There are dining destinations around the world — from Canlis in Seattle, Washington to Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain — that have been around for decades, even centuries, and continue to be operated by the direct relatives of those who first opened the places. 

Today writer Jordana Rothman talks to these people and explores how they feel about carrying on the family business. Did they ever have a choice in the matter? Did they maybe have to put aside their own aspirations to please the family and the public? Or did they want it along, flourishing once given the chance to put their own mark on the restaurant? 

Here’s Jordana: 

History and mythology are packed with tales of fractured bloodlines, reluctant heirs, and inherited errands. Arthurian legend tells of generations of Holy Grail guardians, born into the watch. There’s the unwilling George VI, dragged stuttering into the House of Windsor. And Kim Jong-nam is said to have fallen out of his despot father’s favor after trying to visit Disneyland — no dictatorship for you, young man. 

The thing about the prodigal sons, though, is that they almost always come home. What’s bred in the bone, they say, comes out in the flesh.

For barbecue icon Wayne Mueller, that’s especially true.

If you’ve ever sought out pit-smoked barbecue among the old cotton towns that surround Austin, you’ve almost certainly made it to Louie Mueller and maybe even met the man’s grandson, Wayne. He sees to the place these days. He started sweeping floors and hauling out trash at the restaurant when his father Bobby assumed the business from Louie in 1974. He was eight then, and he kept up with the work through high school. But the way he tells it, he wasn’t supposed to end up back at Louie Mueller. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here,” he says. “To leave, never come back, put this whole barbecue thing behind me.”

But things happened, as they do. Wayne’s brother John took up the mantle in the 90s, and Wayne was relieved. “I saw this as the linchpin — the thing that that would allow me to stay away,” he says. Wayne went to college, earned a masters degree, worked as an assistant general manager of two minor league baseball teams, and set up an ad agency in Houston. And then in 2001 he got the call.

Under John’s shaky stewardship, Wayne says, the business was near bankruptcy. Bobby summoned Wayne home to help extricate his own brother, hold off the creditors, and rebuild. That, or let the place go to ruin. “Thinking about losing the family business shook me,” says Wayne. “I didn’t realize how much of my own personal history and ideas about life were tied into that place. When it was threatened, that became truly valuable to me.”

The Louie Mueller storefront in Taylor, Texas

What would have been lost, exactly, if Wayne never came home? Forget the multi-generational legacy for a moment and just consider the meat. Every jiggly, smoke-ringed bite is a tiny ayahuasca journey. One moment you’re eating a beef rib, the next you’re steering a pleasure barge down the Styx; you’re rustling Longhorns along the Chisholm Trail; you’re shooting out the business end of a t-shirt gun, barreling through space, up, up, and away towards the cheap seats. Then you’re back in the smoke house, face slicked with beef fat, wondering what the hell just happened. Surely there’d be some cosmic comeuppance for the man who would let such a thing wither away. Wayne knew that.

So he came home, returning full-time in 2007. “I was finally ready to do it,” he says. “I’d seen and done many of the things I wanted to do. I felt I could come back; that I’d let go of that animosity, those feelings that I’d lost a childhood to this monolith.” He made his peace with the choice, and he loves the place. That much is clear when he upends the dining room chairs to show off the secret inscriptions he’s left underneath — dedications to Bobby and Louie, both long since passed. When he leans over the 1949-vintage pit, fed with post oak and jammed with briskets, he breathes deep. Wayne’s got a daughter now too. She likes making sausages.

Family businesses have a complicated kind of magnetism. Think of Michael Corleone’s lament — “just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in” — and you’ll get the idea. There was a time in history when it was common to see a trade pass from parent to child as naturally as freckles or a cleft chin. But that kind of generational transfer is rarer these days, and in the food world — in which creative latitude and a strong sense of identity are vital for a chef or restaurateur — the idea of birthright is particularly thorny. To be born into a culinary legacy is a point of pride.

But it can also be an albatross for a cook who is compelled to leave their own mark. And for those who don’t wish to spend their lives in a restaurant at all, deferring to history is especially tragic.

The subject is delicate. That folksy from-our-home-to-yours effect is fundamental to the public face of many family-run restaurants. In some cases there’s a business imperative to protect it; in others, it’s about keeping the lid on feelings that, for practical reasons, have long been swept aside.

Consider Margaret Mieles, whose father Domenico De Marco founded the legendary Di Fara pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn, in 1965. “I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the place; it’s bittersweet,” she says. Margaret and her six siblings worked at Di Fara every day after school, and five of the children are still deeply involved with the business. “As teenagers we felt resentment because we had to put in so many hours there. It was expected of us, and we weren’t able to make our own choices. Those are years we cant get back.”

Dom Demarco, who still makes every single pie at his establishment.

Growing up in a restaurant might be a little bit like growing up in a small town. You spend your young years plotting an escape. Maybe you leave for a while. Then you get a little older and start to think about the virtues of a nice lawn; of shop keeps who remember your parents. Maybe you were too quick to say goodbye to all that; maybe there’s something to it. Margaret worked as a hostess at the historic Lundy’s restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and did secretarial work, but she came home to Di Fara.

Now, at 43, she wonders what will happen to the business when her father passes, and later, when she and her brothers have to retire themselves. Despite her conflicted feelings about her own childhood, she’s come full circle, setting the stage for the next generation of Di Fara heirs — four nieces and nephews. “You cant force people into liking the things that you like, or caring about the things that you care about, but I honestly believe the place needs to stay in the family,” she says. “Many years from now, when my dad is not with us anymore, the worst thing we could become is just a regular pizzeria.”

It’s clear that questions of legacy aren’t a youthful worry. Both Wayne Mueller and Margaret Mieles had the benefit of age and perspective when they finally came around to their fates. But it’s difficult to expect a younger, less experienced person to do the same. You can understand, then, why down in Louisiana so many eyes are on Casie Blount. She’s 23 years old. She works at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, organizing  children’s birthday parties. Next year, her family’s French Quarter restaurant Antoine’s celebrates its 175th anniversary. And if she doesn’t take the reigns when her father Rick and grandmother Yvonne step down, it’s possible that no one will.

Antoine’s, which opened in 1840

Casie is one of seven grandchildren in the Blount clan, but the only one in a position to further its heritage. She recognizes the gravitas of Antoine’s and what it would mean for her family if she chose another path. But she’s young — too young, probably — to know if she’s right for it. Casie was a fixture at Antoine’s from the age of 15, but took some time away to go to college and, in her words, “get some worldly experience.” Call it a rumspringa, if you like. “My grandma asks me all the time, ‘You are coming back right? You know you’re coming back,’” she says. “I want to come back. Antoine’s is home. But there is that sense of responsibility and always that question — what if I fail? I wouldn’t just be failing a business, I would be failing a family.”

More than that, actually. Antoine’s, like many long-standing restaurants, has deep roots in its community. Casie would oblige her family if she took up the reigns, but she’d also be in the service of generations of regulars. These are the people who have celebrated engagements, anniversaries, and all manner of life occasions over white linens and oysters Rockefeller. Just like the Blounts, the fans want Antoine’s to live on frozen in time, a priceless heirloom bequeathed to Casie, with the unspoken caution that she better not break it.

You can also think about inheriting legacy as an evolution rather than a preservation. Across the country, at Canlis in Seattle, Washington, generations of succession have made significant changes to the restaurant. Its founder, Peter Canlis, was a playboy in the classic mold (sharp suits, multiple marriages, a fondness for liquor), and the glamorous restaurant he built was fueled as much by its food and drink as it was by his charismatic authority. When he died in 1977, his son Chris took over the business with the caveat that he and his wife Alice would run it more modestly. They overhauled the identity of Canlis, infusing it with guest-focused humility. The servers no longer wore extravagant kimonos like they did in Peter’s day, but the steak tartares and seared prawns that had always been menu staples stuck around.

Peter Canlis in the dining room of his eponymous restaurant

Chris and Alice eventually passed the torch to two of their children, Mark and Brian. But issues of birthright didn’t play a role. “The word inheritance has a loaded quality to it,” says Mark Canlis, remembering those early days. Chris insisted that Mark interview for a job he wanted with the wine team; his salary was a pittance. And when it came time to assume the business, Mark and Brian purchased a controlling share from their parents in 2005. “That’s just how it was,” he says. “[Just because we were born into this family], doesn’t mean we deserve the restaurant or that the restaurant deserves us. I had to earn my way up.”

Mark and Brian made Canlis their own. They hired a chef, Jason Franey, away from Eleven Madison Park in New York, and his modern food earned the restaurant its first culinary nods from the James Beard Foundation in 2012 and 2013. That steak tartare is now made with wagyu and those prawns are warmed gently in beurre blanc. “Our challenge has been to mend multiple generations of ownership,” says Mark of the changes. “Peter’s grandeur and flair and energy — that 50s swagger and pomp — with mom and dad’s big, thumping, heartfelt thing.”

Mark now has three young children, but he says he’d sooner lose the family business than force them into following the same road — to project onto his kids that very human need to leave a trace of himself behind. “You have to let go,” he says. “You have to say, ‘love what you want to love. This is me, and you’re you.’ Maybe my kids will make great restaurateurs, but it’s not my job to push them there.”

In family-run restaurants, more emotional weight is incurred with each new generation, and the stakes get higher the longer a legacy is maintained. So it takes a certain grit to give one’s kin the space to refuse a well-ripened history, or to entrust them with the freedom to overhaul it. But that’s how the least tortured endowments do seem to unfold — with a wide berth.

In Spain, Elena Arzak works side by side with her father Juan Mari at their eponymous San Sebastian restaurant. She’s a fourth-generation cook, representing a hearty root system that dates to the late nineteenth century. Like Juan Mari, Elena grew up at Arzak. But when she made the decision to take on the family trade, her parents were frank about its demands. “They wanted to be sure I was sure,” she says. “They didn’t want to close the doors to me, but they wanted me to know that this work is very intense.”

She went to culinary school in Switzerland and staged at restaurants around the world before returning to Arzak in 1995. From the beginning Juan Mari made a point to clear creative space for Elena. “My father has always encouraged me to develop new ideas,” she says. “He told me, ‘if you see something you want to change, let me know.’” Together, they have refined the progressive Basque cuisine that has earned Arzak its three Michelin stars and San Pellegrino World’s Best rankings. “Juan Mari Arzak leads the kitchen with the collaboration of Elena and the team. Without Elena, this cuisine would be impossible,” reads an Arzak mission statement. Elena doesn’t have to wait for a figurative changing of the guard, or worry that imposing her own will could weaken the Arzak mythology. There’s already room for her there.

The 2012 film Entre les Bras documents the handover of the massively influential Bras in Laguiole, France from Michel Bras to his son Sebastién. In the tense, almost ominous climax, which you can see above, Sebastién plates a dish as his father literally watches over his shoulder. Production company Jour2Fête is offering a limited number of free copies of the film to those who write us at gu@madfood.co

For the Arzaks, as at Canlis, bottling the past is less important than furthering a tradition of creative rigor, whatever shape it takes  —choose this path only if it’s right for you, then make it your own. That’s one way to consider legacy: that it can be a fluid thing and doesn’t depreciate simply because it changes course. That you can drop it on its head a few times, dust it off and keep going.

But for Wayne Mueller, Margaret Mieles and, eventually, for Casie Blount, legacy is  more fossilized. The peppery bark of a beef rib, the cornice of a pizza pie, the time-capsule charisma of an antebellum dining room—these are totems and coats of arms. Their value is rooted in how vividly they tell of the past; how well they comfort us, convince us that some things really don’t ever change. For the bloodlines they represent, the constancy is even more important. Preserved in amber, a restaurant can be a spiritual home for a family: Even as children grow u even as older generations die off, this one thing breathes forever.

It is honorable to take up that mantle, to carve a family name deeper into the collective consciousness, and to give people something they can count on. But it’s hard to keep still under the thumb of a legacy. You can only keep the same log burning for so long.

Illustration by Kristian Eskild Jensen