Commander’s Palace and the birth of a New Orleans culinary landmark
First of all, yes, there really was someone named Commander: Emile Commander. His father, Pietro Camarda, chose the American-sounding surname when he emigrated to New Orleans from the Italian island of Ustica in 1852. In January 1893, Emile Commander opened a saloon and restaurant at Washington Avenue and Coliseum Street in the building that would become Commander’s Palace Restaurant. According to a newspaper advertisement at the time, the saloon offered “bayou cook oysters” at 10 cents per dozen.
The Brennan family bought the restaurant in 1969. Under the leadership of Ella Brennan, the family matriarch, Commander’s Palace has become an incubator of culinary talent for chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, Frank Brigtsen, Anne Kearney, Greg and Mary Sonnier, and Tory McPhail.
- Pay no attention to the plaque on the building and the inscription in the lobby’s tile floor that say the restaurant was built in 1880. Although that date had been repeated for years, the local historian Tonya Jordan found that the opening date was 1893.
- The plaque and lobby tile won’t be removed or altered, but the restaurant’s owners commemorated the blooper with a cocktail called the Oops, a mixture of Maker’s Mark, Grand Marnier, fresh lime juice, Peychaud’s Bitters and a dash of Cherry Heering.
- With its balcony and turret, the restaurant already stood out when the Brennans took over. To make sure people noticed it, Ella Brennan had the façade painted aqua. Helm Paint offers that shade, which it calls “Commander’s Blue.”
- Just weeks after Hurricane Katrina tore off the restaurant’s roof in August 2005, Hurricane Rita soaked the exposed interior and went into the walls. Because of the extensive damage, renovations took 13 months and cost $6.5 million.
- While Commander’s was closed, its owners — Ella, Dottie and Lally Brennan, and Ti Adelaide Martin — hung a banner on the aqua-and-white-striped awning bearing their names and this line, a variation on a popular song: “We know what it means …”
- The crème brûlée features a fleur-de-lis in the center, a sign of New Orleans’ post-Katrina rebirth.
- In addition to her memoir, Ella Brennan is the subject of a documentary, “Commanding the Table,” by Leslie Iwerks, which is available for streaming on Netflix.
- The James Beard Foundation, which bestows what are regarded as the Oscars of the food industry, has given six awards to Commander’s Palace, including prizes for Outstanding Restaurant (1996), Outstanding Service (1993), the chefs Jamie Shannon (1999) and Tory McPhail (2013), and Ella Brennan, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
The restaurant, a magnet for all sorts of special events, offers what it calls haute Creole cuisine, a combination of standards such as turtle soup and gumbo and creations such as shrimp and tasso Henican and plantain-crusted fish that seem to merge Creole and Cajun cultures. It’s a dress-up place in the Garden District, but there’s an emphasis on fun, complete with balloons and bands, which comes from Ella Brennan herself. The cover of her memoir, which she wrote with her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin, bears this quotation that sums up her philosophy: “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.”