November 29, 2004
For more than 140 years Bruning's Seafood Restaurant has operated from the same location on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. For the last 43 of those years, co-owner Jimmy Bruning Urrate (A&S '74) has helped maintain this Louisiana culinary tradition.
The Bruning's legacy began in the 1840s, when Jimmy's great-great-great grandfather, Theodor Bruning, emigrated from Germany to New Orleans and opened his first restaurant on Claiborne Avenue in what was then the town of Carrollton. In 1859 Bruning moved to Bucktown, a small fishing village on Lake Pontchartrain, and started the restaurant that bears his name today. According to Urrate, Bruning's is New Orleans' third-oldest restaurant, behind Antoine's and Tujaques.
In bygone days, Bruning's featured a cabaret with dancing waitresses and rows of slot machines. Today, Jimmy, his brother, Sam Jr., and their mother, Amelia, operate a no-frills family restaurant that serves local seafood lovers. Urrate learned the restaurant business from his father, Sam, who managed the restaurant until his death in 1981. Jimmy Urrate grew up in the restaurant, earning his first paycheck at the age of 14 as a cashier.
"I've always known that I was going to go into the restaurant business," Urrate says. He enrolled at Tulane in 1965 and spent the next nine years working toward a degree, splitting his time between classes and the restaurant. While at Tulane he immersed himself in the liberal arts, studying history, political science, and literature. "I think I took every English class that Tulane offered," Urrate jokes. He was also an active member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
As vice president of DTD, he oversaw the construction of a new fraternity house. Occasionally, the group would throw parties at Bruning's. After graduating with a bachelor of arts in political science, Urrate promptly went to work full-time at the restaurant. A key ingredient to Bruning's success is its stability in staff and customers, says Urrate, who is the restaurant's third-oldest worker, behind his mother and head chef Odeal. During Urrate's tenure, there's been little turnover in the wait and kitchen staff.
"The secret is to hire the right people," Urrate says. "Here, it's more like a family." Bruning's patrons also stay around. Longtime seafood connoisseurs pack the restaurant's two floors throughout the week. "We have customers who are 80 years old and who have come here since they were kids," Urrate says. The menu has also remained unchanged.
Bruning's seafood is strictly local, caught fresh from Lake Pontchartrain or the Gulf of Mexico. The specialty is stuffed flounder, fried or broiled and served whole. Other trademark dishes include trout, redfish, fried shrimp, soft-shell crabs, and oysters on the half-shell. Bruning's signature drink is the Lakesider, a mixture of rum and three fruit juices, served in a tall iced glass. A Bucktown resident his entire life, Urrate grew up just a footbridge away from the restaurant in the family's traditional house.
The Bruning home, built in 1893 by his great-grandfather, Capt. John C. Bruning, is a historic landmark. In the late 1980s film crews were in New Orleans working on The Big Easy, starring Dennis Quad and Ellen Barkin. Production scouts for the movie wanted to use Urrate's house for a Cajun party scene. At first Urrate refused, but when the producers insisted he made them abide by one requirement. "I told them they could use my house, but that they would have to hire all the extras from the old Bucktown community."
Urrate had a serious run-in with Mother Nature in 1998, when Hurricane Georges plowed through New Orleans. Most of the city went unscathed, but the storm demolished Bruning's Restaurant as it passed the city and headed out over Lake Pontchartrain. The entire restaurant, except for the bar and the original bar mirror, was destroyed. "The newspaper called it a close call," Urrate says, pointing to a framed news clip hanging on the wall. "But take away the two C's and you have it's a lose-all."
The family was heartbroken over the loss, but refused to give up--and they had a backup. Aware of flooding dangers in the area, the family had purchased an adjacent building back in 1947. After Hurricane Georges demolished the original building, they moved next door. Within two months Bruning's was once again open for business. Urrate plans to rebuild on the original building's site in the coming years. The Bruning legacy will continue. Urrate's nephew, John, has taken an active role in the business and is set to lead the next generation of owners.
Until then, Urrate will continue to provide the familiar service Bruning's customers have known since Theodor opened his doors to the public for the first time. "We don't want to be the biggest, but we want to be the best we can," Urrate says.
Favorite comfort food?
Greatest culinary hero?
My father--he taught me everything I know.
If you could serve one person, who would that be?
Geoffrey Shannon is a 2004 graduate of Tulane and former sports editor of the Hullabaloo.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org