So much more than cafe au lait
Two hundred years before a green mermaid from Seattle turned coffee culture into serious business in America, there was New Orleans. Coffee has always been a part of this city's fabric. Can you think of another American city that has its own distinct style of coffee? The Crescent City is known worldwide for its dark roast cafe au lait flavored with chicory, a combination that's one of the defining flavors of this place. It's even said that the modern coffee break was invented in New Orleans; as far back as the 1920s, there are records of local businessmen taking a respite from their work to share a cup of joe, not to mention the invention of concoctions like Café Brûlot, a flaming spiced coffee and brandy cocktail created at Antoine's during Prohibition to discreetly hide booze. And to this day, locals are known to drink iced coffee year round. It's just how we live. Coffee and New Orleans are inextricably tied to one another, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
But where is the best coffee in New Orleans? There’s not a simple answer, since the coffee scene in NOLA has been doing some outrageously cool things in recent years. Combine that with some of our popular local chains (PJ's and CC's) and the more historic cafes—the New Orleans coffee stand dates back to the 18th century, when the city was the port of choice for Latin American coffee planters—and you have a difficult decision to make. If you want the tops, however, here you go:
Between old-school and modern, if you're looking for the absolute best in New Orleans coffee, you have to go contemporary. Mammoth is a cheery, light-filled modern space that, above all, takes its coffee and tea extremely seriously. If you're an espresso snob, this is clearly the spot to check out, as the baristas are as much chemists as they are joe jockeys. And artists, too—and I mean that literally—the place has hosted latte art competitions, and the results are no less than stunning. Personally, I'm a fan of just a straight up cup of drip coffee, and Mammoth does that every bit as well as lattes that look like they belong in a museum. Grinding the beans perfectly and using variable temperature digital kettles and Chemex-style glass beakers for pour-over, your standard cup is going to be deeply flavored and nuanced, and you'll truly taste the coffee as it was meant to be. Combine this with a cheery, clean space and—most importantly—a dedicated lack of pretension (oy, if I have to face one more snobby barista, I swear...), and you have a coffee shop that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best in the country. Oh, and they have really tasty baked goods, to boot.
The Runners Up
What started as a coffee business based out of a re-tooled Citroen truck became so popular that they recently expanded to a brick and mortar shop. Their Uptown spot is a fantastic cafe for leisurely enjoying a coffee and a pastry with a good book, or catching up with a friend. One thing you thankfully won't see here? Laptops. That's right, there’s no Wi-Fi, and that's a good thing. It keeps things focused on coffee and people, not homework and Facebook. French Truck is special also for being a local roaster, and their beans are well worth buying and taking home after you've finished your cappuccino, croissant, and the daily paper.
For most people who want the traditional New Orleans cafe au lait and beignet experience, the tendency is to gravitate to Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. And while that place is great and has fantastic history, it's also constantly jam-packed with tourists and extremely loud. For a more pleasant way to get this treasured local combination, go to City Park, where you'll find a new outpost of Morning Call, which has been a New Orleans institution for decades (the original was actually just up the street from Cafe du Monde and was oft-considered by locals to be superior). Here you'll find a quintessential cafe au lait and hot beignets dusted in powdered sugar, all in a setting of resplendent natural beauty, the park's centuries-old live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. There's nowhere else like it in the world.
This Lower Garden District coffee shop (they also have an Uptown outpost) is where you want to go if you're looking for some of the best non-local roasts in the city, particularly Counter Culture coffee. HiVolt makes a mean coffee and espresso, and excellent teas as well, but the real clincher here is the food. Unlike many other modern coffee geek joints that only offer a few baked goods if you get peckish, they have a full menu of elevated breakfast plates, sandwiches, salads, quiches, and specialty toasts, making it a great place to meet your friends or colleagues for breakfast or lunch. Try the "Mo Betta BLT," which is loaded with bonus veggies like avocado, sprouts, radishes, and vidalia onion, and thank me later.