New Orleans is well known for its Creole interpretation of French cuisine, but the most famous name in the New Orleans food world is neither Creole nor French. The Brennan family, of Irish descent, is credited with creating a culinary tradition regarded by many as the epitome of New Orleans fine dining. Famed New Orleans chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse both launched their careers working for the Brennan family. The invention of Jazz Brunch and Bananas Foster are also credited to the family.
The legacy began in 1946 in New Orleans with one restaurant; Brennan’s. Owen Brennan, the eldest of six was the owner/operator of the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon street. On what some say was a dare or at the least a challenge, he purchased the French Quarter restaurant the Vieux Carre. It was a family affair with all the siblings lending a hand in the operation – Ella, Dick, Adelaide, Dottie, and John. The affable family cultivated a clientele of influential locals and visitors, including celebrities all the while pushing the envelope of Creole cuisine.
In 1955, while the Brennans were relocating the Vieux Carré to a larger space on Royal Street, Owen died of a heart attack at 45. The Brennan siblings took the reigns to carry out their brother’s vision for the new restaurant, which by all accounts, ushered in a new age for fine dining in the South. Brennan’s (which it was renamed to) became the embodiment of New Orleans joie de vivre, with an extensive wine cellar, antiques, and food that continued to stretch the boundaries of traditional French-Creole cuisine. Word spread across the country of the restaurant, especially of its boozy, multi-course breakfasts.
In 1973 the siblings separated from Owen’s heirs and pursued operating Commander’s Palace, a sprawling Garden District restaurant they purchased in 1969. In essence, they were starting over and needed to create new traditions. One of the new traditions came in the form of Jazz Brunch. Dickie Brennan, his sister Lauren and his cousins were sent on the streetcar to hand out flyers in the French Quarter introducing Jazz Brunch. The idea was the brain child of Dickie’s father, Dick Brennan, Sr. His thought was to marry two of the New Orleans most favorite things – music and food (and drink). Their hopes for the first Jazz Brunch were maybe a 50 people, but the number of guests far exceeded their expectations, with more than 100 people in attendance. From that day on it became a tradition that has been copied around New Orleans and the world.
Also during this time, the family spent a lot of time traveling, with the purpose of learning and bringing back new ideas to New Orleans. They became good friends with James Beard (the father of American cuisine). Historically, the Brennan’s had celebrated French chefs helm their kitchens, but there was a shift towards regional American cuisine and the family decided to take a chance on a little known Cajun chef, Paul Prudhomme, and the risk was worth it. Chef Prudhomme became famous for his use of seasoning and his layers of flavor, further pushing the envelope of Creole/Cajun and redefining fine dining cuisine in New Orleans.
As the Brennan siblings own children became of age they were all fully indoctrinated in the restaurant business learning all aspects of the business. Today they continue the legacy with separate branches of the family operating 18 restaurants. Thirteen of these are located in New Orleans and nine in the French Quarter. Dickie Brennan is responsible for four of the French Quarter restaurants: Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Palace Cafe, Bourbon House and Tableau. Dickie Brennan is the only member of the family to have held the position “Executive Chef” and his culinary aptitude is evident through the many accolades his restaurants have received, including “Best Steakhouses in the United States” Travel + Leisure and “Best New Restaurants in America” Esquire.