The kitchen of Brennan's isn't just reopening. It's also reorienting itself - literally. The celebrated bulwark of French Quarter fine dining has rotated its kitchen 90 degrees and provided an open view into it, so that Royal Street passersby will be able to see staff preparing meals right before their eyes when the restaurant reopened yesterday. Through the large windows, they'll be able to see straight through the gorgeous, newly renovated building, past the first floor dining area and the stately bar, and all the way into the courtyard.
Ralph Brennan tells me that the window-centric redesign represents both tradition and innovation; at once a callback to the grand streetside views of Mr. B's Bistro, where he spent much time as a child, and a novel way to entice today's food-obsessed Top Chef viewers who want more than a peek into the kitchen. "In this day and age, I thought it would be great to give [opening up the kitchen windows] a try," Ralph says. "It'll be fun... and also encourage the staff to work clean and always look professional."
"So I guess if the chef needs to curse somebody out, he'll have to do it in the walk-in?" I ask. He chuckles, then takes me to the trellis-lined main dining room, once the service wing of the building when Brennan's was a private residence. Ralph points out the metal frames of the windows looking out into the courtyard; he thought about replacing these with wood, but was blocked from doing so by a local historical association.
"It looks like a strip mall," he quips, but the comparison is limited when considering the view into the vast tree-lined courtyard, complete with stone fountains, not to mention the opulent-yet-calming decor of the dining room itself, softened with hues of coral and pale green by New York designer Keith Langham.
"This is the hardest remodeling I've ever done," Ralph admits, citing the building's complexity, age, and need for remedial and unanticipated work brought upon by events such as the collapse of a floor earlier this year; the entire project began in June 2013 and falls somewhere between 15 and 18 million dollars. I ask him if he ever considered simply reopening elsewhere. "Not at all," he immediately replies. "I wanted [the building] to stay in the family."
The address has been in the hands of the Brennans since 1955; the restaurant opened officially in 1956. Ralph brings up a family disagreement in 1974 that kept him away from the building for nearly forty years, before assuming its ownership last year. He pauses. "It's a special place… I'm glad my kids and my [business partner Terry White]'s kids can enjoy it… And there's been support from the city. So much interest."
After touring the sumptuously decorated Queen's Room, an upper-level dining room dedicated to queens of Carnivals past, we stand on the balcony where Ralph shares his own childhood memory of Mardi Gras. "I used to do my homework at this table," he gestures, looking inside, "then go outside on the balcony and watch the parade."
I imagine schoolbooks piled high on the white tablecloth, incongruously contrasting with the rest of the room's regal bearing: the golden fleur-de-lis pattern on the wall, and the brilliant marble of the fireplace, recently discovered underneath layers of paint during the remodeling. With Brennan's reopening, Ralph Brennan has done his homework again; now all that's left is for a hungry city to look it over.
words and photos by Art Bueno