History is everywhere at Brennan’s. Walk past the pink facade at 417 Royal Street, through the Champagne and Sazerac-fueled bar, the garden dining room that has served thousands of plates of Eggs Sardou and Bananas Foster, and you’ll find the restaurant’s wine cellar. The small brick building was the carriage house when this was a classic French Quarter home. Lining the wall of the rickety old wooden staircase to the second floor are gleaming plaques—Wine Spectator Grand Awards the restaurant won from 1983 to 2005.
In the fall of 2005, though, this wine cellar was empty, its heart torn out. The thousands of bottles of wine the restaurant had acquired over decades had been ruined after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures knocked out power, cooking the wine as it lay on the shelves.
But the Brennan family had been knocked down and bounced back before. And this year, Brennan’s is a Grand Award winner once again, offering some of the highest level of wine service in the world. A new plaque is ready to go up.
“It was always our goal to get [the award] back,” says Ralph Brennan, the restaurant’s co-owner. “We’ve been trying to get the wine program back to what it once was from the moment we took over.”
Brennan’s story is a drama worthy of New Orleans. The restaurant was the brainchild of Owen Brennan, the eldest of six kids in an Irish Channel family. In the early 1950s, Owen ran the Old Absinthe House bar and the Vieux Carre restaurant with the help of his parents, his kid sister Ella and his four other siblings. When his lease was up, Owen decided to open a fine-dining restaurant around the corner on Royal Street.
But Owen died of a heart attack six months before Brennan’s grand opening, so Ella and the other Brennans—Adelaide, John, Dick and Dottie—stepped up and carried on. The doors opened in 1955 and the restaurant soon became a destination.
In later decades, a family feud tore the business apart. Owen’s widow and three sons had begun to clash with Ella and the others about expansion. In 1974, Ella and the other siblings left Brennan’s, shifting their focus to another restaurant, Commander’s Palace. Owen Jr., James and Teddy continued to build Brennan’s and its wine program, but they also launched costly, unsuccessful lawsuits against their cousins over using the family name at new restaurants. And then Katrina struck.
John’s son Ralph had started working in the Brennan’s kitchen during high school as a prep cook, peeling and de-veining shrimp. He was away in college when the family split. Over the decades, he launched several successful restaurants. When the original Brennan’s, both the building and the name, went up for sale at a bankruptcy auction, he partnered with real estate developer Terry White to buy it.
The trials were not over, however. There was more than a year of renovations. Rebuilding the wine program was pricey, but Ralph was committed. “Ralph’s only message to me [on wine buying] was to make sure we are making thoughtful decisions,” says general manager Christian Pendleton. Then, in 2019, just as the restaurant was regaining acclaim, head chef Slade Rushing suddenly departed. And less than a year later, came the pandemic.
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Somehow, the Brennan’s team persevered. Today the wine cellar holds close to 15,000 bottles. Word has quickly spread that Brennan’s is a top wine destination once more. The quality of the food, which had slipped in recent decades, is back where it should be, mixing refinement, luxury and over-the-top fun. And the service is again the New Orleans standard Brennan’s helped create—first-rate hospitality with plenty of warmth.
Wine director Braithe Tidwell, who started at New York’s Union Square Cafe before moving to New Orleans, has built a list that aims to offer options for both the out-of-town guest and the local. She knows that the restaurant’s most popular meal is still breakfast, meaning the wines must be food-friendly. Burgundy is a prime focus, with more than 10 pages of whites and 20 pages of reds. Diners can aim big, enjoying such rarities like 2010 DRC Romanée-Conti 2010 ($15,000) or 2013 Domaine Ponsot Clos de Bèze ($1,535), but Tidwell also offers value. Each diner gets a two-page list of wines featured at half price, such as Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($115), Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle 1999 ($143) and Peter Michael Les Pavots 2003 ($205).
Tidwell reports that wine sales have been stronger than they expected since they reopened to fine dining earlier this year. But even more rewarding has been hearing how much Brennan’s comeback means to diners. “If Brennan’s is open, New Orleans is open,” she says.
417 Royal St., New Orleans
Telephone: (504) 525-9711