When I spoke to renowned local gourmand Poppy Tooker about beloved French Quarter restaurant Tujague’s (pronounced Two-Jacks) and its critical position in the history of New Orleans dining—it is, after all, the second-oldest restaurant in the city and this year is celebrating its 160th birthday—she wanted to clear something up.
She’d just read somewhere that Tujague’s was “one of the first” places to serve brunch in New Orleans. This, according to Tooker, simply isn’t just inaccurate; it downplays the relationship between brunch and the elegant restaurant on Decatur Street. Tujague’s is the place, Tooker maintains, where brunch was born.
The first place in the world to serve brunch? It’s certainly a provocative claim considering the transnational appeal and embrace of that particular meal. But as “far as anyone can research and find out,” says Tooker, the restaurant was the first establishment “to serve a meal that that today would be recognized as brunch.”
What is brunch? Two features immediately stand out to Tooker: the time of day and the presence of eggs.
I have a childhood memory of asking a family member the meaning of brunch— I got a vague explanation about the confluence of breakfast and lunch— so I thought I’d get a true food expert to give me a solid, clear definition. What is brunch?
Two features of this meal immediately stand out to Tooker: the time of day and the presence of eggs. I pressed her a little bit on a definition, and, in typical fashion, she came up with a sumptuous verbal bite. Brunch, according to Tooker, is “a large, lavish, leisurely meal eaten at some point around midday that is often celebratory and involves copious amounts of alcohol.” Sounds like both a good definition and formula to me.
The History of Tujague’s
Tracing the history of both Tujague’s and brunch is akin to an archaeological dig through layers of the intertwined history of the French and the reinterpretations of their food in this city. In her 2015 book, Tujague’s Cookbook: Creole Recipes and Lore in the Grand New Orleans Tradition, Tooker explores these strata of cuisine and culture. The restaurant’s namesake, Guillaume Tujague, came to New Orleans from France in 1852 to open a shop at the French Market. The result was a vibrant commercial space, sometimes referred to as “Les Halles,” where various meat products from numerous butchers were bought and sold. Guillaume subsequently returned to his country of birth, if only briefly; in a familiar move for those within the European colonial projects and their associated networks of commerce, he came back to New Orleans with a wife, Marie Abadie.
On their arrival in the city as a newly married couple, Guillaume and Marie were met by an increasingly vibrant food culture, and this was reflected in the wealth they drew from the French Market. Later, Guillaume switched tack and went from wholesale to retail, opening the original Tugague’s at 811 Decatur Street the same year that the Civil War came to a close.
The Birth of Brunch
The birth of brunch has a lot to do with the aforementioned Tujague’s first location. Just three doors away was the iconic Begue’s Exchange, where diners would congregate for multi-hour, multi-course breakfasts. Madam Begue, the incredibly charismatic and talented French-speaking, German-born chef (whose popularity was such that her death in 1906 was national news) was only able to have a limited amount of guests due to a small dining room. Thus, Guillaume, who was intimately involved in three crucial elements of the restaurant’s daily operations (supervising the kitchen, serving in the dining room, and marketing), also offered the “butcher’s breakfast” slightly later in the day to accommodate spillover.
After Guillaume’s death in 1912, his sister and her husband took over the family business, and after that different owners continued the tradition of French-Creole cuisine, an emphasis on family, and the wonderful combination of a comforting atmosphere and strong drinks at unexpected hours (at the midpoint of the twentieth century, the bar, as described in Tooker’s book, would be “open and hopping at six o’clock every morning,” servicing a throng of thirsty French Market butchers). Is there a place that greater embodies the best of the French Quarter and its culture?
I went to Tujague’s on a recent Saturday to enjoy what I’d spent some time thinking about: what exactly is brunch and why is it so popular? What followed was a master class that answered both questions. I slipped in from the heat and bustle of Decatur Street, passed the exquisite standup bar, and was met by a friendly and knowledgeable staff who were an essential part of making Tujague’s what it is—a can’t-miss New Orleans experience. My meal began in the style of the countless “brunchers” before me; I immediately ordered drinks, in this case a mimosa and a Bloody Mary. Both were extremely well balanced and only enhanced my appetite. I imagined the “butchers breakfast” of the 1860s and 1870s, where the French Market workers downed wine, coffee, eggs, and meat—quite the start to the day.
All around, there were tables at various stages of their own brunch experience—by the time my guest and I took our first sips it was about ten minutes after noon. Our orders: the Eggs Decatur (bacon rendered potatoes, brisket hash topped with two poached eggs and topped with hollandaise); Eggs Benedict (house made biscuit, tasso, two poached eggs topped with hollandaise). And despite how thoroughly enjoyable those two dishes were, we also ordered the Bananas Foster Lost Bread (French toast made with French bread and smothered with a delectable house-made creme anglaise).
I asked Tooker what first came to mind when thinking about why Tujague’s matters so much to this city’s food culture. She tells me that one reason is because, quite simply, Tujague’s is America’s oldest neighborhood restaurant in America’s oldest neighborhood. (And another element that speaks to this city’s long-standing loves: the restaurant is also home to the country’s oldest standup bar.)
Tujague’s is America’s oldest neighborhood restaurant in America’s oldest neighborhood.
Unlike the grand dining experience of the beloved Antoine’s, which was founded in 1840, or the similarly fantastic Galatoire’s, Tujague’s has “always felt like a home away from home to visitors and locals alike,” Tooker says. “In fact, one of the amazing, unique things about [the restaurant] is that on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day many, many local families choose to dine out at Tujague’s. It’s a family tradition for so many people.” And the scale of the appeal cannot be understated: On Christmas Day last year, Tujague’s served 800 diners.
The main component of why Tujague’s elicits this kind of loyalty is “how welcoming the place is,” Tooker says. “You can come in shorts, you can dress casually, or you can be very dressed up.” What’s more, Tujague’s is a place where important life events take place, whether it’s a rollicking family Christmas brunch or a lifelong commitment, or maybe even a birthday party like the one I witnessed on my brunch trip, complete with the entire restaurant singing “Happy Birthday” (the waiter had a fantastic voice).
To celebrate the 160 years, Tujague’s is offering a range of events and specials. An exhibition of Tujague’s and its history is on display at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB), while the restaurant is offering an $18.56 three-course prix fixe lunch that you can find here.