Plenty of chefs are opening casual restaurants, but it’s a dramatic move for the chef and co-owner of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Still, Picnic Provisions and Whiskey had the blessing of the late restaurant matriarch Ella Brennan.
— Micheline Maynard
Of the hundreds of restaurants in New Orleans, Commander’s Palace sits at the very top, at least according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which recently named it the city’s best restaurant.
To reach Commander’s, you drive through the elegant Garden District, pass an intriguing cemetery, and arrive under the awning of the iconic aqua and white building, where jackets are required and jeans are discouraged.
Two and a half miles away, at the corner of Washington and Magazine Streets, a newly opened place tells a completely different story. Picnic Provisions and Whiskey doesn’t care what you’re wearing, and you’re likely to step past people playing corn hole outside the door.
Nevertheless, there’s a direct link between them. Ti Adelaide Martin is co-proprietor of both, and James Beard Award winning chef Tory McPhail is in charge of the menus.
Picnic Provisions’ third participant is Darryl Reginelli, co-founder of Reginelli’s, which has eight casual pizza restaurants across the New Orleans area.
Picnic Provisions is at the heart of a trend by numerous top-ranked chefs to delve into fast casual restaurants. Yet it opened in September only months after the death of Martin’s mother, the legendary New Orleans restaurant figure Ella Brennan, who passed away in May.
That made some people wonder whether it was a declaration of independence from fine dining by Martin and McPhail.
Not so, they reply. Brennan, they say, was completely appraised about the venture, saw its menu while it was under development, and understand what her daughter and her chef were trying to accomplish.
“It’s casual, but with a touch of class,” Martin says. “I told her, ‘Mom, you would be comfortable there.’”
Adds McPhail: “She was super excited. She knew every single detail.”
Beyond its founders, another key link between Commander’s and Picnic Provisions is fried chicken, says Martin. One of the most popular lunch entrees at Commander’s has been a fried chicken salad, Martin says. “We’ve been playing around with it for 25 years,” she says.
At Picnic, the star attraction is crawfish boil hot fried chicken, a riff off the spices and vegetables that are used in preparing crawfish that New Orleansians tear into when the mud bugs are in season. The chicken is available in a sandwich, as a plate or on a salad.
McPhail says he ate fried chicken at 75 different places, from gas stations to sit down restaurants, as he refined his idea to use the same spices used to boil crawfish on the chicken. (His research has continued, and he’s now up to more than 100 chicken outlets.)
“It’s got spice, it’s got good salt” and the boneless chicken used in it is locally sourced, McPhail says.
As with his chicken quest, the idea for Picnic Provisions was long in coming. “We kept saying to each other, ‘what’s your favorite thing?’” Martin recalls. McPhail and Reginelli repeatedly brought up the idea of eating outdoors with friends, a frequent occurrence in New Orleans, whether at Mardi Gras parties, at back yard gatherings, on boats or in local parks.
“You mean like a picnic?” Martin asked. Eventually, the concept became a reality when the previous occupant, Noodle and Pie, shut down.
Reginelli owned the building, which was the location of his chain’s first pizza outlet. That meant start up costs were somewhat cheaper than if the trio had gone with a different location (McPhail and Martin declined to provide details on the investment).
But the site still required a thorough overhaul, “down to the studs,” McPhail says.
Since its opening, the restaurant has gotten so much business that it has delayed launching its delivery service, which Martin sees as an integral part of operations. Picnic plans to handle deliveries itself, rather than turn to a service such as Uber Eats or Door Dash.
Although food world celebrities such as Jeremiah Tower and Guy Fieri have already dined there, Martin thinks Picnic Provisions needs time to settle in. “I tell people to give it a year, whether it’s mine or anyone else’s,” she says.
“It’s like taking a bunch of football players who’ve never played together before and say, go play in the Super Bowl. I don’t think this will be any different.”
Meanwhile, McPhail says Picnic Provisions is evolving from carryout into watering hole. “We thought people would come in, have a cocktail, have a fried chicken and get stuff to go,” he says. “Instead, we’ve had some people order the entire menu. They just want to hang out.”
Asked whether he thinks the concept is scalable to other New Orleans neighborhoods, McPhail replies, “We’re not thinking that far ahead. We want it to just be the most fun fried chicken joint.”
Nonetheless, the dining world’s eyes will be on Picnic Provisions to see if these three veteran restaurateurs can bring to fried chicken what they’ve brought to pizza and bread pudding soufflé.