Ralph Brennan discusses how historic architecture influences the dining experience in New Orleans

This story appeared in the December issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

Photo by Chris Granger

I’m a Preservationist
Ralph Brennan – President, Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group

 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been a particularly challenging year for restaurants. How are you doing?

Since late March, we have slowly reopened each restaurant one-by-one. As with most restaurants, we are struggling with limited volumes because of occupancy and distancing restrictions to protect our staff and guests. It was important not to diminish the quality of our restaurants; however, we made adjustments to meet the challenges. We launched grab-and-go, online ordering and curbside pick-up programs at Ralph’s on the Park and Napoleon House, arranged for discounted parking at the Omni Royal Orleans garage, and created a series of promotional offerings especially for locals. This is in an effort to create energy and activity in the restaurants and keep our staff working. In Mid-City, Ralph’s on the Park is in a residential neighborhood and is now fully operating with socially distanced capacity. The French Quarter restaurants (Brennan’s, Napoleon House and Red Fish Grill) are busy on weekends with guests traveling for pleasure, primarily from drive-in markets. Business, conventions and meetings guests will take longer to return. Red Fish Grill participated in Chef’s Brigade, a local program to feed free, restaurant-quality meals to NOLA residents. I’ll be really happy when hurricane season is finally behind us and especially happy to see the pandemic along with 2020 put to rest. We are survivors, especially in New Orleans. We are resilient and will hopefully come out of this stronger. It will take time.

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Several of your restaurants are housed in some of the city’s most historic architecture, including, of course, Napoleon House, Brennan’s and Redfish Grill in the French Quarter. Ralph’s on the Park is in the Jean Marie Saux Building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. How do these historic spaces influence the dining experience?

Food, music, history and architecture are the pillars that make New Orleans special. Our restaurants are set apart by unique locations. Each are housed in historic New Orleans architecture. Napoleon House was owned and operated by the Impastato family for more than 100 years, and it was the home to the first mayor of New Orleans. It truly epitomizes the original architecture of New Orleans. We wanted to showcase the beauty of the entire building, so we opened the second-floor dining rooms for events, sharing a window into the restaurant’s history. I like to joke that Napoleon House’s paint budget is $0 – its patina is priceless.

Brennan’s is very special to me because I grew up playing in the wine cellar and working summer jobs in the kitchen. Brennan’s has historical significance, as the building was the first bank in the Louisiana Purchase, and now the majestic structure perfectly complements the grand experience of Breakfast at Brennan’s.

Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street is located in part of the original DH Holmes Department Store downtown. Only two brick walls of the original building were salvaged, and we made them feature walls – one behind the bar and the other forms the base for our red fish mural.

Ralph’s on the Park was constructed in 1860 as the first “concession stand” for the park and has a long history of housing notable family-owned dining establishments, including those by the Alciatore (Antoine’s) and Tujague families in the late 1800s. Ralph’s on the Park’s wrap-around balcony overlooks City Park and the world’s largest collection of live oak trees. It’s simply stunning.

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For the holidays, many folks look forward to the Reveillon dinners around town. What are some of your own family’s holiday traditions?

Our family’s holiday celebrations customarily take place in the evenings after a long holiday shift spent with our staff and many special guests among the restaurants. We are all highly conscious of the current situation and are taking necessary precautions. My wife Susan and I gather with my brother and sisters, our children and now our six grandchildren at my sister Cindy’s house for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Then, later in the holiday season, on Christmas night, we go to my sister Lally’s. It is a casual setting for the family with a buffet and gift exchange, the perfect end to a festive day. Holidays are even more fun now that we are able to enjoy the holiday traditions we’ve established in the restaurants with our grandchildren, especially Gingerbread House building at Red Fish Grill and Breakfast with Santa at Brennan’s. I love that my grandchildren will grow up with these holiday memories, but you would be surprised how far in advance I have to book my table!

 

Your restaurants help keep the city’s dining traditions alive and vibrant. They are an important part of New Orleans’ history and culture. With that in mind, what does “historic preservation” mean to you?

New Orleans is just over 300 years old and is continually evolving. Our neighborhoods and buildings are foundational to our city. We must preserve and maintain them, yet they must also be adapted to the world we live in today. I am honored to be entrusted with the care of the buildings that I own and operate. I hope to leave them better for future generations.

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