying one of the mini-éclairs.
Greg Surrey of Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar added a third location to his café portfolio about a year ago. Called Surrey’s Uptown, it’s located on Magazine Street next to Le Bon Temps bar. Taking over the former Fuel Coffee House location, Surrey’s hits all the right notes with creativity, price and selection. Weather permitting, grab a table on the porch or the front yard, which is set back comfortably from the street. The menu is similar to the original Surrey’s on lower Magazine Street, though chef Rolita Goodrich rolls in some specials of her own, such as fried green tomatoes. For breakfast, the massive banana pancake is enough for a meal. The truly hardcore can order it loaded with cream cheese. I am also a big fan of the corned-beef hash, which is composed of dice-sized cubes of corned beef and salty andouille mixed into a matrix of their chunky hash browns. On the lunch menu, the “Surrey’s Club” sets itself apart by the addition of apple slices and goat cheese. Extensive freshly squeezed juice options round out the menu.
Other good options include Satsuma Café in Bywater, which I wrote about a few months ago. It has outdoor patio seating to go along with its welcomingly eclectic coffee shop vibe. Tout de Suite Café on Algiers Point is family-friendly and offers live music on weekends.