Tonight, the dining room at Brennan's will be filled once again with the happy sounds of clattering plates, clinking wine glasses and content diners after a 17-month rebuilding process. The beloved Houston institution, which first opened in 1967 as a sister restaurant to New Orleans's famous Commander's Palace, brought rich Creole cuisine to the Bayou City and quickly solidified itself as a Houston favorite.
Over time, other Creole restaurants infiltrated the market, but none with as much success or influence as Brennan's. Then a fire -- thought to have been started by a downed transformer during Hurricane Ike's horrible winds -- ravaged the restaurant in 2008, partially destroying the structure and badly injuring sommelier James Koonce and his daughter, Katherine, as well as famed general manager Carl Walker.
The Koonces have since recovered and recently returned from a vacation to Disney World, while Carl Walker is as sprightly and in-charge as ever. During our visit today, guided by marketing manager Blair Mathews, we chatted briefly with a busy Walker as he bustled about the large, open kitchen in preparation for tonight's long-awaited and already sold-out dinner service, reservations for which have been booked for more than a year. "Tonight's the night!" he exclaimed happily. Mathews chimed in, "We're all just so excited. It's such a rush."
Although the interior of Brennan's looks entirely different now, all the changes are for the best. "This is the John Staub room," Mathews said as we entered the first dining room on the ground floor, a warm and cozy space done in shades of chocolate and taupe, anchored by a roaring fireplace. "Not only did he design the building originally, but we went back to some of the design elements he incorporated that had been covered up."
Some of those uncovered elements include enormous arched windows that are present in nearly every room, most notably in the main stairwell and main dining room. The windows had been bricked up during the transformation of the building from Junior League headquarters to Brennan's restaurant, making the interior quite dark at times. No more dark spaces for the new Brennan's, though, which is bright and modern throughout, yet still grounded in a certain traditional elegance.
The menu, too, has retained very traditional elements -- such as the eternally popular sherry-spiked turtle soup -- but features dishes with highly modern and excitingly local ingredients: a BBQ Crawfish Shortcake with a rosemary buttermilk biscuit, Crystal hot sauce and St. Arnold's beer, for example, as well as a Froberg Farms strawberry shortcake with Imperial powdered sugar.
New chef Danny Trace will have Houston's attention tonight, both with a sparkling new interior and a brave new menu. It's a lot to live up to. For our part, we're just thrilled to see the restaurant open once again and to have had Brennan's sweet pralines waiting for us as we walked out the door, already planning our next visit.
For more scenes from the restaurant, check out our slideshow or view the movie below.