It’s been the backdrop for a drama at the intersection of family and business. It’s been the scene of a massive construction project, with swarms of workers and billowing dust. Now, with Brennan’s Restaurant slated to reopen Tuesday morning, its new owners are hoping the historic culinary destination will finally return to its role as a place for grand New Orleans dining.
“Our goal is to redevelop what I remember about Brennan’s when I was younger, when the customer base was local but also regional,” said Ralph Brennan, who now owns the restaurant with businessman Terry White. “There are people all across the region who came here and came here regularly, and that’s what we want to see again.”
Getting the restaurant at 417 Royal St. ready for the reopening entailed a stem-to-stern renovation, with a dizzying list of details poured into a building that dates to 1795. It also meant hiring an almost entirely new staff of some 150 people and charting a new culinary direction for the menu.
Yet even as the first breakfast at Brennan’s of this new era is served Tuesday, plenty of the heavy lifting needed to reach the owners’ goals still lies ahead.
The challenge is to restart a restaurant that came to a dead stop last year, to reposition it for the next generation of diners and all the while to tap the tradition and heritage that first made Brennan’s one of the iconic names in New Orleans’ dining culture.
It helps that Ralph Brennan has an intimate link to that heritage. Brennan’s was founded by the late Owen E. Brennan, who was Ralph Brennan’s uncle. Until 2013, it was run by Owen’s sons, including Pip Brennan and Ted Brennan.
Ralph Brennan runs six other restaurants through his own company. Although he worked at Brennan’s on Royal Street as a student in the 1960s, he never previously had an ownership stake or management role in the business. The family famously underwent a fractious split in 1973, with one side affiliated with the original Brennan’s Restaurant and the other with the many other Brennan family-run restaurants that would follow.
Last year, with the restaurant company mired in debt, Ralph Brennan and White bought the Royal Street property in a foreclosure auction for $6.85 million. Over the summer, they also acquired the Brennan’s Restaurant business name, logo, wine collection and recipes for $3 million in a bankruptcy sale, setting the stage for a new restaurant to reopen under the same name at the same address.
“I didn’t want the restaurant to disappear, and I felt strongly that some Brennan should have it,” Ralph Brennan said. “I take this very seriously. It’s the responsibility of keeping it going.”
Recasting a classic
However, the new operators have not sought to reopen the old restaurant just as it had been. The approach, from the menu to the décor and design, is to recast touchstones of the former Brennan’s in new ways.
“The philosophy is to keep one foot in the past and plant one in the future for this restaurant,” said Slade Rushing, who was hired over the summer as the restaurant’s executive chef.
Rushing has been working closely on menu development with Haley Bittermann, the longtime executive chef for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. Their menu toes the line between revamped French Creole classics, such as eggs Benedict with house-made ham and English muffins, and decidedly contemporary dishes, such as yellowtail crudo and lobster with a barbecued-shrimp-style sauce.
Breakfast will have more of the traditional dishes, while dinner will hew closer to the modern.
The restaurant was long famous for its courtyard, the preferred perch for its decadent (and often boozy) breakfast service when weather permitted. Now, the reconfigured first floor gives views straight from newly installed Royal Street windows across the dining room to the courtyard, offering passersby a glimpse of the picturesque space and, according to Brennan, “bringing some of the energy of Royal Street inside.”
Brennan’s also was long acclaimed for its wine cellar, an award-winning collection that once boasted 35,000 bottles. Beverage director Drew Brandwein is now rebuilding that collection, starting with a base of some 7,500 bottles today. In a new move, the restaurant will open its “cellar” — actually a climate-controlled, ground-level outbuilding — to guests, offering private dining between the wine racks.
Starting with 1795
“It’s about layers. We started with what was here in 1795 and built on that,” said Charlee Williamson, executive vice president of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. “This whole business is about details. That’s what differentiates you, what people will remember you for.”
White said the undertaking lasted longer and cost more than expected, explaining that “we stopped counting” the price tag for the acquisition and renovation after the total hit $20 million. But he said he feels gratified by the outcome so far.
“I think people will see what went into this in the details. We didn’t get into this to turn around and sell it; this is something we’re in for the long haul,” White said. “I think this restaurant can stand with the greatest restaurants in the world.”
The full scope of the new Brennan’s is still taking shape. Construction delays repeatedly pushed back an original September target date for the opening. So Ralph Brennan finally set a firm date to open — Tuesday — even though renovations are not complete.
In fact, the restaurant has hosted private dining events throughout November, including a traditional annual dinner for the Rex organization, with guests ushered past scenes of heavy construction downstairs to the then-mostly finished upstairs rooms.
Brennan’s will serve breakfast and lunch only until Dec. 5, when dinner will join the schedule. The restaurant also will close on Mondays during December to give contractors one full day per week to finish their work.
Just three blocks away
This isn’t the only Brennan’s reinvention in the works.
The former operators of Brennan’s Restaurant — those evicted from their family restaurant after the foreclosure sale last year — are moving forward with plans to open their own new restaurant three blocks away. Ted Brennan Sr. and his immediate family are developing Ted Brennan’s Decatur at 309 Decatur St., which they expect will open in March or April. Lazone Randolph, the last chef at the former Brennan’s Restaurant, will lead the kitchen at Ted Brennan’s Decatur.
This branch of the family has pledged to offer the character and flavors of the old Brennan’s at this new location, even as Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street forges ahead with a more contemporary approach.
But for Ralph Brennan, Tuesday’s restaurant opening signifies more than a new business venture. It’s the continuation, by other means, of a family legacy with which he grew up.
And it’s one in which his own immediate family now plays an integral part as well. His daughter Katherine Brennan, 29, works the front of the house at Brennan’s Restaurant, while his son Patrick, 27, works as a line cook under Rushing.
“I told them when we got the (restaurant) name, it means you have to work that much harder,” Ralph Brennan said of his children. “You have to live up to it and live up to the expectations people will bring here.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.