Commander’s Palace is a neighborhood restaurant in the way that New Orleans is an American city.
Although true, there is nowhere else like either. A massive mansion adjacent to an ancient cemetery and traditional double-gallery-style houses, its misfit look has been called “Victorian Cuckoo.” Its big, boisterous exterior, painted unapologetically bright aqua, alludes to what’s inside.
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The daughter of a New Orleans restaurant dynasty, Ella Brennan said she didn’t want a restaurant where a jazz band couldn’t come marching through. Ambitious, especially for a female restaurateur in 1974 (ambitious even today), “Miss Ella” made it happen—and did so while mentoring some of the first celebrity chefs, including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Together, they built a restaurant where world-class service and 25-cent-martini lunches went together like shrimp and tasso ham.
Commander’s might be a 12,000-square-foot cathedral to Creole and Cajun terroir, but Ella and her chefs didn’t cloister it to one social strata; nor did they consider the menu sacrosanct. Change was the only constant throughout her more than-30-year tenure in the restaurant business.
Nowin the hands of her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin; niece Lally Brennan; and executive chef Tory McPhail, nothing yet everything has changed.
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Hurricane Katrina brought a sizable renovation. McPhail’s menu still bends the definition of Creole. The restaurant remains so beloved that fans have written clauses in their wills calling for loved ones to enjoy a meal at Commander’s in their honor. “We’re part of special moments in people’s lives, and it gives us energy,” says Martin. “Lally and I always say, ‘We may hold the keys to Commander’s, but it belongs to New Orleans.’ ”