The legendary Ella Brennan died last week at the age of 92, leaving behind an iconic collection of some of the world’s most famous restaurants, recipes and traditions. Bananas Foster? That was Ella Brennan. Chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme? Brennan’s protégés. Opening the eponymous Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street? That too was shepherded by Miss Ella, after her brother Owen passed away during construction of the iconic pink establishment. But no gift from Brennan to the city of New Orleans was quite as influential as the jazz brunch.
The formula has been imitated the world over, but sure enough, the very first jazz brunch was held at Commander’s Palace, the Garden District gem presided over by Ella following a schism in the Brennan family.
But let’s back up a bit first. The introduction of brunch service altogether at Brennan’s was a response to New Orleans’ author Frances Parkinson Keyes’ 1948 book Dinner at Antoine’s. The story, about a dinner party held at the real-life Antoine’s restaurant in the French Quarter, was a local sensation that reinvigorated the New Orleans dining scene and the restaurant itself. A second writer, Lucius Beebe, prodded Ella’s brother Owen to create something of a spiritual sister meal to capitalize upon the newfound interest by locals and tourists alike in French Quarter dining. Brunch at Brennan’s was born.
Owen, Ella and Chef Paul Blange dreamed up dozens of world-class egg dishes that could serve as entrees for this new meal. The result was unparalleled. Brunch at Brennan’s became such a roaring success, and the price of eggs were so inexpensive, that the restaurant became the most profitable restaurant in the entire world for 50 years. When Owen died, Ella effortlessly stepped into his shoes, ushering the restaurant he didn’t live to see from one massive success to the next.
But in 1973, the Brennan family collapsed due to infighting. Ella was ushered out of Brennan’s by Owen’s widow, forced to leave the business she had built, but not owned, behind. By 1974, Ella had purchased the Emile Commander’s Palace Saloon in New Orleans’ Garden District, which she reopened as Commander’s Palace shortly thereafter. The restaurant would have surely been an enormous success owing to Ella’s reputation and notoriety alone, but it was a phone call from her brother Dick that led to one of the most influential restaurant innovations of all time.
While traveling in London, Dick curiously watched as a group of diners sat silently during breakfast service in his hotel. The lobby of the hotel meanwhile had a three piece Dixieland jazz trio softly playing the lively New Orleans music that had become so en vogue across Europe at the time. Dick, for the first time, connected the two; what if jazz were played in the dining room itself during their new restaurant’s brunch service? He telephoned Ella, asleep in New Orleans, at 3 am her time, and the two began fleshing out the idea.
Commander’s Palace hired a team of local musicians to begin performing during the restaurant’s first weekend brunch services. The combination was a defining success – so much so, that the cover of Ella Brennan’s memoir features the quote, “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.”
Today, jazz brunches are held across dozens of restaurants each weekend in New Orleans, and hundreds more across the world. The sound of New Orleans on a Sunday morning is that of dueling trumpets and horns softly escaping from behind closed restaurant doors out into the streets, swirling into one another. But the first place to ever try its hand at serving up eggs alongside brass and strings? That was Ella Brennan’s Commander’s Palace.