NEW ORLEANS—In Wednesday's predawn, a glow from one cafe shone blocks away, a beacon of normalcy in a city whose life is anything but.
"The Beignets Are Back!" proclaimed a sign tied to an iron fence. Aromas wafted through cobblestone streets as TV crews and about 200 customers waited for the world-famous Cafe Du Monde to take orders.
"After Mardi Gras, this is the biggest thing in New Orleans," said Dawit Mehari, 29, of New Orleans. "A beignet is not a doughnut. It's not bread. It's not a piece of cake, either."
A beignet is a piece of New Orleans. And like a long lost friend seen once more, a comforting familiarity is back.
Since 1862, Cafe Du Monde has been a 24-hour restaurant where many began their days or ended them after nights of carousing on Bourbon Street.
Serving only coffee and beignets, the restaurant catered to the public year-round, except for Christmas, until the hurricane.
On Wednesday, following six weeks of repairs, finding employees and fixing the plumbing, the cafe opened after its longest closure in 143 years.
Hundreds of tiny pillow-puffs of fried dough simmering in their Jacuzzi of oil floated to the top, ready for a confectionary dousing. Chicory-laced coffee brewed in industrial coffee urns. About 6 a.m., bassist Joe Simon, 71, gave his jazz trio a nod.
"When you're smilin'," he sang, playing a walking bass line on the Louis Armstrong classic.
By now, the real drama was unfolding. Swooping in with tray after tray, waitresses appeared wearing paper soda-jerk hats, white blouses and tiny black bowties. Camera spotlights focused close on their wares: mounds of snowy-sugared squares, cups brimming with coffee au lait.
Clutching a worn book of crossword puzzles, Sidney Arroyo, 52, said he cherished the return of his morning ritual.
"This is a big deal," he said. "This is the biggest crowd convened for anything since the city reopened. ... I wouldn't have missed this for the world."
Arroyo, a political consultant, was annoyed that no city officials attended. "Shame on the mayor for not being here, too."
But seated near the front was one retired city official whom everyone knew. Harry Connick Sr. was first elected district attorney here in 1973. Everyone knows him as the singing D.A.
His son, Harry Jr., is known for singing pretty well, too.
"This is symbolic of New Orleans. Everybody comes here," he said. "Do you know who Buddy Rich was? One time he came to the Fairmont and for two days all he ate were beignets from Cafe Du Monde."
Connick, struggling like others to repair his flooded home, said this was a good day.
"The cleaning process is so slow. It's a lingering sadness here," he said, wiping sugar from his lips. "But coming here is very good. We need it."
(Kavanaugh reports for the Kansas City Star.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-CAFE
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