Sit down with Dickie Brennan, and you're likely to get a crash course in New Orleans history and hospitality. Eater recently had the chance to talk to, erm, listen to the iconic restaurateur? of Palace Cafe, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse and Bourbon House fame? dote on his newest restaurant, Tableau, and tell many an interesting tidbit about his vision for wine's future and his adoration of neighborhood restaurants like Maurepas Foods, where he says Doyle and co. are living out the American Dream. This is a man who's in the self-proclaimed "Proud Papa" stage of life, who happily answers questions before you even ask them. So here, ladies and gentlemen, is more of an intro class to New Orleans' dining heritage than a typical interview. Eater gives the topics, and Dickie Brennan schools us.
On the soft opening...
All of a sudden a soft opening has become a thing... My family did it after they opened a restaurant in Houston. It was Brennan's here and Brennan's in Houston. All of the Texans said throw a big party, and we're like, we just wanna try to turn it on easy. Well, they convinced them to fill the restaurant up, and try and feed everybody... it was just a nightmare. We never want to open a restaurant and tell everybody to come, and we haven't even checked to see if the electricity works. So we just believe in what we're doing, and call it a soft opening. It's like a car. You wouldn't turn it on and run full blast? at least old cars you wouldn't? you ease into it. You want everyone to come in and have a great experience. This way you can have honest staff. If something goes wrong? if you trip, you can pull yourself back up. It's like Commander's, the kitchen doors say Yes and No, but you kind of go in the opposite way because it flows better? We gotta figure out what door we're going to go in and out of in a new restaurant, you just don't know.
On the building's history?
It's a Spanish manor house. It's been built and rebuilt over the years, but things like this go back to the 1700s. The floors downstairs, we're not sure the dates, but they go way back. The last Spanish Governor lived her, as a residence. This was when Louisiana went all the way to Canada, so it was a pretty big territory for one guy, and then they signed that Louisiana Purchase right there [at the Cabildo].
On the Wax Museum.
Did they talk about the Baroness (de Pontalba)? My daughter is very proud of her. She built these apartment complexes (the Pontalba Apartments) that became the original apartments in the world. Later in life?she was raised here... she moved to Paris, and the American Embassy, the residence, is probably the premier residence of the Champs Elysees. When this woman moved there, she built that residence. I would say every Frenchman would tell you that's a Parisian. Only a New Orleans woman moved there and built that home, which became the residence for the American Embassy, a real palatial home. I just love history. We are part of this development. You can't help but stand up on that balcony, stand here, and go wild for America.
On Le Petit Theatre.
We're here for one reason. I read the paper one morning that Le Petit Theatre was canceling the season and going to close because of finances. Bryan Batt, on the consulting board here... his mother and my mother were best friends. We celebrated holidays together. So I called Bryan and said what's up? It was a quick conversation. We just couldn't lose the oldest community theatre in America, and from there we were trying to come up with any way to save it. We came up with a new business structure, because nobody wanted to put money into the old one... We'll work together. Maybe not the first year. We're gonna kind of let ourselves get our feet under us. There's so many thoughts and ideas for how to keep the theatre busy throughout the year. That's always been the challenge. There's like 300 days you're dark, with nothing going on. They've always partnered with the Faulkner Society, and had the Tennessee Williams Fest. There's going to be a lot of events. Festigals is coming, and I'm excited to see what that's all about.
In the library, the liquors in there right now, it's a lot of European armagnacs and cognacs. Instead of quantity, it's quality, you know. You want to have a great after dinner drink. What we're hoping will happen is, around America right now, there's artisans making craft brandy? like they do craft gins and such? one we have is a craft armagnac, a European armagnac made out in Oregon. So we want to introduce the American versions. We all live in this rat race. Tableau is where you can just hang out, relax and have a quality drink. If you can't do it on this balcony?
On the cutting edge Wine/Carafe program:
Barry Himel is a young guy who's been with us for over ten years now. Typical young guy has an interest in wines, and he has done a great job in getting educated. He's been to Europe a couple times, gone out to California. He's become our wine director. And when we opened Bourbon House, we tried to do what they do in Europe. We had our Plateaux De Fruits De Mer? take the oysters on the half shell add on shrimp and build these great platters? it's a very Brasserie tradition, but whenever you go to these old classic Brasseries, they say order the house wine and drink carafes and carafes of this house wine, and it's a great value. But in America we think of it as jug wine, bad quality cheap wine. In Europe, they've made it high quality for people to have that? So we wanted to do it there, because in California there was such a glut of juice. We were convinced we could get the juice and treat it like Europeans, and be able to pass it on, without having to go with a bottle/label and all that. Well, we were ahead of our time, and they just couldn't put it in the containers. They just don't have the system in America like they do in Europe.
So, opening Tableau, we're still ahead of America. Barry has small containers (like kegs) that are coming from boutique areas?non-traditional Burgundy or Beaujolais, kind of in this area, but a neighborhood outside. You've never heard of the wine. It's available in New York, but we're bringing it in here. It's for people who want to drink something that's very interesting, and we can pass it on as a good value. There's some Cote du Rhones, and some nice drinking reds and whites, and what we're finding out? because we're trying to help instigate all this? is that we need filling stations. You have to put it in a container like a beer keg. There's a couple local guys here in the beer industry, and we really think, because they have a system in place with the kegs, we think they're interested and we can eventually hook up with California, Oregon, wherever in America, and create a filling station, same concept. Put it in a keg, and one day we'll be able to say, well, Jack Cakebread makes this great chardonnay that is hard to get, expensive, and when he has extra juice and he's not gonna bottle it, we can say, send us that extra juice, We want to pass it on to our clientele. It makes so much sense. They do it in Europe. Why aren't we doing it in America? So that should be interesting to see how that plays out. But we do have the European wine to learn from.
On Tableau's special Leidenheimer loaf:
Leidenheimer has always brought us our traditional loaf, and then Sandy Wahnn, who is like a fifth generation baker at Leidenheimer? it's his family we started talking back when we realized that alright we're going to do this thing, about how okay, it's the oldest community theater in America, okay, history, history, history. We were researching French Creole, everything. On a whim, I just said, Sandy, what would've been the loaf that Leidenheimer was doing 100 years ago? He was like, good question. So he does all this research, and discovers that the loaf? here, that we're now featuring? it's like a football. It's what the baker would've done a hundred years ago. And it was a loaf that was 100% whole wheat and very sour. Which, when he first made it, the first batch, we were all like, you know, that would be a pretty tough sell. So we kept working on the flavors and the blend, and refined it, taking a lot of the sour dough out of it. It's a nice kind of look back on how French bread has evolved from this football loaf to po' boys. It's a hell of a sandwich, when you press it, or whatever.
On any resident ghosts:
Oh, golly. We have a ghost at Palace. Our elevator always stops at the third floor without hitting the button. As much history as we've tried to research here, I keep hearing about it, but i need an authority to update me on what is the activity here, because I don't know. but this is a theatre, there's a lot of drama. I walk this way all the time, and it just blows my mind, the Ghost Tours. I see them all the time by Napolean House, starting off the tour, so please let us know.
On New Orleans Pride:
It's very humbling, that we were able to do this and are sitting here. I always, I just want New Orleanians to be proud of us.
On local artisans:
I don't know if anybody told you about the staircase? What existed when we started renovating was a portion of the building that was renovated in 1974, so the access to the three stories that was the stairwell, it was a cinder block and cement staircase, with ladies restrooms at the bottom of the staircase, and the men's on the mezzanine. It was always an aggravation because the people who would come to the theatre always complained about the bathrooms. So we took down the entire staircase. We relocated all the bathrooms. But we found this family, the Hartdegens, third generation, they build staircases. When they came and stood there with our sprinkler guy and the architect they had to figure out how to make a 20 hour fire-rated access? These Hartdegen brothers said, we're going to put in the same staircase that's in the Pontalba Apartments. It's historic, it's solid wood, and it passes all the fire codes. There wasn't one piece that was fabricated, pre-fab, and when you walk down the staircase, and look down, all the wood is oak, mahogany, it's just real? We're proud of it, and they're artisans?so you know, it's nice that we have people in this city that are the real deal. There's other artisans that did all our wood tables, sign and host stand, out of the Marigny. Silvarum is the name of their company. And you know, they've done all these tables from scratch and the wood furniture, and two big pieces we're still waiting on.
In one room, you'll see, electrical and kind of cable right in the middle of the wall. It's like a living room, you don't want to see a TV but everybody wants to see a TV at some point. So we're putting antique framed mirrors, and the technology now, you turn on a TV and it appears in the mirror, and when you turn it off, it's a nice antique mirror. It'll make everybody happy because when the Who Dats are on. So that's what we're waiting on to finish out here. You never finish, I guess. But I'm kind of excited about that.
On brass bands:
When I was growing up, the brass band was all different. It was second line and that's it. You know, now these bands Big Sam and Trombone Shorty, it's a show band. You go into a party and everybody is dancing, and that's so New Orleans.
On the entrepreneurial spirit:
I'm at the Proud Papa stage of my life. So the more I learn things about this city, I think it's the uniqueness of this city that has created a lot of and develops an entrepreneurial spirit. it's influenced music. It's why jazz happened. And it's in so many other areas. Something like, Krispy Kreme, the recipe for that donut was a New Orleans chef. Way way back, an old Creole chef. I think it's just this blend of cultures that goes way back, that gives us a creative entrepreneurial edge. And it's happening in the city again.
I think Orleans Parish is unique. When I was a kid and we'd go watch Freret parade it was on Freret Street, when we went to see Carrollton it went down Carrollton, so I grew up on the streets, and it was the bakeries and all. You know Maurepas [Foods] , you walk in and it's guys that work with us are over there and it's a neighborhood that has life. Oeople are in there. They're supporting the local? what I call living the American Dream. I think our city can show the rest of America that if you want to do something?When i see what's going in these neighborhoods, the next generation is putting it all on the line. I really want to encourage that next generation to go live the American Dream, and not go work for a corporation. You know, you really love something, go do it. This is such an example of a city where people can do that.