The kings and queens of New Orleans cuisine

We live in an era when chefs transform themselves into media celebrities. They have television shows, produce books and even appear in movies.

Long before that was the trend nationwide, though, restaurateurs (owners, not necessarily chefs) were stars in food-crazed New Orleans. They remain stars to this day.

Consider Count Arnaud Cazenave (a title he bestowed on himself, by the way), who founded in 1918 what’s still one of the city’s most famous restaurants. During Prohibition, the Count was known for ensuring that patrons still had a good time.

The restaurant’s website (www.arnaudsrestaurant.com) describes it this way: “Stories emanated on a nightly basis about what went on at Arnaud’s as its patrons pursued their sensual pleasures. Some of the gossip still circulates after 80 or more years. Many good tales from the early days concern Arnaud’s various circumventions of Prohibition. It was Arnaud’s misfortune to have opened a restaurant a year before the Volstead Act went through. Arnaud, like most Orleanians, believed that wine and spirits are natural companions of good food and good living. The fact that they were illegal seemed a detail.

“For example: A businessman brought an associate to Arnaud’s for lunch one hot day. As soon as he was seated, he told the waiter to bring two cups of coffee. ‘Coffee?’ asked the lunch companion. ‘I don’t want to start a meal with coffee.’

“‘Yes you do,’ insisted his host. ‘You can’t get this kind of coffee anywhere else.’ Throughout the ’20s, liquor flowed freely at Arnaud’s but always under cover of hard-to-find private rooms, mysterious back bars and coffee cups.

“Nevertheless, the law finally caught up with the Count. He was imprisoned, and the restaurant padlocked for a time. Ultimately, he won the jury over with a convincing explanation of his philosophy. He was acquitted in time for the end of Prohibition. The Count turned his infamy into promotion for his restaurant, and the golden age of Arnaud’s was under way.”

The Count’s daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells, became a celebrity in her own right, though she allowed the restaurant to decline.

“Everywhere she went, newspaper stories followed, always including accolades for Arnaud’s,” the website states. “Her greatest public relations triumphs had Arnaud’s included among convincing lists of the world’s five greatest restaurants: first in a Paris newspaper, then in a celebration of the 2,000th birthday of Paris held in New York. To Germaine, the inclusion of Arnaud’s was natural.

“‘After all,’ she said, ‘New Orleans is the Paris of the South.’ In New Orleans, a city full of characters, she achieved one-name status. During the ’50s and ’60s (and still among people of a certain age), if you referred to Germaine, everyone knew who you were talking about.”

It should come as no surprise that the colorful Germaine would choose to sell the restaurant to someone she considered colorful — Archie Casbarian.

“Casbarian was hardly the first person to approach Germaine with an offer to buy the restaurant,” the website explains. “But she saw the transaction not as selling a business but as abdicating a throne. Only the threat of impending financial ruin forced her hand. The choice of Archie Casbarian as the man to keep Arnaud’s alive turned on a set of odd coincidences that appealed to Germaine’s sense of drama. Archie Casbarian had the same initials as her father. Both men loved good cigars, handsome clothes, fine wines, Cognac and telling an amusing story. Both were born overseas, and both spoke French fluently. They were about the same height. In fact, Germaine thought that Archie looked a lot like her father.”

When Casbarian took over, almost all of the dining rooms in the Arnaud’s complex had been closed. Fortunately, he restored the old place.

Another restaurateur who knew how to attract attention while courting the rich and famous was Owen Edward Brennan, the man we wrote about in the previous post on the Brennan family and its many restaurants.

“Owen’s ready wit, radiant smile and infectious laugh endeared him to locals, Hollywood celebrities and tourists alike,” according to the website www.brennansneworleans.com. “He was so very kind to so many people and was genuinely loved in return. As the famous novelist and syndicated columnist Robert Ruark once wrote about his good friend, ‘If he had a fault, it was his generosity.’ Owen was full of energy and possessed an incredible imagination; and all was reflected in Brennan’s success.

“Owen was known in Hollywood movie circles and entertained some of the brightest stars in his French Quarter restaurant — Vivian Leigh, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, Jane Russell and Tennessee Williams, to name a few. For national magazine writers and syndicated columnists, such as Earl Wilson, Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Dorothy Kilgallen, Robert Ruark and Lucius Beebe, Brennan’s was oftentimes the first stop on assignments to cover New Orleans. As a result, many stories were written of Owen’s life and success in the restaurant business in national publications.”

Owen Brennan was intrigued by Frances Parkinson Keyes’ 1948 mystery novel “Dinner At Antoine’s.” He decided to make “breakfast at Brennan’s” equally as famous as dinner at Antoine’s.

In an article last year for The Times-Picayune, Maria Montoya wrote this about Owen: “Good-looking and gregarious with natural-born savvy, he became one of the French Quarter’s favorite gadabouts, earning his reputation first as proprietor of the Old Absinthe House and later the Vieux Carre, eventually joining the ranks of such storied local restaurateurs as Roy Alciatore and Count Arnaud.”

Owen’s younger sister, Ella, also became adept at courting the rich and famous.

After her brother’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1955, Ella made Brennan’s Restaurant famous nationwide.

“Brennan’s quickly became one of the hottest restaurants in America,” Montoya writes. “… While the more traditional French Quarter restaurants had guest lists taken from the social register, Brennan’s catered to the business, media and professional crowd. The men wore suits and ties; the women wore dresses and high heels. There were frequently celebrities around. And everyone was table-hopping.

“Clay Shaw, Ella Brennan’s close friend, came to the restaurant on a memorable occasion, after he was accused but before he was exonerated in an off-the-wall investigation of his alleged link to President Kennedy’s assassination. Brennan, ever loyal, borrowed a red carpet from the Royal Orleans and had it waiting for him when he arrived at the front door. A lot of high rollers in town had tables permanently reserved there for lunch, Monday through Friday.”

After Ella Brennan divorced Paul Martin in 1970, she moved in with her sister Adelaide in a five-bedroom home on Prytania Street in the Garden District.

Ella’s daughter, Ti, was 9 at the time.

“They entertained lavishly,” Ti told The Times-Picayune when asked about her mother and aunt. “You just never knew who was going to be there. There was a grand cast of local characters — and then entertainers coming to town, they’d always be invited. Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye. Raymond Burr was Uncle Raymond to us. Rock Hudson was there many times — nice man. Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Carol Channing, Susan Hayward, Jane Russell, Helen Hayes. I don’t know anybody who lived like we did.”

Montoya writes: “Adelaide never stirred before noon and rarely left the house before 3 o’clock. When she was entertaining, she always made a dramatic entrance (a little late), descending the staircase regally, dressed to kingdom come, with a cigarette holder propped in her hand. She was either beautiful, according to one observer, or had the aura of being beautiful. Either way, it worked.”

Ti told the newspaper: “Everybody would be wondering what she would wear tonight. It was never tacky, somehow, as outlandish as it was. Always in great taste and style, but just way out there. Aunt Adelaide’s idea of casual was no sequins.”

Adelaide died in 1983 of cancer. Shortly after that, Ella moved into a house next to Commander’s Palace with her other sister, Dottie.

Commander’s Place opened in 1880. The Brennan family bought it in 1969 and began actively managing it in 1974.

It’s one of the nation’s great restaurants in a town known for great food and true characters.

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7 Responses to “The kings and queens of New Orleans cuisine”

  1. Rex, I just have a small tale: when my daughter was just 2 or 3, we spent some time in NOLA for the first time. Stayed in a small in the Quarter. Called one day for reservations that night at Antoine’s. When I asked whether there would be a problem with a wee one – past high chair stage but still needing a booster – the maitre d’ responded, \Monsieur, ‘ow could we discriminate against our patrons, based on age? It would not only be illegal, it would be unacceptable!\ From the moment we arrived, they treated Marin like a princess, lavished her with attention. I cannot recall a single course I ate or wine I drank that night, I was simple spellbound by the service. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anything close to that level of service since. That’s one reason New Orleans live sin my heart.

  2. rexnelson says:

    Great story, Jack. You always remember people who were kind to your children. I’m lucky in so many ways — one of those ways is that my parents never hesitated to take me to nice restaurants with them. In researching the story on the Brennan family, I was fascinated to learn that Ella Brennan purchased the Friendship House in Biloxi in 1963. The restaurant is no longer there, but it was my favorite when we would go to Biloxi on summer vacation. I had no idea it was owned by the Brennans. It was the first place I ever ate raw oysters. I love raw oysters to this day — Rex

  3. jc says:

    really great story Rex. would love to tweet a link to this. can you clarify one thing though?

    This line, near the end, seems like it may have a typo in the dates:

    ———–
    Commander’s Place opened in 1980. The Brennan family bought it in 1969 and began actively managing it in 1974.
    ———–

    Thanks!

  4. rexnelson says:

    Correction made to reflect the restaurant has been around since 1880.

    Thanks so much for catching that — Rex

  5. That’s a great point you open with about how restauranteurs used to be the stars, not the chefs. While I have no complaint about today’s emphasis on the quality and originality of the food, the focus on the chef has certainly made hospitality and service take a backseat. The old-school restauranteurs could truly take a dinner and make it into an event to remember.

  6. Ron Oliver says:

    Rex, I really enjoy your blog. Particularly enjoyed the stories about New Orleans, my favorite city.

  7. rexnelson says:

    Thanks so much, Ron. New Orleans is a special place for a lot of us — Rex

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