Join Me for Lunch at the Bon Ton Cafe (New Orleans)
Writer’s Note: I was impressed with the feedback generated by yesterday’s feature on the best restaurants in New Orleans (READ: A RESTAURANT GUIDE TO NEW ORLEANS). It’s good to know many others have similar tastes and recommendations. Here’s a follow up with a review which explains more about a typical New Orleans dining experience.
Translated from the French “bon ton” literally means “good form.” Perhaps the most common expression you might hear is “C’est de bon ton,” which means “this is good.”
When it comes to the famous but quaint Bon Ton Cafe in New Orleans — C’est de bon ton!
I initially heard about the Bon Ton Cafe from a local barber named Jack, owner of Jack’s Barber Shop located on Magazine Street. I took his sage advice and have since visited this holy place about 40-50 times. I’ve since lost count along with the calories. Always a delight (never a miss, not even once), Bon Ton Cafe is one of the most consistent restaurants in the city when it comes to supreme quality.
So, why do I keep coming back?
It all starts with the ownership, Wayne and Debbie Pierce. This lovely couple took over the Bon Ton Cafe way back in 1967 and have since run it daily. Incredibly, during all the times I’ve dined here, I’ve always seen one of the Pierce’s inside the dining room. They make you feel like a personal guest inside their own home. You don’t get that personal touch elsewhere. Charm has become a lost art. Not here. It’s part of who they are and what Bon Ton is.
Here’s owner Wayne Pierce standing with me, taken on Thursday:
The Pierce’s brought along their family recipes from generations dating back to Southern Louisiana. Most of the usual Cajun and Creole favorites can be found on the lunch and dinner menu, but with the Pierce’s special touch. Two highly-recommended items not to be missed include their Rum Ramsey cocktail (a secret recipe handed down from 200 years ago by the original owners) and their Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce for dessert.
First, let me tell you about why I like this place so much. Second, I’d like for you to join me for lunch.
As I’ve previously written, good food should reflect a sense of culture and tradition. The best restaurant is a place where everyone takes pride in the food and experience — from the original recipe, to the actual cooking, to the presentation, to the mixture of tastes, and ultimately to the overall sensory experience. I want the cook, the server, and the owner to be proud of what they served, and if they are truly this way, you can be sure to enjoy a wonderful meal (well, most of the time).
Bon Ton Cafe is located on Magazine Street, about three blocks south of Canal Street, between the French Quarter and the Warehouse District. It’s about three blocks away from the Harrah’s Casino, making it easy walking distance to most hotels in the area. It’s a rather non-descript brown-brick building. The door squeaks when you open it. It’s that kind of place.
The dining area seats no more than 70-80 people. Wooden tables are small with traditional red and white checkerboard design you’d expect see in New York’s Little Italy. I mentioned before that the front door squeaks. Well, the wooden chairs sometime squeak, too — no surprise since they’ve been under the weight of some extraordinary meals and backsides over many decades.
Lunchtime sometimes gets crowded. The best time to come is probably around 1:30 pm, right after the rush. Lunch is served 11 am to 2 pm. They’re also open for dinner. But I prefer lunch. I believe Sunday is closed. During the daytime, you see mostly locals — many lawyers and judges who do their business in the Federal Courthouse, located nearby. Typical clientele includes men with bow ties and women in stylish dresses. You don’t see many tourists in here. I did see political commentator James Carville eat here — twice. He lives in the neighborhood.
So, what makes the Bon Ton Cafe so special that I’d eat here like 45 times?
Well, it’s convenient. But it’s also marvelously affordable if you order the right things. There’s a magic word.
Contrary to what many believe, I’m extremely price conscious. I simply can’t afford $75 lunches every day. I look for great food at a good value. Or, good food at a great value. Bon Ton Cafe meets these requirements, and then some. If you consider that any decent lunch establishment is probably going to cost about $15-20, I don’t mind spending just a few dollars more and really enjoying myself. Short of the horrors of fast food (shudder!), you can pretty much eat a great meal for just a few extra dollars, if you do your homework. This is especially true in New Orleans.
All of the Bon Ton Cafe’s fish dishes that I’ve tried are wonderful. But I tend to go for the simplest dish — which is a generous flour-coated serving of catfish filets. Catfish tends to be a low-grade fish. But the preparation here is really special. With a homemade special sauce on the side, they actually taste like catfish biegnets. Best of all, the lunch meal comes with choice of potatoes or onion rings, along with a house salad. You also get bread and butter. I’ll get to the price in a moment.
So, please join me. You’re my guest. Let’s dine together at the Bon Ton Cafe.
There is genuine beauty in simplicity.
Here’s the first course — consisting of salad and bread. Sounds exciting, huh? Well, it is!
What’s wonderful is to be served a hot fresh loaf of bread wrapped tightly in a white dinner napkin. The bread in New Orleans is unlike anywhere else (even France). It’s very light and not at all heavy. No other city does bread this way. Best of all, you can eat a lot of bread and not feel like a whale. Most restaurants, including the Bon Ton Cafe always bring fresh butter. You don’t have to beg for it like at all the corporate-run chain restaurants which are always making short cuts and trying to screw the customer. You won’t see margarine (lynch party!) served at any decent establishment in this town. Bravo!
The salad and homemade dressing is something really special. It’s a herb-garlic-pepper mix that’s unlike anywhere else. There’s also a hint of mustard. Greens are fresh and locally grown.
The iced tea is also clear, clean, and fresh.
Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t so the main course justice. The sauce is the real star of this dish, which is truly unique. It’s called Alzina’s Special Sauce, which is a family recipe of the Pierce’s, dating back to the opening of the restaurant.
The texture of the catfish filets are always soft, rather than fried crunchy-style. I prefer crunchy fish most of the time, but that preparation is hit or miss. With these filets, you can tell the breading was done seconds before the fish hit the frying pan. Topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon and then dipped in a zesty sauce, the texture, temperature, and tastes are exquisite.
I tend to also like their onion rings, which are breaded with a paper-thin coating. Wonderful! They aren’t overly greasy like a lot of onion rings served elsewhere.
The main course was terrific. Now, it’ time for dessert.
Remember when I wrote there’s beauty in the simple things?
Brothers and sisters, nothing is more simple than a plain old bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Topping off the lunch of fresh bread and butter, a garlicy salad, fried catfish with a secret sauce, and onion rings was a cold dish of vanilla ice cream.
Here’s where and why the Bon Ton Cafe does things right. It’s called attention to detail.
First, the ice cream is always served in a chilled dish. Chilled. Not warm. This way, the ice cream doesn’t melt all over the place the instant it’s served. It’s just the right portion, and it tastes fresh and delicious. Something about the creamy texture mixed in with genuine vanilla on a warm and humid day makes this the perfect closing course. It’s probably heresy to order something as dull as vanilla ice cream in a fine dining establishment famous for its Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce. That’s extraordinary, as well. But remember — today’s theme is keeping in simple. And affordable.
So, what did this first-class meal at a wonderful restaurant set me back?
The damage was $24.10 — or $29.60 with a standard gratuity added. Count how many lousy meals you’ve had at other places for at least double that.
Now, add the owner coming by to say hello (to everyone, not just me). Add a friendly waitress who takes her job seriously and who never let’s your glass near empty, and a casual atmosphere, and now you can plainly see why I have enjoyed the Bon Ton Cafe nearly four dozen times.
But I did save the most important attraction for last. If you glance at the menu, you’ll see many items which are far more interesting and creative. I intentionally ordered the most pedestrian things I could find from start to finish — and STILL ended up enjoying an extraordinary meal that didn’t break my wallet.
Where else can you say that?
C’est de bon ton!