If you’re planning to spend several days in New Orleans leading up to the Sugar Bowl, you’ll likely eat in a restaurant owned by a branch of the Brennan family.
That Irish-American family tree has many branches, mind you.
But I like almost all of the Brennan restaurants.
Ella Brennan, the queen of New Orleans cuisine, and members of her family operate the incomparable Commander’s Palace in the Garden District along with Cafe Adelaide in the Loews New Orleans Hotel in the CBD.
The flagship Brennan’s Restaurant at 417 Royal St., which was opened by the late Owen Edward Brennan, is owned and operated by Owen’s three sons — Pip, Jimmy and Ted.
Dickie Brennan operates the Palace Cafe at 605 Canal St., Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse at 716 Iberville St. in the French Quarter and Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House just off Canal at 144 Bourbon St.
His cousin, Ralph Brennan, operates the Red Fish Grill at 115 Bourbon St. and Ralph’s on the Park at 900 City Park Ave. in a renovated 1860-era building that looks out on the massive live oaks in City Park. Ralph Brennan recently made the decision to close his Italian restaurant, Bacco, in the French Quarter at the end of the year in order to search for a new location. That restaurant opened in 1991.
Mr. B’s Bistro at 201 Royal St. in the French Quarter also is operated by members of the Brennan family.
New Orleans was filled with Irish immigrants when Owen Edward Brennan was born in April 1910 to Owen Patrick Brennan and Nellie Brennan in the Irish Channel area of the city. His younger siblings were Adelaide, John, Ella, Dick and Dottie.
The Brennan’s Restaurant website (www.brennansneworleans.com) tells the story this way: “Throughout his adult life, Owen Edward Brennan was driven by his devotion and an undaunting sense of responsibility to support not only his own wife and three sons but his parents and siblings as well. His father, Owen Patrick Brennan, was a New Orleans foundry laborer, which had made supporting Nellie and their six children very difficult; and so, his eldest son set out to make his fortune.
“Owen’s undertakings and endeavors included buying an interest in a gas station as well as a drugstore and becoming the bookkeeper for a candy company. He worked as a liquor salesman.”
He was the temporary manager of the Court of Two Sisters, a well-known French Quarter restaurant. In September 1943, Owen purchased the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. Located in a building constructed in 1798, the bar billed itself as the “oldest saloon in America.” Owen began what became a tradition of having visitors attach their business cards to the inside walls and even the ceiling.
Let’s let the Brennan’s website pick up the story again: “Owen’s good friend, Count Arnaud, whose restaurant was a popular New Orleans dining spot, allegedly posed a challenge to Owen. Owen would relay complaints overheard at the Absinthe House to offending restaurant owners. To which Count Arnaud replied, ‘You’re forever telling me about the complaints you hear. If you think you can do better, why don’t you open a restaurant?’ At the same time, Count Arnaud taunted that no Irishman could run a restaurant that was more than a hamburger joint. To which Owen responded, ‘All right, you asked for it. I’ll show you and everybody else that an Irishman can run the finest French restaurant in town.’
“In July 1946, Owen Edward Brennan leased the Vieux Carre Restaurant, directly across the street from the Old Absinthe House. He renamed the restaurant for himself, Owen Brennan’s French & Creole Restaurant, and with time it came to be more commonly known as Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre.”
Here’s what Maria Montoya wrote last year in a Times-Picayune feature on Owen’s younger sister: “Ella Brennan was a student at McMain High School when her oldest brother, Owen, bought a restaurant in the French Quarter. The Vieux Carre, it was called, and its food wasn’t much more imaginative than its name.
“‘It was a terrible restaurant,’ Brennan says in her salty way, lolling in a flowery chintz chair in her sumptuous Garden District sunroom. ‘Very limited. Not exciting.’
“The more she griped about it, she remembers, the more her brother challenged her: ‘I was complaining so much that Owen finally asked me: Why don’t you come do something about it, smarty?’ So she did. And by the time she was 18, she was running the place.”
Ella and her sister, Dottie, live next door to Commander’s Palace, and Ella still shows up in the restaurant several times a week.
Tim Zagat, the famed publisher of restaurant guides, said this about Ella Brennan: “There’s nobody who has had a role as dominant in any other city that I’m aware of. I don’t think there’s anybody, even a male. I look at restaurateurs all over the U.S. every day, and I think she’s up there with the best of them — and maybe ahead of any of them.”
Pip Brennan said of his aunt, “If she’s not the best restaurateur in the country, I want to meet the one who’s better.”
Ella considered big brother Owen, who was 15 years older, a hero.
Ella said the Absinthe House was a “very chic bar — I’m telling you chic. Coats and ties. Fats Pichon playing the piano in a tuxedo with a big mirror behind him.”
Owen used the tiny apartment above the bar as a place for friends to stay overnight — Louis Armstrong, Leon Uris, Art Buchwald, Robert Mitchum and other noted musicians, writers and actors.
Owen later leased the building at 417 Royal St. that once had housed the Bank of Louisiana. The year was 1954.
“Owen had big ideas for creating a first-class restaurant there,” Montoya writes. “Although the Vieux Carre ultimately grew into a consequential establishment, he was determined to create something sensational. Brennan’s, he would call it. As usual, the whole family got involved, and the project took on a life of its own. It was exhausting but exhilarating, too: devising the floor plan, laying out the kitchen, selecting the colors, picking out fabrics, creating the menu. It was a heady experience. And then it all came to a shocking stop on Nov. 4, 1955, when Owen Brennan, eldest of the six children, died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 45.”
“Well, Pip and Dick were in the Army and John was in the Navy and Dottie had just gotten married,” Ella told The Times-Picayune. “So I had to open the restaurant. I got that place open by the seat of my pants.”
On Nov. 5, 1973, Owen Brennan’s widow (Maude) and the three sons assumed complete control of Brennan’s Restaurant as the family holdings were split. Ella concentrated on Commander’s Palace, which the family had purchased in 1969.
“The issue of expansion may have been only the tip of the iceberg among the real causes of unrest, unfairness and resentment within the family,” the Brennan’s Restaurant website notes. “… Not until November 1974 was a complete and final agreement reached between the two factions of the family.”
There’s also a Brennan’s in Houston that was destroyed by a fire as Hurricane Ike approached in September 2008. That restaurant still has family connections and reopened on Fat Tuesday this year.
However, the restaurant named Owen’s Brennan’s on Poplar Avenue in east Memphis does not have family connections. The restaurant, which opened in 1990, pays to use the name. Still, I enjoy the occasional meal there. It’s a tradition to eat dinner there after my annual day at the PGA Tour stop in Memphis.
Meanwhile, the Commander’s Palace in Destin, Fla., closed at the end of October. The loss of tourism due to the oil spill was just too much to overcome.
“The unfortunate timing of opening in Destin was simply not something we could control or overcome,” Ella’s daughter, Ti Adelaide, Martin said. “… We have greatly enjoyed our time here in Destin and are still in awe of the breathtaking views of the harbor and the stellar sunsets. Destin will always be our playground. The fine dining market has been devastated in the panhandle of Florida by the recent oil spill.”
Ti Adelaide Martin, with whom I had a wonderful visit one evening soon after Cafe Adelaide had reopened following Hurricane Katrina (Commander’s Palace had not yet reopened), is one of eight cousins still actively involved in the restaurant business. They know what they’re doing, carrying on the legacy of Owen Edward Brennan.