The Grand Dames of New Orleans Drinking

The heiresses to New Orleans's most legendary restaurant dynasty, Lally Brennan and Ti Martin, discuss growing up amongst celebrity cocktail guests, being naughty at breakfast and reveling in the city's cocktail legacy.

Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan at Commander's Palace

Three untouched cocktails rest on the custom chef’s bar at SoBou in New Orleans as Ti Martin and Lally Brennan are telling stories that rapidly pinball between seemingly disparate topics. Ti is reminiscing about closing down The Dead Rabbit in New York City on a recent trip. It somehow ends in detailed directions for finding a local NOLA store selling vintage cocktail glassware.

“This is called ‘taking detours,’” says Lally of their whirlwind storytelling style. “We start one story and it leads into another…” She’s barely finished before Ti bursts in with a welcome, “Somebody try a drink, dammit!”

Ti, dressed in a chic black ensemble with a peplum top and Lally in a crisp white button-down and statement jewelry, pull off the rare art of being both outrageously glamorous and disarming at the same time. They are exactly what I’d hoped New Orleans restaurant royalty would be like.

Along with being first cousins, the two are the co-proprietors of Commander’s Palace and Cafe Adelaide. SoBou, short for South of Bourbon, is Ti’s newest venture. Situated on the corner of Rue Chartres and Bienville, it’s an oasis two blocks from the spectacle of “big ass beers” and frozen “hand grenades” that is Bourbon Street.

In addition to their celebrated restaurants, the cousins are self-proclaimed “Sazerac evangelists” passionate about sharing their intimate knowledge of the city’s cocktail culture.

Having a cocktail with an indulgent breakfast, “created the feeling that you were being a little naughty and really experiencing New Orleans.” The cousins are continuing that “naughty” tradition at Commander’s Palace where balloon centerpieces let brunch-goers know that ordering an Absinthe Suissesse with Eggs Sardou is more than a meal—it’s an event.

Between sips of a barrel aged Vieux Carré, Ti explains that the building housing the restaurant was the French Quarter’s icehouse in the 1800s and Antoine Peychaud’s pharmacy was a stone’s throw away on Royal. SoBou’s head bartender Abigail Deirdre Gullo gives credit to the sacred ground she mixes on: “Those early Sazeracs were quite possibly chilled with ice from right here, so I feel like we’ve got Sazerac juju,” she says.

Like Ti and Lally, the drinks are smart and playful. And not surprisingly, they often require a certain level of interactivity from drinkers, like the Sunset on the Courtyard, a play on a Tequila Sunrise that combines El Jimador reposado tequila, Solerno Blood Orange liqueur, lime and house made pomegranate syrup, served with a pair of neon sunglasses.  However, fun doesn’t equal simple. The drinks reflect blended cultural influences fitting for the creole birthplace of the American cocktail. Although unverifiable, Ti and Lally will tell you that cocktails began at Peychard’s pharmacy. There the San Domingo-born pharmacist served his famous bitters with brandy in egg cups called coquetiers. Non-French speaking takers of his remedy who had one too many began slurring the name into “cocktails.” At least, that’s one telling of the story.

Ti and Lally’s approach to curating cocktails encompasses an ongoing improvisation of history and invented tradition. A very personal endeavor, considering the Brennan family’s culinary lineage in the city.

That lineage, beginning with their uncle Owen, spans legendary restaurants like the Absinthe House and Vieux Carré where, at 18, Ti’s mother, Ella Brennan, got her start managing the kitchen. The family went on to run a host of other important restaurants including Brennan’s, Mr. B’s Bistro and Palace Café.  After the family took over Commander’s Palace, Ella created a “haute Creole” cuisine for the restaurant, utilizing local flavors and ingredients decades before this most recent iteration of the farm-to-table movement. A focus on evolution and a striving for perfection made Ella one of the most important restauranteurs in the country. Among far too many culinary accolades to name, Ella is credited with igniting an interest in American regional cooking, and the invention of brunch. Yes, brunch.

Ti explains that “Breakfast at Brennan’s” started as, an answer to Dinner at Antoine’s, the 1947 Frances Parkinson Keyes murder mystery that bookends its drama with dinner parties at Antoine’s restaurant. “She wanted to imitate these great old 23-course Creole meals,” she says. “Mom researched everything including classic eye-openers. She took some things from history and then embellished.” Those eye-openers are a mainstay on Brennan’s brunch menu and include classics like Brandy Milk Punch alongside the Ojen Frappe—a tribute to the early drinking places of New Orleans, called “coffee shops.”

According to Ti, the diner’s overall experience was as important as the food and drink. Having a cocktail with an indulgent breakfast, “created the feeling that you were being a little naughty and really experiencing New Orleans.” The cousins are continuing that “naughty” tradition at Commander’s Palace where balloon centerpieces let brunch-goers know that ordering an Absinthe Suissesse with Eggs Sardou is more than a meal—it’s an event.

Ella is famous not only for the mark she’s left on American restaurants, but as a legendary hostess who has entertained generations of movie stars, politicians and literary luminaries, like Tennessee Williams. A parade of interesting personalities, laughter, tall tales and cocktails were mainstays for the young women growing up in the Brennan household.

“They were entertaining all the time,” says Ti, both at home and in the restaurants. As children, if guests came to the house before dinner she and her brother, “would be sent down like a little party trick” to entertain friends, “You know, little kids who made cocktails.” Adding, “I thought the way we lived was fabulous and I wanted to be a part of it when I grew up.”

When Ti entered the restaurant business as an adult, Ella made sure she was schooled in classic drinks. “She handed me a copy of Famous New Orleans Cocktails and How to Mix ‘Em by Stanley Clisby Arthur and said, ‘Here read this, kid.’ And I said, ‘What do I need that for?’ And she said, ‘Because you need to know the history.’”

Cocktails have been a part of the cousins’ lives from the beginning, a rarity in a country wherein much of the current—and previous—generation is just now discovering classic cocktails for the first time. “We’ve tried to get everyone interested in them,” says Ti. “I know that doesn’t sound that forward thinking now, but 15 years ago it was.”

The cousins were motivated by what they saw as a deterioration of cocktails standards that Ti attributes to our nation’s move toward commodified foods, which brought canned juice and corn syrup-laden mixers along with it. The simultaneous rise of good American wine further solidified the abandonment of the quality cocktail. “We were tired of bad drinks,” says Ti. “And we wanted to educate people,” Lally adds.

When the cousins opened Cafe Adelaide in 2003, they made a point to make the bar stand out, giving it a separate name: the Swizzle Stick. Ti says that highlighting a restaurant’s bar was a departure for the time when the theater and ritual of mixing drinks in restaurants had moved to the kitchen. “We put a block of ice in the middle of the bar to hand chip and everyone was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Lally laughs. “How soon we forget!”

Publishing their book, In the Land of Cocktails: Recipes and Adventures from the Cocktail Chicks, in 2007, was another effort to educate the public about the cultural value of the cocktail and what a proper one should taste like. The book combines family stories, anecdotes about notable drinking figures from their childhood, like Trader Vic, and classic-but-accessible cocktail recipes.

That commitment to making the classics approachable is a hallmark of Ti and Lally’s gracious style. Even at Commander’s Palace the cousins make sure to keep their pricing a tier below comparable restaurants and their 25-cent martinis at lunchtime are wildly popular.

By the end of my visit, I’d abandoned my efforts to keep up with my journalistic agenda and let their stories envelop me in an exciting gumbo of people, place and memory. I left feeling that I’d just experienced the real Big Easy, the rare city—with its cocktail breakfasts, martini lunches and the inimitable restaurateurs that rule it all—that actually lives up to its nickname. 

 

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Lora Smith is a writer living in Greensboro, NC. She holds a B.A. from New York University, studied folklore at UNC Chapel Hill and documentary radio production at Duke University. She splits her time between North Carolina and weekend work in Egypt, Kentucky, where she and her husband are transforming a piece of property into an organic farm.

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