Long considered the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in the country, Commander’s Palace is a New Orleans icon, but the Garden District staple is hiding a secret more than 100 years in the making.
First opened as Emile Commander’s Palace Saloon in 1880, the Brennan family bought the establishment in 1974, transforming Commander’s Palace into the landmark it is today.
Co-proprietors Lally Brennan and Ti Martin, rattle off the history by heart.
Lally explains, “Commander’s was built in 1880 as a wedding present for his daughter, but she never lived here and it was always operated as a restaurant.” She says, “You do not know the amount of people we have told that story to!”
Ti tells us, “When our family bought the restaurant, it said on the outside of the building 1880… still there! And in every old ad that we saw, every old menu, it said 1880.”
From the matches to the tile floor, nearly everything showed that date.
Except it wasn’t opened in 1880. Not even close.
Ti, the family and everyone who works there, were shocked. “I was kinda like… oh…. bad word!”
The century-long “lie,” the “oops” for the ages, was uncovered by research historian Tonya Jordan.
Tonya says, “The year 1880, we would refer to as oral tradition. It’s what everyone has heard, it’s what everyone thinks, it’s what was told here and there and yonder.”
When Ti and Lally asked Tonya to dig deeper, she read the history books, then closed them, and learned the real story of Emile Commander and his Italian immigrant family, who opened the palace saloon in 1893, not 1880!
According to a newspaper ad, the new saloon offered “Bayou cook oysters, ten cents per dozen.”
Tonya explains how her research is compiled from several sources. “From the real estate records, from the newspaper archives and also from the city directory that also reflects that was his first year in business at this location.”
So now, from the tile floor to the plaque out front, it’s all wrong. However, Ti and Lally say that just makes for a better story.
With that full story, Commander’s Palace washes down its century-old mistake with a cocktail, aptly named “The Oops!”
“So all we can do is say, forgive us and ‘oops’ and enjoy the cocktail!”
Toasting to the next century of gourmet chefs, classic cocktails and maybe even a few more secrets at the corner of Washington and Coliseum.
Love hearing about New Orleans’ colorful history? Follow Anne on Twitter @AnneCutler.
Historic images courtesy of:
Dale N. Atkins, Clerk of Civil District Court, Parish of Orleans
Louisiana Research Collection, Louisiana Menu & Restaurant Collection
Historic New Orleans Collection, Charles L. Franck Studio Collection