1100 N. Peters St., 522-2621
I had a good idea what I'd find at the French Market when I set out on a recent foraging trip for stocking stuffers. Sure enough, the vendors' stalls were crammed with the typical New Orleans souvenirs and trinkets, including a bumper crop of fleur de lis-emblazoned items.
But pushing further into the market's open-air canopy, I found something I hadn't expected: people sitting at newly installed diner counters, chowing down on etouffee, veggie burgers and pork chops. After a prolonged round of renovations completed this summer, the city-run French Market now boasts a row of new food-service stalls.
A number of conventional restaurants have long operated within French Market properties, and Café du Monde is a landmark attraction. For years, vendor Amy Nguyen has served pho, rice dishes and one of my favorite banh mi sandwiches from a trailer she parks at the Barracks Street end of the market on weekends. But there's something different about these new booths. They're open-air spots in the heart of the market, where customers perch at marble-topped bars, hungry passersby peek over their shoulders at the day's offerings and cooks and vendors banter across the market floor. In a small way, they're helping restore a diverse bustle to the French Market.
For one of these new tenants, World Famous N'Awlins Cafe & Spice Emporium (528-7770; www.worldfamousnawlins.com), the venture is a revived family legacy. Members of the Humphrey family have been vendors at the French Market since 1939, when Archibald O'Brien Humphrey, grandfather of current owner Arthur O. Humphrey Jr., first established a produce concession. Three decades later, Humphrey's father opened Barney's Café, which served traditional Creole dishes. A kitchen fire closed Barney's in 1982, and the family business shifted to selling spice mixes and sauces. Their new corner space includes a retail area for these items alongside the diner counter, where they serve breakfast, plate lunches, a roster of grilled fish dishes and a meaty turtle stew.
Just down the line, chef Marilyn Doucette opened Meals from the Heart Cafe (525-1953; www.mealsfromtheheartllc.com), where she prepares the same reduced-fat, low-sodium dishes that have won her a loyal following at local art markets and festivals. Her menu features a petit crab cake and lots of vegetarian fare, like slider-sized black bean burgers.
Next door, the longtime Marigny-based candy maker Loretta Harrison opened a booth for Loretta's Authentic Pralines (944-7068; www.lorettaspralines.stores.yahoo.net). Kids walking through the market with Loretta's huge, oblong praline "shoe sole" cookies look as happy as can be. A few steps away, a new frozen drink outlet called the Organic Banana has a decidedly local focus, blending pina coladas and daiquiris with Old New Orleans Rum. Adults walking through the market with cups of Abita beer from the Organic Banana's taps look about as happy as the kids with pralines.
The first of the new vendors opened last summer, and more are coming along. At this writing, the produce vendor Mother Nature's Cupboard was preparing to open a service counter for soups, salads and other full meals. Juan Hernandez plans to open a cheese shop and wine bar called Alberto's Gourmet Cheeses, and Frederick Deare will specialize in Cajun-style foods such as boudin, cracklin and hogshead cheese when he opens Cooyon in a new market booth.
If the best New Orleans souvenir is a memorable meal, it looks like the French Market has all the bases covered.