When Brennan’s Restaurant reopened in 2014, it marked the reincarnation of a grand but faded New Orleans classic, blending traditions with new energy and a more contemporary culinary voice.
Now, the French Quarter restaurant has regained one piece of its past that has been a quest for proprietor Ralph Brennan and his managers since they took over. This week, Brennan’s was once again named a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner, in recognition of “offering some of the highest level of wine service in the world,” according to the publication.
It marks a comeback as well as a new chapter.
The award, the highest honor from Wine Spectator, was one that Brennan’s won annually from 1983 until Hurricane Katrina. Built over decades, the restaurant’s vaunted wine collection was ruined in the cellar by the long power outage that followed the catastrophe.
Famous for its lavish “breakfast at Brennan’s” and for bananas Fosters, the dessert invented in its kitchen, this was the restaurant that launched the entire Brennan family’s legacy in New Orleans dining, and has led to many other restaurants.
But the Royal Street original had fallen on hard times in the years after Hurricane Katrina. It shut down and landed in a foreclosure auction. It was acquired by Ralph Brennan, a cousin of its former operators, and his business partner Terry White. After an overhaul that essentially redesigned and rebuilt the restaurant from the inside out, they reopened Brennan’s late in 2014.
“When Ralph took over he wanted to restore the greatness and grandeur of Brennan’s,” said Brennan’s wine director Braithe Tidwell. “This was part of it, he wanted that award back and that honor for the cellar.”
Wine Spectator has different levels of awards. The Grand Award is the highest, given to restaurants “that show an uncompromising, passionate devotion to the quality of their wine programs,” according to the publication. Grand Award winners have “serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, a selection of large-format bottles, excellent harmony with the menu, and superior presentation.”
Due to the pandemic, with many restaurants closed, Wine Spectator did not issue Grand Awards for 2020.
Brennan’s is one of three restaurants added to the ranks of Grand Award winners in 2021.
Only 97 restaurants worldwide hold the Grand Award. That includes two more in New Orleans – Commander’s Palace, which is run by a different branch of the Brennan family; and Emeril’s Restaurant, the flagship for chef Emeril Lagasse, which is set to reopen Aug. 31 (Lagasse’s Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas is also a Grand Award winner).
This year’s honor reflects the work that earlier sommeliers have put into rebuilding Brennan’s cellar, Tidwell pointed out. But it is also very much a recognition of how Tidwell herself has cultivated the wine program and runs it day to day.
Tidwell became a certified sommelier while working in New York at Danny Meyer’s acclaimed Union Square Café. She came to Brennan’s in 2015 and has been wine director since 2017.
Today, Brennan’s has built up a cellar of more than 14,000 bottles, arrayed in a carefully temperature-controlled outbuilding across the courtyard from the main dining rooms.
It is a modern cellar, with most bottles dating back no further than the 2000 vintage. It also has a character that reflects Tidwell’s approach to wine, and the way she works with executive chef Ryan Hacker.
“Really it’s to honor New Orleans heritage,” she said. “We want the food and wine to tell a story together about our culture and heritage in New Orleans.”
The list has prestige bottles that can cost as much as a year of college tuition. But it also maintains an extensive list of bottles under $70, and the restaurant has been offering diners another list of featured wines at half price.
The modern Brennan’s has a framework for formality, with tuxedo-clad waiters and tableside preparations. It also gleefully weaves in its own playful streak. This runs through the wine program too, where a happy hour dubbed “bubbles at Brennan’s” has become a fixture four days a week for half-price Champagne, and where at least one bottle is ceremonially opened with a saber on the patio each day.
“We try to make wine fun, I want it to be as accessible as possible,” Tidwell said. “Having a bottle on every table is the goal, not the cost of the bottle. I just want people to experience great wine and great food together.”
417 Royal St., (504) 525-9711
Breakfast, lunch, dinner Thu.-Sun.
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