Ella Brennan was a giant among restaurateurs in New Orleans as was her reputation for establishing and running one of this country’s most renowned culinary institutions, Commander’s Palace. She died this past week at age 92 leaving her daughter, Ti, and niece, Lally, to carry on the reputation of operating the prestigious restaurant located on the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the Garden District of New Orleans.
Indeed, Commander’s has become part of my own tradition since my husband and I started going to New Orleans 17 years ago. We originally went to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We’ve returned year after year for a winter-break. Usually, we only stay a week, but it’s been enough time for us to become very familiar with the city and its outlying area, to make some very good friends and to sample lots of good food all over the city in its too many to mention restaurants.
Every year, however, Commander’s is at the top of our list as the way we start our visit. It has become our personal tradition to make the Garden District restaurant our first stop for Sunday jazz brunch. Without brunch at Commander’s I honestly don’t know how to begin our trip. There have been a couple of years when I failed to phone early enough (a month in advance is advised) to book our table and no reservation was available. Fortunately, Jimmy, the reservation agent who I’ve come to know over the years, told me to call back a few days before our given Sunday because often there will be an opening. When I did, as I had to do this year, we’ve managed to get in. I have been so thankful for this accommodation on these times that I now take a little box of chocolates for Jimmy in gratitude.
What makes Commander’s so special is not only the delicious Creole-style food served on its menu (recently updated by current executive chef Tory McPhail who hails from nearby Ferndale, WA.), but its impeccable service, lovely surroundings, fun, relaxing atmosphere, the jazz music played while you eat and Southern hospitality shown by its owners, Ella, her sister Dottie, and the aforementioned Ti and Lally. Whenever Ti and Lally are in-house, they tend to alternate shifts, they make it a point to walk through their dining rooms to greet and check on their customers, whether or not they know them.
I’ve had wonderful conversations with them both over the years, had the chance to introduce them to friends who’ve joined us for the meal and to tell them time and again how much I love their restaurant. I have celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and Carnival with friends and family there, just as many New Orleanians do. I’ve seen parties of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who’ve come in after church, all wearing a single strand of pearls, to celebrate a special occasion. I’ve enjoyed overhearing excited chats by tables of tourists experiencing Commanders for the first time. And I’ve had the immense pleasure of taking my own friends and family their for their first meal.
Ella Brennan’s restaurant is more than just a place to eat fine food, it’s a place where these sort of traditions are established and carried on by generations of patrons, for whom, like myself, life or a visit in New Orleans is unheard of without Commander’s.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, leaving considerable damage to Commander’s as well as the rest of the Garden District, largely due to the high force winds, people wondered if Commander’s would re-open. For the Brennan ladies in charge, there apparently was no question. They took the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild and renovate. It took them more than a year.
I walked by the winter after the storm to find it all boarded up. But then I returned the following year when it was back in business, listened to Lally as she described to me the full extent of the restoration and relished in the fact that it, like New Orleans, was resilient and determined to get back on its feet, despite a lack of support from some in government. That was the year that I talked with the group of women sitting at the table next to me, heard their ‘storm stories’ and learned that their Episcopal church had been the recipient of recovery funds from the Episcopalian diocese in Washington state. Their gratitude was touching.
Typically, I ask for a table in the dining area overlooking Commander’s tree-covered courtyard because I feel more like a ‘local’ there and enjoy sitting at eye-level with the big, gnarly branches of the Southern oak that stretches over it. The chairs are cushioned and tables are arranged with plenty of room between for the jazz trios that play during brunch (one usually cruises downstairs while a second plays upstairs) to maneuver their instruments, including a stand-up bass, between to play requests. Every now and then, diners are coaxed into a joining a ‘second line’to wave their napkins as they wind through the dining room.
The menu is extensive and all of it tasty. I tend to order the breakfast entrees, rather than the luncheon selections, whenever we go but had the pecan-crusted gulf fish this year instead of my favorite Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict. Of course you must order a ‘starter’ to begin–the turtle soup is always popular as is the gumbo but I usually opt for a seasonal salad, quite often topped with fresh, local strawberries. I always save room for dessert because Commander’s creole bread pudding soufflé with whiskey cream sauce is not to be missed! It’s a once a year splurge that I’m not willing to pass up. And to drink, a Bloody Mary or Mimosa followed by chicory coffee for those, unlike me, who consume coffee.
While the food is wonderful, it’s the little touches that make the meal even more memorable–fresh, crusty French bread laid on the table in a wrapped white linen napkin nearly as soon as you sit down; bus boys and girls who refill your water the instant the level drops much below two-thirds of a glass; the simultaneous serving of each course by the black and white attired wait staff; the cheery, welcome by the maitre d’ the minute you step in the door and of course the personal table visits by the owners.
After eating, I enjoy strolling through the rest of the restaurant, including a stop in the spacious and sparkling clean kitchen (the swinging doors leading into it are labeled “Yes” and “No”) where you can watch the amazing cook staff in action. There is even a table in the kitchen where diners can sit and watch the show if you reserve it.
If it’s Carnival season, as it was this year when I was in town, you’re invited to go watch the parades moving along St. Charles Street just a few blocks away and welcome to return to Commander’s for the toilet should the need arise. Or, if not, we wander through the historic neighborhood, admiring the elegant, old homes there, which include Miss Brennan’s herself located right next door to the restaurant. If someone is with us who has never visited the city before, we walk through the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, across the street, the oldest city-operated cemetery where the tombs are above-ground and the statuary and inscriptions represent New Orleans’ rich history.
For me, Commander’s is the consummate culinary experience with outstanding food, unsurpassed service and Southern hospitality at its finest. These are the qualities that Ella Brennan insisted be carried out in her beloved restaurant. They are standards to which other eating establishments throughout the U.S. have aspired to achieve as a result. Whether or not you’ve ever been to Commander’s it’s possible that you’ve eaten somewhere that has been influenced by her example.
If you’ve not yet been to the New Orleans restaurant, I hope you’ll consider making it part of your visit when you go. But be forewarned, it still maintains a dress code that is enforced although it’s been relaxed some in recent years. I guarantee it will be a culinary experience you’ll not forget and it might become, as it has for us, a new tradition.