The Brennan Family: A Luscious Legacy

By: Ian McNulty

Top to Bottom: Brennan’s Restaurant; Bacco Restaurant; Palace Cafe; Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse; Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House

New Orleans is famous for its Creole interpretation of French cuisine, but one of the most famous names in the New Orleans culinary scene is neither French nor Creole. The Brennan family, of Irish descent, is nonetheless responsible for fostering a culinary tradition that many regard as the epitome of New Orleans fine dining.

Separate branches of the Brennan family today operate 13 restaurants, of which 10 are located in New Orleans and seven in the French Quarter proper or its periphery. This is not the sprawling restaurant empire it might seem at first blush, but rather an enduring legacy for a local family and their business partners who own and operate one or more of these restaurants independently of each other. Indeed, a stroll of only three blocks in the French Quarter will take a pedestrian past five high-profile restaurants owned by four different scions of the extended Brennan family.

The family’s rise in the restaurant business began in grand fashion in 1946 when a bar owner named Owen Edward Brennan opened a French restaurant on Bourbon Street. Brennan’s Restaurant (417 Royal St., 504-525-9711) moved to its present location in 1956, occupying a Vieux Carre building that dates back to 1795. From the start, Brennan’s was the kind of place that captured the imagination and it quickly attracted a regular clientele of international movie stars and local dealmakers. Though anchored in the classics, the kitchen at Brennan’s innovated and is responsible for many dishes that are today regarded as New Orleans classics, most notably bananas Foster. Following an extensive renovation, the new Brennan’s balances its status as a stalwart of Creole traditions and an innovator of New Orleans cuisine.

By the 1970s, other members of the Brennan family had taken over Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 504-899-8221), which had been operated as a restaurant in the upscale Garden District neighborhood since 1880. The careers of world-famous chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme were each launched at the kitchen of Commander’s Palace under Brennan management in the 1980s, and today the restaurant remains one of the city’s most popular upscale dining destinations.

The ongoing success and renown of these Brennan-owned restaurants became the springboard for members of the extended family to open their own, which now cover a remarkably diverse culinary range from traditional Creole to Italian fare to American steakhouse standards. Family members continue to open new restaurants, with two coming online within the last few years in New Orleans, and Brennan-branded restaurants are now in business in Houston, Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif.

What follows is a primer to the Brennan-owned restaurants in the French Quarter and other New Orleans neighborhoods:

Mr. B’s Bistro (201 Royal St., 504-523-2078) took much of the fussiness out of high-end dining when it opened in 1979, and infused the dining scene with many innovations which are still widely imitated to this day. Polished but not formal, the bistro’s semi-open kitchen introduced a new trend in restaurant design, while its menu broke ground with dishes that are now industry standards, such hickory-grilled fish. The restaurant’s dark and smoky “gumbo yaya” is widely regarded as one of the city’s best versions of this Louisiana classic.

Palace Café (605 Canal St., 504-523-1661) was opened by Dickie Brennan in the same year his cousin opened Bacco a few blocks away. The building the Creole bistro now operates in, however, has a history that reaches back to 1905 when it was the home of Werlein’s for Music, the nation’s oldest retail music business continually owned by the same family. In the old days, the progenitors of jazz and later musical genres bought sheet music and instruments here. Today, after an extensive renovation with many memorials to the building’s musical past, guests dine on Creole food that blends tradition with innovation. Sunday jazz brunch is a standard feature here and during Mardi Gras season the bistro’s broad second-floor windows offer great parade viewing on Canal Street.

Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill (115 Bourbon St., 504-598-1200) is the most casual of any Brennan-owned restaurant located in New Orleans, perhaps befitting its Bourbon Street address. Opened in 1997, the restaurant’s interior has a colorful and playful aquatic look and the menu is focused on Gulf Coast seafood. Lunch can be as simple as po-boys and burgers while also featuring many of the fresh fish preparations offered on the more elaborate dinner menu. A long, cool oyster bar serves up local bivalves raw or baked with savory toppings.

Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse (716 Iberville St., 504-522-2467), opened in 1998, continues a long tradition of steakhouses in New Orleans, where the style of serving steaks sizzling aromatically in butter first gained fame. The distinctly masculine dining rooms here are sunken below street level, a rarity in low-lying New Orleans, and offer an urbane elegance. Steaks are all prime and are served either with a light seasoning or dressed up with decadently rich sauces, fried oysters and other indulgences.

Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House (144 Bourbon St., 504-522-0111) does indeed stock a prodigious selection of bourbons, but the four-year-old restaurant is better known for its seafood, particularly the raw oysters served at its crescent-shaped oyster bar or those included in the giant “plateaux de fruits de mer,” a collection of cold seafood served for two or up to eight people. In addition to its bistro-style dining rooms, Bourbon House sometimes offers a walk-up window on Bourbon Street serving Parisian crepes, savory or sweet, and a selection of gelato along with beer and the frozen milk punch cocktail “to go.”

Outside the French Quarter, 2004 saw the introduction of two new fine dining restaurants from members of the Brennan family, each serving fresh interpretations of Creole cuisine in unique and distinctive settings. In the Central Business District, the same branch of the family that runs Commander’s Palace opened Café Adelaide (300 Poydras St., 504-595-3305) in the Loews Hotel, and named for an eccentric relative of the founders. In Mid-City, adjacent to the beautiful gates of City Park, Ralph Brennan opened Ralph’s on the Park (900 City Park Ave., 504-488-1000) in an extensively renovated 1860-era building with many windows taking full advantage of the lush views of live oaks and Spanish moss across the street.

Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”