For nearly 40 years, Café Degas has been a mainstay of French cuisine in New Orleans. Soon, the Faubourg Saint-Jean restaurant will have a new way to showcase these flavors.
Co-owner Jacques Soulas has confirmed plans to take over the former home of the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse just across the street at 3133 Ponce de Leon St.
The move will serve two purposes. First, it will increase the capacity of the Café Degas kitchen itself, which currently operates from a shoebox-sized kitchen.
The next phase will add a casual cafe with a counter service grocery store. The focus will be on French-style sandwiches and pastries with coffee drinks.
Soulas said many details of the new concept are still in development, including the name.
Soulas said breakfast is a possibility at the new cafe, depending on the staff. He said the lunch menu would bring sandwiches filled with pâté, French salami, ham and brie (the ham and butter, which was a specialty of Mayhew Bakery, a café-bakery in the neighboring neighborhood which has just closed permanently ).
“We’re thrilled that Café Degas is taking over and can’t wait to see what they’ll do there,” said Wade Rathke, who ran Fair Grinds from 2011 until the cafe closed this spring.
Soulas and his business partner Jerry Edgar opened Café Degas in 1986 in the tiny confines of a former hair salon on Esplanade Avenue. It has grown over time and has become an essential neighborhood restaurant.
But his kitchen space hasn’t grown much. From a seat at the bar or at one of the outdoor tables, it’s common to see cooks carrying supplies across Ponce de Leon Street from a hidden pantry.
The home of the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse has long been a coffeehouse, dating back at least to the 1970s when it was the original location of True Brew Coffee.
It became Fair Grinds in 2000, originally opened by Robert Thompson and Elizabeth Herod. Rathke, who heads the activist group Acorn International, took over in 2011.
The cafe, and in particular its room on the second floor, had been used for many years for art exhibitions, meditation groups, and other community organizations.
The cafe closed after Jazz Fest, and soon the property was on the market.
A second Fair Grinds location at 2221 Saint-Claude Avenue also closed during the pandemic. Rathke said that second location may return in the future, but he has no immediate plans to reopen.
A bakery says goodbye
When Mayhew Bakery (3201 Orleans Ave.) opened in Faubourg St. John in the fall of 2019, it was part of a hopeful wave of small artisan bakeries helping to revive the old craft in the neighborhoods of New Orleans.
The pandemic subsided a few months later, then Hurricane Ida delivered a big blow. Now Mayhew Bakery has closed permanently, marking its last day on August 11.
Owner and baker Kelly Mayhew said the decision to close permanently was “heartbreaking”. But the growing difficulties facing small food and beverage companies like his have forced him to reassess the future. A large number of local hotel businesses closed soon after Ida; Mayhew’s departure reflects the longer reach of the disaster in addition to the hardships the pandemic has imposed on small operators like this.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” he said.
Mayhew is an Army veteran who pursued a culinary career after his military service.
He started with a table at the Crescent City Farmers Market, where his royal cakes were seasonal draws. Soon he was setting up a walk-in bakery in Old Metairie, serving bread through the window like a bakery-meets-sno-ball stand.
The fully fledged Mayhew Bakery opened on Avenue d’Orléans in October 2019. With more space to work in and an expanded repertoire, the bakery has won many fans for its pies, pastries and fresh bread , especially the baguette transformed into an epic French ham and butter sandwich. (nicknamed the jam-bam) and tasty “swirls” made from baguette dough coated with garlic.
The business has also grown thanks in part to patrons of the city’s restaurants and bars, and nearly all of those who closed at the same time, at least temporarily, during the pandemic.
Mayhew orchestrated what appeared to be a successful pandemic pivot by adding pizza to the lineup, a one-time special that has become a mainstay of the company. The bakery could often look like a pizzeria with stacks of pies ordered by neighbors.
But the bakery never got a slice of major federal relief programs meant to keep hospitality businesses like this alive during the pandemic. Then Hurricane Ida hit.
Almost immediately after the storm crippled the town’s deplorable power grid, Mayhew turned his bakery into a community support center. He and a rapidly growing team of volunteers provided meals and essential supplies to people who had no way to leave town as the heat continued.
Behind the scenes, however, Mayhew said he had spent the last year struggling to recover from the blow to the business.