Before it became one of the most popular places to dine in the state of Louisiana, the distinct pink building located deep within the French Quarter of New Orleans was once home to the first Louisiana State Bank in 1795. After many years of cycling through owners and finally becoming abandoned, the property eventually fell into the hands of New Orleans native Owen Brennan who in 1946 decided to open his first business. Brennan's is one of the few restaurants still open today that was part of the original restaurants of New Orleans such as Antoine's, Commander's Palace, and Broussard's.
Backstory and Context
Before Owen Brennan came up with the idea to create a restaurant, the current location was once home to the Louisiana State Bank, commonly known as "Banque de la Louisiane," during this time. The property was purchased in 1795 after the great fire that occurred in December of 1794, and a two-story mansion was built by Vincent Rillieux, the great grandfather of Edgar Degas who was later known as a famous painter and Impressionist in the 1800s. Although Rillieux was the architect, he wanted to sell the two-story mansion to Don Jose Faurie, a wealthy Spanish merchant, and his family. At this time Spain still had control over Louisiana territory and Faurie was searching for a place where he could conduct business and allow his family to settle. He was attracted to the mansion because of the color and the balconies that overlooked the entire city of New Orleans, and therefore decided to purchase the property. However, his sudden death left his wife and newly-wed daughter in a bind; on June 2, 1801, James Freret bought the mansion from the family and eventually sold it to Julien Poydras 4 years later. Poydras later established the Louisiana Bank and declared himself president. The bank was the first banking institution to operate in New Orleans after the Louisiana territory was claimed by the United States after the Louisiana Purchase. Although the mansion underwent a major transformation before being turned into the bank, the old vaults remained which became essential to the wine cellar created by Owen Brennan once he opened his restaurant. The gold initials "LB," symbolizing the bank, were never removed and can still be seen on the building today.
In 1820, the property was purchased yet again by Martin Gordon Sr., a good friend of President Andrew Jackson. After a visit to see Gordon and celebrate the thirteenth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans in 1828, this created an opportunity for Jackson to use the place as a private residence while he was in New Orleans for either business or personal reasons. After leaving office in 1837, Gordon ended up deciding to sell the property to Supreme Court Judge Alonzo Morphy. Morphy lived in the mansion with his wife and four children, including his son Paul Morphy who became one of the world's best chess players. After the death of his father in 1856, Paul spent many years traveling abroad playing against other chess players and left the property abandoned. It is said that the original chess set that Morphy first learned to play on, however, is still located on the second floor of Brennan's Restaurant today.
In 1943 during World War II, Irish immigrant and New Orleans native Owen Brennan decided to enter the restaurant business. Initially unsure of where to start, Brennan let an associate talk him into purchasing the Absinthe House located on Bourbon Street. During this time absinthe was very popular in Louisiana and Brennan knew he could take advantage of this. The bar quickly became a commodity that was favored among the citizens and so did Brennan. The people throughout the city referred to him as "a pleasant host to his customers." Although business was thriving, Brennan decided that he wanted to do more than sell alcohol. He chose to purchase the property directly across from the Absinthe House and turn it into his restaurant. At this time the building was home to another restaurant, Vieux Carre. Brennan's main goal was to create original dishes that would show off various cultures and excite the people of New Orleans. He had heard rumors from people entering the bar that Vieux Carre was terrible, and people were starting to want a change. While he was confident in his ability to succeed, his friends often teased him and told him, "an Irishman can only boil potatoes." Determined to prove them wrong, he began searching for chefs that could create French-Creole dishes.
Although Owen Brennan started out managing the restaurant alone, he eventually recruited his 6 siblings to help run the business. His sister Ella Brennan who had also worked with him at the Absinthe House was put in charge of the finances and eventually was appointed assistant manager when Owen became depressed and spent most of his time either drunk or asleep during the day. Initial reviews for the restaurant, as a result, were not in his favor; Ella later decided that it would be a smart idea to travel to New York City for inspiration. New York was known during this time as the place to be for food and entertainment and Ella's goal was to create the same atmosphere in New Orleans. After gathering tips from chefs Helen McCully and James Beard who were very well-known at the time, she and her other siblings were able to turn the restaurant into a place that celebrities often visited, and where crowds were always large. At this point, the national press began to take notice and the first newspaper article was written about the family operated business. Newspapers at this time rarely wrote about food, so the article was considered a big deal. Because the restaurant was receiving massive amounts of attention and the crowds were so big, in 1955, the Brennan's looked to move to the abandoned property formerly owned by Paul Morphy on Royal Street. However, these plans were put on hold after Owen Brennan died from a massive heart attack. Ella was then left in charge and decided to change the name from Vieux Carre to Brennan's to honor her late brother. She still had intentions of expanding the business and extending the restaurant properties to bring in more money. However, once her siblings discovered her plans, a family feud broke out that resulted in her dismissal from the business in 1973.
In 1984 after her return to the business, the University of Tulane allowed Ella Brennan to purchase the property on Royal Street. Although the restaurant was receiving large amounts of praise, Ella still felt like something was missing, and it was her creativity that led to the creation of Bananas Foster, the most popular dish at the restaurant today. The dish was named after Richard Foster, the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission and a close confidant of Owen Brennan's.
Throughout the years Brennan's remained a constant success and was considered a favorite among the locals who valued the family-style atmosphere and the degree of class that the Brennan family had created. 2005, however, started the beginning of a rough patch. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant suffered major damage to the second floor and the wine cellar which was formerly the bank vaults in the old Louisiana State Bank was completely destroyed. In 2013, the restaurant was mysteriously closed and did not reopen until November 27, 2014.
Brennan's. "Brennan's". Accessed October 10th 2019. https://www.brennansneworleans.com/traditions/#historyModal.
Gentry, Connie. "Brennan's Restaurant, New Orleans Historical." Invalid date. Accessed October 15th 2019. https://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/1502.
Hemard, Ned. "De La Louisiane", Accessed October 14th 2019. https://www.neworleansbar.org/uploads/files/DeLaLouisianeArticle2.pdf.
Wegmann, Mary Ann. "Former Home of the Morphys", New Orleans Historical. Accessed October 15th 2019. https://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/800.