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An Exclusive Interview With Atlantic City Chef Michael Brennan

Cardinal Executive Chef and Owner Michael Brennan

Like many seasoned chefs, Michael Brennan, born in Ocean City, New Jersey, and raised in Absecon, New Jersey, across the bay from Atlantic City, got his chops down on the road. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he fired his passion for hospitality in Philadelphia at legendary fine-dining temple Le Bec Fin and The Rittenhouse Hotel’s LaCroix restaurant.  

When NYC’s three Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park came calling, Brennan instead answered the call of Southern hospitality in Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to LaCroix in Philadelphia. In 2016, he co-founded Cardinal Bistro in Ventor, New Jersey, with his restaurant veteran father, Thomas Brennan. Last year, they opened Cardinal in Atlantic City’s dynamic group-capable Orange Loop renaissance neighborhood. Featured on Food Network's “Cooks vs Cons” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” Brennan dishes on bringing his passion for food and making a difference back home. 

[Related: The Orange Loop Launches Exciting Event Options in Atlantic City]

Meetings Today: Birders—I’m one—celebrate the northern cardinal as a spirit messenger and symbol of strength, determination and transformation. That seems most fitting for the Orange Loop’s success in revitalizing the beach blocks of New York Avenue, St. James Place and Tennessee Avenue. 

Michael Brennan: Cardinal Bistro, which I opened following a period of real challenges and meaningful personal growth, was my heartfelt tribute to my grandmother, Anne Brennan. She loved cardinals and filled her home with imagery, feeders and birdhouses. Anne battled cancer when I was in seventh grade. Taking solace in her garden the day she passed away, a flock of cardinals visited me—a moment I will never forget. Before launching the Bistro, I learned that cardinals symbolize guidance and protection. Opening a restaurant is a crazy endeavor—we figured we could use the help! 

Meetings Today: What inspired your move to the Orange Loop? 

Michael Brennan: I wanted to contribute to my hometown’s evolving hospitality scene by fostering culinary talent and setting new guest experience standards. Cardinal Bistro was the initial step in a broader vision to redefine service, hospitality and cuisine beyond typical non-casino establishments. In collaboration with my Cardinal business partners Evan Sanchez and Zenith Shah, who launched the Orange Loop project, we eagerly support the transformative momentum within Atlantic City.  

As founder and president of non-profit 4ACxAC ("For Atlantic City By Atlantic City"), I focus on charitable fundraising events for the betterment of Atlantic City and Atlantic County. Alongside local industry peers, I organize events like "A Night Under the Stars," a transformative affair at an abandoned Atlantic City baseball stadium that attracted nearly 200 guests. 

Meetings Today: How did you approach your menu and cocktail program? 

Michael Brennan: As Cardinal’s executive chef and owner, my mission is to craft unforgettable experiences, blending modern high-end dining with warmth and inclusivity. Our motto is simple: Make memories. The menu reflects this ethos, offering contemporary American dishes with local, seasonal ingredients. Marrying creativity with comfort, our approach is about accessibility, excitement and familiarity. 

Mirroring the kitchen's ethos, our cocktails mix modern and classic techniques for balanced, exquisite beverages. Aligning with rising sober-curious dining trends, we're equally passionate about our mocktail program. We strive for equilibrium across all aspects of the restaurant, ensuring every guest experience is extraordinary. 

Meetings Today: Having experienced Cardinal first-hand, including meeting fun-loving locals at the bar, it seems made to measure for groups.  

Michael Brennan: Absolutely. We cater to planners’ diverse needs with indoor, outdoor and full-buyout options. Custom menus and event planning are part of our commitment to creating unforgettable moments. Cardinal is not just a restaurant but a place for lasting memories. We invite guests to share their visions for special occasions, tailoring menus, cocktails and atmosphere to make each event extraordinary. 

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About the author
Jeff Heilman | Senior Contributor

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based independent journalist Jeff Heilman has been a Meetings Today contributor since 2004, including writing our annual Texas and Las Vegas supplements since inception. Jeff is also an accomplished ghostwriter specializing in legal, business and Diversity & Inclusion content.