Richard J. “Dick” Brennan Sr., a restaurateur who with his family owned and managed some of the city’s most celebrated dining establishments, died Saturday at his home in New Orleans. He was 83.
Along with his siblings, he was instrumental in the transformation of Commander’s Palace into the definitive modern Creole restaurant of its generation, beginning in the 1970s.
With his family, he would later open a string of restaurants, including Mr. B’s Bistro and — with his children Dickie Brennan Jr. and Lauren Brennan Bower — Palace Café and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
Brennan’s imprint on New Orleans culture extended well past his upscale dining rooms and bustling kitchens. With his nephew Pip Brennan, he helped create the Krewe of Bacchus, which ushered in a new era for “superkrewes” as part of Carnival when the lavish parade first rolled in 1969.
Brennan also helped form the organization that is today the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. He was the first member of his family to serve as president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and he served multiple terms on the board of the National Restaurant Association.
“His mark is felt throughout the city of New Orleans, a testament to a life well lived,” said New Orleans chef Frank Brigtsen, who worked for Dick Brennan early in this career at Commander’s Palace.
Born in the Irish Channel in 1930, Brennan was the second youngest of six children. At St. Aloysius High School, he distinguished himself on the basketball court, and he was recruited by the legendary University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp. But Brennan opted to stay close to home to be near his ailing mother and attended Tulane University, playing for coach Cliff Wells. His success on the court would earn him a place in the Tulane Athletic Hall of Fame.
During college Brennan’s sister, Dottie, introduced him to the young woman who would become his wife of nearly 60 years, Lynne Trist Brennan. They married after graduation.
Brennan began studying for a law degree at Tulane, then enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Georgia and Virginia. He returned home to New Orleans with the intention of finishing his studies when, in 1955, a family tragedy changed the course of his career.
In the 1940s, Brennan’s older brother, Owen E. Brennan, had opened the restaurant that launched the family’s legacy in hospitality and Creole cuisine, Brennan’s Restaurant. When Owen Brennan died unexpectedly at age 45, Dick Brennan left Tulane to help run the family restaurant.
Brennan’s Restaurant became renowned during this era, and through the 1960s and early ’70s the family expanded by opening new restaurants in Houston, Atlanta and Dallas and taking over the Friendship House restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi.
By 1973, however, the family suffered a fractious split, with one branch keeping Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street and another branch coalescing around Commander’s Palace, which Dick Brennan and his siblings John, Adelaide, Ella and Dottie purchased that year.
Though the Garden District restaurant already was considered a local landmark, it was here that Dick Brennan and his siblings began nurturing different ideas for Creole cuisine. Brennan himself worked closely with Paul Prudhomme after the soon-to-be-famous chef joined the Commander’s Palace staff in 1975.
They developed dishes that would become modern classics, like pecan-crusted Gulf fish. He would work just as closely with Prudhomme’s successor as top chef at Commander’s Palace — Emeril Lagasse, who went on to build his own restaurant empire.
Dick Brennan also is credited with introducing jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace as a way to attract more business as his family revived the restaurant. The festive, musical meal service remains a fixture of the Commander’s Palace brand and was replicated by many other restaurants.
Brennan also was an early champion of California wines, including them on his wine list before this was common practice at local high-end restaurants.
As Commander’s Palace took off, Dick Brennan helped his family open Mr. B’s Bistro in the French Quarter in 1979. In partnership with his son and daughter, Dickie Brennan Jr. and Lauren Brennan Bower, he opened Palace Café in 1992, transforming the historic Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street, and later they opened Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse around the corner on Iberville Street.
His children and their partners eventually added to the family restaurant portfolio with Bourbon House and Tableau, which was part of the redevelopment of Le Petit Theatre on Jackson Square.
Menus at these restaurants have long included tributes to Dick Brennan’s culinary innovation and tastes — including the addition of local bowfin caviar to raw oysters at Bourbon House and a strip steak crusted with Creole seasoning at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
In addition to his two children, Brennan had six grandchildren, and many of his family members were with him when he died Saturday.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Editor’s note: This story was updated March 16 to correct Brennan’s age at the time of his death.