When photographer Buff Strickland and I approached Commander’s Palace, we were greeted by two vivacious ladies in black pants and pink tops. Lally Brennan and “Ti” Adelaide Martin were the definition of New Orleans charm — impeccably put-together and disarmingly friendly. “Do you know what Ti means?” asked Lally with a devious smile. “That’s short for ‘petite’,” chimed in Ti. “The french word for small.”
As a child she was dubbed “Ti Aledaide”, a common New Orleans way of distinguishing between relatives with the same name. In this case the older Adelaide was the girls’ aunt, Adelaide Brennan, who once famously picked out a can of aqua blue paint for the restaurant exterior in the early 1970s. The two first cousins are now co-proprietors of Commander’s Palace, and as they led us through the glossy black doors the pride they took in the family business was palpable.
We took in the maze of chandeliered dining rooms with wonder as staff members bustled about preparing tables for the day. One hallway led us into a large dining room entirely full of employees. They were seated at the white linened tables, listening quietly to a very intense discussion concerning bow ties. The atmosphere was tense. “Oh, those are the managers,” whispered Lally. “They’re having their daily meeting. Every dining room has it’s own manager here.”
We continued on through the kitchen, across an atrium, and into yet another dining room. We were already overwhelmed and impressed by Commander’s Palace, and we hadn’t even tasted the food. By the time we made it back to the foyer, the restaurant was ready to open for the day. The first wave of guests in jackets and heels stood crowded in the tiled lobby. The hostess, with a smile as polished as her pearl earrings, greeted them warmly. “Welcome to Commander’s Palace. What are we celebrating today?”
photographed by buff strickland
Co-proprieters Lally Brennan and “Ti” Adelaide Martin greet us at the door of Commander’s Palace. “We didn’t plan this!” laughs Lally of their almost-matching outfits. The cousins have hospitality in their blood — they’re both legacies of the famed Brennan family who have been running restaurants in New Orleans since the 1940’s.
The restaurant honors tradition while taking joy in the unexpected: like a coat of bright teal paint on a Victorian mansion.
“It’s a Garden District mansion, built as a home, but has always operated as a restaurant,” explains Lally. “It’s classic New Orleans with patios, balconies, and that grand feeling you get when touring the area. It was built in the late 1800’s, and in the 1970’s our Aunt Adelaide decided to paint it it’s iconic aqua blue color.”
The restaurant, founded in 1880, has survived various eras of turmoil and change:
“Katrina closed us for 13 months, and when we reopened it was almost like starting from scratch,” Lally confesses. “Every time a business/restaurant reopened after Katrina, it was a cause for celebration, and when we reopened it was like welcoming our family back.”
The staff at Commander’s are indeed a clan — the kitchen even serves a free “family lunch” to the staff every day before the restaurant opens. And it’s a family where there’s room to grow: executive chef Tony McPhail began his career as a line cook years ago at Commander’s Palace.
“We look for people who know who we are and are excited about the opportunity to work at Commander’s specifically and aren’t just looking for a job,” says Lally. “Our employees become part of our family, so we look for people with great communication skills, a strong work ethic and potential for growth.”
Aside from the incredible food, service, and bright blue paint job, Commander’s is also known for standing by it’s old-school dress code. Jackets are preferred. Shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops are strictly forbidden.
“We want to create an ambiance for our guests who are celebrating a special occasion or just life in general and we believe that our guests attire contributes to that,” states Lally.
The kitchen at Commander’s boasts a continuous line of great chefs — Emeril Lagasse spent over seven years as executive chef here in the ’80s. They’re encouraged to push the envelope when it comes to Creole: “We’ve taken classic Creole cuisine and bumped it up to another level that we call ‘haute Creole’ “says Lally. “It’s always evolving.”
Executive chef Tory McPhail (pictured here) has earned a devoted following in New Orleans, including Lally and Ti.
“What would be my ‘last meal’ to order Commander’s Palace?” answers Lally, “The Chef’s Playground Tasting Menu. Any night of the week. You can’t go wrong with Chef Tory’s choices.”
Chef Tory’s latest creation, the Creole Tostada, features a bold mix of sauteed beef and red bean puree topped with crispy sweet potato chips.
Read our exclusive recipe for Commander’s Palace Creole Tostada here.
The Palace, with it’s maze of intimate dining rooms, has attracted it’s share of celebrities over the years. Lally and Ti reflect on having Jeremiah Tower (from the Chez Panisse in Berkley) spend the weekend with them. But an all-time favorite anecdote is when Sandra Bullock and her family walked into the restaurant to celebrate the adoption of her son, Louis.
Bread Pudding Souffle is one of the only permanent items on the ever-changing menu at Commander’s. The sought-after dessert features Creole bread pudding combined with the fluffy texture of a meringue, and is topped with a decadent whiskey sauce.
Ti and Lally have been aptly dubbed “The Grand Dames of New Orleans Drinking”, and they take their cocktails quite seriously. (The cousins even authored their own book devoted to libation creation!)
I enjoyed a “Sweet Caroline” on the patio, developed by Bar Chef Ferrel Dugas. The drink has all the classic flavors of a white peach bellini enhanced with fresh ginger and ginger liqueur.
After Buff and I enjoyed cocktails on the patio, we sat down to enjoy an unforgettable meal at Commander’s Palace. Everything was divine, but the turtle soup stole the show. As we looked around, I noticed we were surrounded by families — so many of them celebrating. Birthdays, graduations, engagements… I was gripped with a wave of nostalgia for the Southern family meals of my own childhood.
“It’s a restaurant with a lot of history, but never old — the food, the atmosphere, the customers, and the memories we create make it unique.” says Lally.”We’re a large part of peoples lives because they celebrate so often with us — birthdays, rehearsal dinners, anniversaries, retirement… then the next generation starts celebrating with us as well.”
Thank you, Lally and Ti, for inviting us to the party at Commander’s Palace.
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