1403 Washington Ave, New Orleans
Consistently among the city’s premier eateries, is the 4th oldest restaurant in New Orleans haunted?
Many visitors to Commander’s Palace have reported strange goings-on. One of the most common stories is that of a young girl descending the stairs. Others report the feeling of a dark presence in the women’s restroom. One visitor claims an angry shade threw something at her in the restroom, barely missing her head.
Some of the more forthcoming staff will tell of footsteps with no mortal source, and silverware moving about or disappearing. Occasionally the lights flicker in the kitchen for no apparent reason.
If you’re wondering about the source of these phantasmal phenomena, a look across the street may provide some clues.
Commander’s Palace is situated just across Washington Avenue from the historic Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Established in 1833, it’s one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. Interred here are the likes of judge John H. Ferguson (of Plessy v. Ferguson infamy) and Confederate Brigadier General Harry T. Hays, who commanded soldiers in some of the Civil War’s most well-known battles.
With over 7,000 people buried in a single city block, it would be remarkable if there weren’t numerous rumors of paranormal happenings in the area. However, perhaps the most well-known specter in Commander’s Palace is that of the original owner and namesake Emile Commander.
Visitors to the exquisitely appointed Commander’s Palace are treated every day with some of the finest culinary delights the American south has to offer. Its long list of accolades would make any owner blush.
It should surprise no-one that its founder and original owner, Emile Commander, is said to be among its ghostly residents. He opened the doors of the Palace in 1893 and only saw 13 years of operation before his untimely death in 1906 from tuberculosis. It makes sense that his spirit would linger here, proudly admiring what his beloved restaurant has become.
If you happen to see the phantom of a nicely dressed, middle-aged gentleman with a glorious mustache, you’re not alone. That’s probably Emile Commander, and guests have been reporting sightings of him for years. Weaving between tables and checking in on guests, the proud owner seems to have never left his beautiful Palace.
Don’t be afraid of Emile. By all accounts, he’s just merrily making sure you’re being well-served at his world-famous establishment. Keep an eye on your wine glass though, as he’s known to take a few gulps…
Commander’s Palace is the 4th oldest continually-operating restaurant in New Orleans. That’s a good bit of history in itself, but the land it’s on can be traced further back than that.
In the 18th century, this land (and much of the historically beautiful Garden District) was part of the Livaudais Plantation. Second-generation owner Jacques Livaudais appears to have been an early millionaire playboy; more adept at billiards than finance. He even had a horse track built to entertain himself and his cohorts.
As the institution of slavery met its much-needed demise, the Livaudais Plantation and other plantations were sold off in parcels. Just upriver of the historic French Quarter, this land became popular among wealthy Americans seeking their own neighborhood away from the Creole population.
Ustica, Italy is a small island about 50 miles off the coast of Sicily. As the community on the island grew, it got too crowded for a number of its inhabitants, and many chose to start fresh in the United States. Among the first to make the move was 21-year old Pietro Camarda.
Pietro settled in New Orleans in 1852 and bounced from one trade to the next for some time. At some point, he Americanized his name and became Peter Commander. In 1857, he gave birth to his first son Emile. This was the first recorded birth in New Orleans to a parent from Ustica.
Emile would work closely with his father, eventually becoming a manager at his saloon. Business there boomed but Emile had grander plans. In 1891 he purchased a lot on the corner of Washington Avenue and Coliseum Street. There, Emile would establish his Palace.
For many years, Commander’s Palace boasted about its doors opening in 1880. Although we could find evidence as early as 1885 that the Commander family ran a saloon, we know that saloon wasn’t the Palace.
In truth, Commander’s Palace didn’t open until 1893. When the current owners found out in 2015, they took the news well, creating a new cocktail called the
Oops! which you can still enjoy today.
Regardless of when it opened its doors, it’s clear that by the turn of the 20th century, Commander’s Palace already had a reputation for fine dining and luxurious service. It’s a real shame its first proprietor couldn’t watch it grow for very long. Emile died of tuberculosis in 1906 while traveling in England.
After Emile’s unexpected death, the restaurant continued to flourish under the Commander family’s ownership. Wealthy residents of the Garden District would start their Sundays by paying respects to loved ones in the Lafayette Cemetery, then mosey over to the Palace for a gourmet meal.
In the 1920s, the Commander family sold their Palace to Frank Giarratano. The new owner kept the lower level of the building operating as a gourmet eatery, but it seems the second floor saw some changes.
While the ground floor played host to wealthy diners from high society, the second floor sounds like it was a love song to saloons of yesteryear. Gamblers and prostitutes ruled the roost, with private rooms for those so inclined. Thankfully there was an exterior staircase to keep the scandalous types away from the more high-strung guests below.
Under prohibition, it seems like Commander’s Palace was one place you could still find liquor. In 1932, newspapers reported that the Palace
fell victim to a raid by Federal prohibition agents. Two men were arrested for sale and possession of liquor.
To be fair to Mr. Giarratano, there is evidence that some of these activities might have been happening under Emile Commander’s ownership as well. The TImes Democrat reported in 1903 that Emile was arrested for
violating the slot machine law and held on a $250 bond.
With his health failing, Frank Giarratano sold Commander’s Palace in 1944 to Frank and Elinor Moran. The couple refurbished the restaurant and brought the atmosphere on the second floor more in line with the ground floor. They built on the legacy of excellence already present and added some menu items that are still served today.
The couple continued to ensure Commander’s Palace was at the top of the list for dining enthusiasts in New Orleans up until Frank died in 1966. After a few years, the right buyer came along to add a little extra flair to the already exquisite eatery.
In 1969, Commander’s Palace was bought by the famous Brennan family of New Orleans. Owen Brennan built a reputation for himself in the restaurant industry starting in 1946. That year, he opened the Vieux Carre Restaurant and quickly picked up a high-class clientele. Since his death in 1955, generations of Brennans have become the family to know in New Orleans cuisine.
Purchasing Commander’s Palace would cement the Brennans’ legacy in New Orleans. Along with perfecting the menu, walls were replaced with windows, allowing for plenty of beautiful natural light, filtered through the leaves of the luscious courtyard garden. They also added the now-famous
Commander’s Blue paint on the exterior.
Under Brennan ownership, Commander’s Palace has seen executive chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail. The awards and accolades have rolled in non-stop, and Commander’s Palace remains one of the top restaurants in the United States.
If you plan on eating at the Palace, call ahead for a reservation and put on your Sunday best. Also, prepare for a lighter wallet and a full belly. We promise the cost of eating there is well worth it. Don’t even think about leaving until you’ve had their world-famous Creole Bread Pudding Souffle!
Commander’s Palace is located at 1403 Washington Ave, at the corner of Washington and Coliseum. Just get in the area and I promise you can’t miss the bright blue Victorian building. Take a stroll through the Lafayette cemetery before you go in. It’s free and open to the public.
One more thing - if you should happen to catch a glimpse of Emile Commander’s shade, tell him I still haven’t forgiven him for finishing my glass of Chateau la Mouliniere!
Are you looking for a bite to eat? Are you looking for a meal at an iconic restaurant that has (quite literally) contributed innumerable chefs to the restaurant world? (i.e., Emeril Lagasse got his start here!)
If you've answered 'yes' to any of the above, then you don't want to miss out on eating a meal at Commander's Palace. Remember to wear your finest clothes, and prepare for a decent-sized bill. But, let us just tell you that the ambiance, the food and the service are all well worth the price tag.
And that doesn't even the ghosts!