Since shutting down in March, Commander’s Palace has kept the stoves lit and the lights on with different side businesses designed to serve people from afar. This week, the landmark New Orleans restaurant will finally reopen its doors and welcome people back into its dining rooms.
Full service resumes Friday (Sept. 11). The restaurant will begin with dinner and weekend brunch, and plans to extend service hours in the future.
“This starts with our people,” said Ti Martin, who runs Commander’s Palace with her cousin Lally Brennan.
“There’s a faint hint of hope that fall is approaching and things will get better. So we’re giving this the college try. We’re trying for our team, for our city, and we’re trying to survive like anyone else in the business.”
Commander’s Palace is reopening with the now-familiar coronavirus safety measures, and also with a raft of changes the restaurant has developed in the months since it last served pecan-crusted fish or bread pudding souffle.
New business lines the restaurant created during the pandemic will continue, including takeout food, direct sales of wine from the restaurant’s cellar, a national shipping service for full dinners and its virtual wine and cheese parties, which draw hundreds of online attendees each Wednesday.
These all now have a new home, in a building adjacent to the restaurant, previously used as restaurant offices. This Washington Avenue cottage is now dubbed Le Petit Bleu and serves as a walk-up takeout shop and home base for the other ventures.
“We have some very entrepreneurial people here who came up with these businesses,” Martin said. “We want to keep them going, and we think we’re going to need them considering what restaurants are up against now.”
Martin said she and her managers also took a fresh look at the restaurant’s staff policies and programs in light of issues of racial equality and inclusion, now a key topic of American discourse. Martin said she’s proud of the steps her company has taken in the past, like diversity training and staff recruiting efforts, but believes “there’s work yet to be done in our industry, including by us.”
The restaurant is adding sick leave to its benefits package for staff. It’s seeking out more minority-owned businesses as purveyors. And it has revamped an internal program called “Pathways to Success” that outlines how to advance within the company.
“We’ve always been about mentoring and career development here, and we want to expand that and ensure a feeling of inclusion,” Martin said.
Commander’s Palace will be set up for 50% occupancy, following state rules for Phase 2. It will use all of the many rooms across its rambling, historic Garden District mansion to help spread out guests. At brunch, a jazz trio will perform as usual, though now only in the patio. Staff will check customers’ temperatures as they enter.
In the next few days, newly re-hired employees will get trained on the extra rules and procedures.
The restaurant is reopening with about one third of its pre-pandemic staff.
As the coronavirus crisis has lengthened, the outlook for restaurants across the country has grown more desperate. The Louisiana Restaurant Association projects that one in four restaurants statewide could close permanently. For the New Orleans area, that forecast is much worse, with a projected 40% to 50% closing due to the city’s heavy reliance on travel and events.
In recent weeks, there’s been a progression of restaurants reopening, some for the first time in the pandemic, some after temporary voluntary closures.
But even among the city’s large, historic restaurants like Commander’s Palace, there has been no one-size-fits-all strategy through the crisis.
Arnaud’s Restaurant has been booking private dining events across its labyrinthine of different dining rooms. Brennan’s Restaurantstarted with weekend hours to resume “breakfast at Brennan’s” and has recently expanded to a Thursday-to-Monday schedule. Galatoire’s has been pairing full service in its dining rooms with family-style takeout meals to go. Antoine’s, the city’s oldest restaurant, has not yet announced reopening plans but is fielding requests for future private events.
Commander’s Palace is a restaurant that lands on the bucket lists of many visitors, but also is entwined in the family traditions and social customs of locals. New Orleans residents often mark important milestones in its dining rooms, and go there to celebrate a decadent lunch with friends.
The restaurant’s history reaches back to 1893 in when namesake Emile Commander first opened it in a Garden District mansion across from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.
Members of the Brennan family acquired it in 1969, and by the early 1970s began charting a very different course for the restaurant, which evolved from a bastion of old Creole tradition to a pioneer of contemporary Creole cuisine, in sync with the rise of regional American cooking.
The restaurant has launched countless careers, and generations of hospitality pros from New Orleans and much farther abroad have been through Commander’s Palace. That includes some names at the highest level of American cuisine. This is where the late, great Paul Prudhomme first gained a following. His immediate successor was Emeril Lagasse, then a young, unknown chef. Jamie Shannon followed, and Tory McPhail took up the reigns after Shannon’s untimely death.
By reopening now, Ti Martin said Commander’s Palace will be relying on a mostly local clientele. That also adds to the sense of purpose as the restaurant gears up again.
“We want to be one of many bright lights on the horizon for New Orleans, it’s about this whole community coming back,” she said. “We’re all trying to do this together.”