Update, 11 a.m. Tuesday:
Palace Cafe officially reopened Oct. 12 after an extensive renovation. The modern Creole menu is a mix of familiar house specialties and more seasonal dishes, while there’s a new lounge on the second floor with a dedicated kitchen preparing charcuterie (from lamb prosciutto to smoked turkey neck rillettes) and small plates (like boudin stuffed meat pies and smoked tuna blini). Palace Cafe serves dinner nightly, breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday and brunch Saturday and Sunday.
There’s usually a vigorous bustle at Palace Café, where on normal days waiters whisk plates of oyster pan roast and andouille-crusted fish around the sinuous central staircase, elevators shuttle diners between the upper floors and thick glass panes frame views of the kitchen’s inner workings.
But this week, Palace Cafe (605 Canal St., 504-523-1661) is a different kind of busy as the finish line nears for a major revamp, by far the most significant since restaurateur Dickie Brennan and his partners first opened this Creole brasserie in 1991. Closed since mid-August for the work, the restaurant is expected to officially reopen next week, though a precise date is still pending.
While fresh paint and new fixtures now gleam, this multi-million dollar project is no mere cosmetic touch up. Instead, it represents a rethinking of how a long-running Creole restaurant can relate to current dining tastes and trends, and it also reflects a new perspective on how a restaurant group develops both its menus and its talent.
“We started with the idea of a new kitchen,” said Brennan, who owns Palace Café with his sister, Lauren Brennan Brower, and business partner, Steve Pettus. “But dining has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and when we got talking about what we really could do here, there were more directions we could go.”
That was the kind of thinking that led to Palace Café in the first place. Brennan and Brower both grew up working at their family’s landmark restaurant Commander’s Palace and its related Mr. B’s Bistro, which their late father, Dick Brennan Sr., co-founded. Palace Café was intended to be the next generation’s read on the Creole dining experience, Brower said, and that evolution is continuing today.
“We’re not necessarily changing what Palace Café is, we’re taking it to the next level,” she said.
Tasting and Training
Palace Café regulars will recognize the layout downstairs, with its corner bar, deep booths and soaring ceilings. They’ll also recognize the contours of the menu, which as before is a mix of enduring signatures (crabmeat cheesecake, catfish pecan meuniere, white chocolate bread pudding) and dishes that change with the season (some examples for the fall reopening: paneed pork chop with fennel and apple salad, rock shrimp salad with fried garlic, short rib Benedict for brunch and an extensive new charcuterie menu).
The renovation’s most evident difference is on the second floor, where a dining room has been converted to a lounge and bar. There’s a menu for small plates, space for live music and a focus on rum that’s as intensive as the bourbon specialty at Brennan’s nearby Bourbon House. The lounge will debut with about 130 different rums, plus about 40 tequilas.
The drinks program was inspired by the ties between New Orleans and Latin America, Brennan said, while bar seating and the lounge menu are aimed at more casual visits.
“People used to come to a restaurant for lunch or for dinner, but now I think about half the time people are coming to sit at the bar, to have drinks and something to eat, without feeling like it’s a formal meal,” he said.
Behind the scenes, changes are more extensive still, which are in step with Dickie Brennan & Co.’s new chef-in-residence program. Last spring, Brennan’s company assembled a team of veteran chefs to serve in training, mentoring and menu development roles. The roster includes Gunter Preuss, longtime chef/owner of Broussard’s; the French master chef Rene Bajeux, and Robert Gurvich, who is also directly supervising Palace Café menu development. They joined Darin Nesbit and Gus Martin, two longtime members of the company’s culinary staff. Together, they run specialized programs called “centers of excellence” around areas like butchery, stocks and sauces and purchasing and receiving, open to promising culinary talent across the company.
The Palace Café renovations included a dedicated charcuterie kitchen, run by Bajeux to train staff in this specialty craft and supply each of the Dickie Brennan & Co. restaurants with its delicacies (some examples from Palace Cafe’s new charcuterie menu: lamb prosciutto and merguez, smoked shrimp sausage, octopus head cheese, smoked redfish rillettes, cured goat shoulder and venison salami).
Meanwhile, the main kitchen has been remodeled from stem to stern. It’s been engineered for better efficiency, from its mechanical systems to a new kitchen management system, a suite of software and displays designed to better coordinate the flow of dishes and courses out to diners. And this new kitchen was also designed with in-house instruction in mind.
“I think it sends a message to the people who work here or who want to work here. It’s about creating a real professional environment, a teaching environment,” said Pettus. “You have the talent, you have the facility, it all fits together to give customers the experience they want.”
A Team Together
The renovation project offered some hands-on lessons in staff development. With Palace Café out of commission for nearly two months, managers were concerned about keeping the restaurant’s staff of 130 people on board.
“We didn’t want to lose them because that would change who and what we are and what brought us to the point where we could do this in the first place,” said Levi Janssen, general manager of Palace Café.
The company opened more opportunities for staff to work at its three other nearby restaurants, some of which expanded their schedules to accommodate more shifts. More work came from other departments across the restaurant group, and staff training was intensified.
Many employees also worked on the renovation itself, with waiters, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers completing construction jobs in their restaurant outside the contractors’ scope of work.
The effort has paid off, Janssen said. Nearly all of his pre-renovation staff will be back when Palace Café reopens, and he thinks they’ll return with gusto.
“You can hear how connected our people feel to this project when they talk about it now,” he said. “They literally had a hand in it and are part of it. They’re ready to open, they’re ready to come home.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.