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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Commander's Palace

While its food is still among the best in New Orleans, the advancements being made by the city’s nouvelle garde of chefs have left Commander’s cuisine in their wake, relegating it almost to a museum status (even if that museum is some kind of culinary Louvre).

It must be me.

For years, Commander’s Palace has been regularly ranked as the most popular restaurant in New Orleans in the ZAGAT Guide surveys.

And I just don’t get it.

The big, blue Victorian building has been around since 1880, when Emile Commander first opened the restaurant’s doors. At that point in time, the Garden District was flourishing as home turf for the up and coming “Americans,” the people of Anglo backgrounds who wanted their own corner of New Orleans, much like the Creoles had their own in the French Quarter.

The restaurant’s popularity was not long in coming, and for its first forty years it gained and maintained a reputation for impeccable respectability. It was a popular location for families after church on Sundays and the genteel celebrations of the city’s “carriage trade.”

Shortly after the end of World War I, the upstairs areas of Commander’s Palace went through quite a transformation. While downstairs with its separate entrance remained the embodiment of societal decorum, upstairs became the gathering place of choice for prospering riverboat captains and a popular rendezvous site for gentlemen and ladies with “sporting” inclinations.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the need for upstairs parlors in establishment like Commander’s Palace was certainly diminished if not eradicated. Business returned to its somewhat starchy, patrician comportment and has stayed more or less the same ever since.

Commander’s changed hands several times though the passing of decades until members of the highly successful Brennan family bought the restaurant in 1974 and handed it down a generation or two. Currently at the helm are first cousins Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, who have also successful collaborated on the combination memoir and bartender’s guide In the Land of Cocktails: Recipes and Adventures from the Cocktail Chicks.

The Brennans made some major architectural renovations to the blue Victorian behemoth at the corners of Washington and Coliseum Streets, but the changes that reignited the restaurant’s reputation for culinary leadership were the back-to-back hirings of two executive chefs, both plucked from relative obscurity but destined for global renown – Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. It was in the kitchen at Commander’s where Prudhomme was given free reign and started developing the fusion of Louisiana cuisines into a whole new category of American cooking, and Lagasse would build upon that base and develop his celebrated reputation for ingredient innovation.

While Commander’s continues to maintain its reputation for culinary distinction, the true glory days have faded, although it’s not entirely the establishment’s own fault; after all, how many restaurants have the good fortune to hire two rising comets for the kitchen’s helm back-to-back, let alone once?

It’s no real feat for a place to live on its reputation, particularly in a city like New Orleans where institutional longevity is not only respected, but revered. It recalls the old joke that it takes 100 Southerners to change a light bulb; one to actually change the bulb, and 99 to stand around and talk about how great the old one was. There are any number of such old places in New Orleans that get by one memories of years past; Commander’s Palace is merely one of them, along with Antoine’s, The Camellia Grill, The Court of Two Sisters and others.

These are places – particularly Antoine’s and Commander’s -- that each should have aged gracefully into elegant grande dames, but somehow turned out to be the disheartened Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations. The real tragedy of these two noble dining institutions is that they would be considered top tier restaurants today were they not compared to their formers selves of former eras.

Every city has a handful of very good restaurant that used to be great ones, but now survive more on memories of joyful events that happened there than what they offer today. Happy tears blur sharp vision, causing eyes to see a room through filters of gossamer nostalgia. This is equally true for customers and proprietors alike.

The restaurant even plays on this theme at its website, where it says, “That's the Commander's atmosphere; like a well run party given by old friends.” I suppose that’s very true in you happen to be an old fried (read: longstanding regular customer) of the house, a situation made abundantly clear when The Sensible One and I had lunch there not long ago.

While it’s more a matter of architecture than anything else, some of the restaurant’s legendary mystique evaporated while we watched a tour bus disgorge its herd decked out in American Abroad (all the way down to the clunk jogging shoes and fanny packs). Yes, Commander’s Palace is a large-scale commercial enterprise and underdressed people traveling en masse in motorcoaches have to eat, too. And yes, I’m sure I’m becoming an irascible old fart, but I find myself growing increasingly homesick for the days when gentlemen wore jackets and neckties to a major city’s finer establishments (a custom I ignored once at Galatoire’s and felt naked all the way through lunch).

While the herd was being seated at a long table in the downstairs dining room, which looked curiously dated and frayed around the edges despite being totally restored post-Katrina, we were led upstairs and through a labyrinth of smaller rooms into a fairly large room with glass looking into the elegantly gnarled branches of ancient trees outside.

Despite making reservations three weeks in advance, being correctly attired in jacket and tie for me, subtropical linen for The Sensible One, and being the first people led into the room, we were promptly seated at the worst table. It was in a front corner, directly next to the kitchen doors and the busboys’ work area, and chattering waiters were lurking close enough behind us to induce mild attacks of claustrophobia. Yes, I realize that floor space in a successful restaurant is valuable real estate and it’s inevitable that there will be a lousy table or two. It strikes me that these Siberian outposts should be held for customers thoughtless enough not to make a reservation, dress like they just got off a tour bus or are already familiar as high maintenance and low tippers.

I wondered why The Sensible One and I had been assigned such an undesirable table, until she reminded me that when making reservations my phone number was requested. The number was out-of-market, out-of-state and apparently from far enough away to avert any kind of concern about offending a local regular. Remembering the website line about “like a well run party given by old friends” made us feel like gate crashers, people who really couldn’t be turned away but not really wanted, the social equivalent of one ex showing up at the other’s next weeding.

It is somewhat difficult to put aside feeling like a second-class citizen, but to the restaurant’s credit, everything else went more or less according to plan. It should be noted that halfway through lunch, the more than affable Lally Brennan stopped by out table while making he rounds and asked if everything was okay, but by then it was too late to request another table, so we all made nice and left it at that.

The soups (gumbo for The Sensible One, turtle for yours truly) outshone the entrées (cochon for her, fish cakes for me), no real surprise since Brennan family operations citywide are renowned for their highly regarded bisques, gumbo and soups. Dessert, which we shared, was a better than average pecan pie. We had a couple of cocktails each (including one of their notorious 25¢ lunch martinis) and our bill, including a 22% tip for our somewhat unctuous waiter, was well under a C-note, more than reasonable for a place with the reputation of Commander’s Palace.

All in all, Commander’s Palace is in a curious place. Less than six years after Katrina and a long hiatus for renovation, the rooms are beginning to acquire a slightly shopworn look. In fact, a disproportionate part of our meal was spent trying to decide if our upstairs room overlooking the garden looked more like an old-line country club in decline (her observation) or belonged in a downtown department store right next to “Ladies’ Fine Dresses” (mine).

While its food is still among the best in New Orleans, the advancements being made by the city’s nouvelle garde of chefs have left Commander’s cuisine in their wake, relegating it almost to a museum status (even if that museum is some kind of culinary Louvre).

Economic downturns, Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a general emancipation of America’s fashion mores have conspired to relax standards of dress and decorum in the nation’s most celebrated dining establishments. Formality and starch have become casualties of our cultural changes, but with the newfound freedom of loosened collars for men and the gradual disappearance of foundations for women comes the sunset of elegance. In order to survive, our legendary restaurants are being forced to climb down from their pedestals and fight in the trenches like everyone else. Even in the best of times, it’s a tough business, and these times are anything but rosy.

Elegance and tradition are without doubt two of Commander’s Palace’s greatest assets, but they also present the restaurant’s greatest challenges. Should the Brennan family choose to once again enforce the rules and traditions that built the business, they run a real risk of losing the whole thing. If on the other hand, they completely succumb to the “casualization” of America, they endanger the cachet that has carried Commander’s Palace for 130 years.

One thing is certain, however. Unless the restaurant expands the circle of people they treat like old friends, the party’s over.


Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue (at Coliseum Street)

Lunch served Monday – Friday, 11:30 am - 2:00 pm

Dinner served Monday – Sunday, 6:30 pm - 10:00 pm

Jazz Brunch Saturday, 11:30 am - 1:00 pm and Sunday, 10:30 am - 1:30 pm

Restaurant Closed Christmas Day and Mardi Gras Day

All Major Credit Cards Accepted and Reservations Strongly Recommended
Business Casual attire is acceptable, jackets preferred at dinner. No shorts.
Complimentary valet service provided.

Telephone: (504) 899-8221 Website: www. commanderspalace.com

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