The South's Best Restaurant 2019: Commander's Palace
From the twenty-five cent martini jazz brunches to the Bananas Foster Flambé, the hallmarks of Commander’s Palace are known around the world, but the story of the woman who created them less so.
Miss Ella Brennan, Commander’s founder, passed away last May, but her legacy endures as one of the most indelible in a city known for its characters. Brennan started working in her brother’s restaurants right out of high school, and naturally took to life in pressure cooker kitchens and late nights in the French Quarter. “Some girls went to finishing school. I went to Lafitte’s,” she once said of the late nights she spent talking to the tavern’s bohemian regulars. She and her older sister Adelaide embarked on reinventing Commander’s Palace in 1969 and set off a sea change in the city’s culinary culture. She not only hired Paul Prudhomme and later a then 23-year-old Emeril Lagasse to lead Commander’s kitchens, but she also revolutionized the hospitality industry as a woman restaurateur when there were hardly any to speak of (and still aren’t enough). Stationed in the middle of the kitchen, parading (literally) between tables with a full brass band, or directing the day’s work from the restaurant’s lush, palm flocked courtyard, she never sat courtside.
The Commander’s name may not have been eponymous to start, but Brennan became it. Her trailblazing career had become more appreciated right before her death with the memoir she co-wrote with her daughter Ti Martin and the documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table produced by filmmaker Leslie Iwerks. But it lives on most palpably through Martin and Brennan’s niece Lally Brennan who now manage Commander’s Palace and keep her ethos alive in every dining room and on every balloon-topped table. “Mom believed you have an absolute obligation to be everything you can be,” says Martin, “And you’re not going to be happy unless you do that.”