At Charlie’s Steak House, the T-bones arrive on battered iron pans with sizzle, smoke and dire warnings from the waiter to defend your shirtfront with a napkin.
The thin-cut onion rings pile up in a billowy bouffant. The potatoes au gratin, capped with oozing cheddar, are the color of a school bus and just as heavy.
And still, what everyone talks about when they talk about Charlie’s is something you can’t see — the menu.
There is no menu. Asking for one outs you as a newbie. Old regulars are adamant there should never be one. It is, after all, one of the cornerstone quirks of a place built on time-honored oddities.
Time keeps marching, of course, and this week brings up a special anniversary to this casual, persistently charismatic Uptown restaurant. Ten years ago, on Aug. 15, 2008, Charlie’s Steak House reopened after a long stretch in post-Katrina limbo.
This restaurant goes back to 1932. What does another 10 years mean to a restaurant with that kind of pedigree? At Charlie’s, it means everything.
Charlie’s Steak House was not coming back after Hurricane Katrina. The restaurant was too fragile to snap back from the disaster, its family owners too far along for what proved to be an enormous task.
The job fell to Matthew Dwyer, then 37, a bartender who happened to live down the block from the restaurant and sometimes pulled shifts mixing drinks here.
He took on a restaurant that everyone wanted to see return, and nobody wanted to see change.
Ten years later, he’s succeeded in keeping this wonderfully strange restaurant vibrant, not by outright forbidding change but by curating it, tailoring the needed adjustments to the spirit of the place.
“It’s Charlie’s with our twists to it, the tradition continues,” Dwyer said.
Back when he bought the place he saw an opportunity, and he felt an obligation. The founding family of Charlie’s knew him and trusted him. He knew the restaurant’s stories and appreciated its character.
Dwyer thought he could do it justice. Looking back, he also thinks he was lucky he had no idea what he was getting into.
“I was out of my mind,” Dwyer said.
Reviving an original
In 2008, though, that was a common feeling around New Orleans.
Katrina was three years gone and a sense of true recovery for the city seemed distant. The Nagin administration had become a dark parody of leadership. Crime had come soaring back. Redevelopment was only inching along. “Cranes in the sky” was a punchline.
Reopening a fusty old Uptown steakhouse might not seem momentous against this backdrop. But Charlie’s return was one of those hooks that its many fans could use to pull themselves up just a little bit more.
Getting it back was no cakewalk. When Dwyer took ownership, the dining room was an eerie time capsule to the last night of service before Katrina hit. Tables were still set with linens and utensils and packets of crackers. The last ticket still sat on the cash register.
In tattered condition before the storm, the restaurant needed a major renovation to reopen. Dwyer found his first assist close to home.
His father Gene, an attorney who has also penned a book about Marie Laveau, lent him some money.
“The conversation about buying it was two sentences,” Gene Dwyer said. “It’s Charlie’s. It’s an institution.”
Others got on board too, for the same reason. Lenders were leery, but Dwyer eventually found one who got it, because it was Charlie’s.
Contractors worked on spec, even at a time when hard cash was ready for their services elsewhere, because it was Charlie’s.
Dwyer’s old bartending buddies pitched in to help run the place, because it was Charlie’s, and maybe also because it was Dwyer. Some have since become fixtures of Charlie’s new guard.
There’s Glenn Bove, the restaurant manager from practically the start of the post-Katrina era. Steve Sones, a waiter, has been there from day one. For nine years now, the kitchen has been run by Brandon “Cowboy” Ferris, while Ted Hughes has seven years under his belt here.
The old Charlie’s was dirt cheap. In 2005, the large T-bone topped out at $19.75, and a filet was $14. Wines ran you $3.50; “local beer” (meaning domestic) was $2.50.
Today, the longnecks are $3, though the steak prices have caught up with reality (roughly doubling from the old days). The quality of beef has also increased.
There’s a decent wine list. The mushrooms no longer start out in a can. There’s a list of bar snacks (it’s not a menu, Dwyer insists, because it shows no prices).
For all the lore around the customs and ambiance and food at Charlie’s, many of the great stories about this restaurant revolved around people.
Charlie Petrossi Sr., an immigrant from Ustica, an island off Sicily, opened his namesake restaurant in 1932. He and his wife Naomi (known as Dearie) once served other dishes. A newspaper clipping from 1947 talks up their “spaghetti Italiennne.”
But steaks were the specialty. A story around the restaurant holds that even during World War II, when rationing made meat harder to procure, Charlie’s always had a line on it.
Later, Charlie’s was run by its founder’s son, the late Sonny Petrossi. For many though, the face of Charlie’s Steakhouse was his sister, the late Dottye Bennett.
She waited tables here for 50 years. She beamed at her regulars like a loving aunt and walked newcomers through Charlie’s peculiarities. She delivered bottles of St. Paulie Girl beer to the table with the pride of an Oktoberfest maiden hauling steins. She cheered Dwyer on when he began rebuilding the restaurant, and whenever she visited Charlie's after it reopened she was greeted like a celebrity.
Agatha Brown was the “steak lady,” never “chef,” but always key to the operation. Rhoda Patterson, a cook from the 1970s on, briefly came out of retirement to help Dwyer’s kitchen get rolling in 2008.
Many stories have stuck to Pietro Petrossi, or "Uncle Pete," an Italian army veteran from World War II who became a waiter here. He did not just recite the steakhouse options, he dictated who got what, usually along gender lines. T-bones were for men; women got the filet. He refused to place orders that he deemed out of order. The customer was never right.
To this day, the Charlie’s staff hauls trays of onion rings and explains the steak options in the shadow of this reputation.
“How come the staff isn’t as grumpy anymore?” someone asked Dwyer with a smile outside Charlie’s one recent night.
“Give them time,” Dwyer quipped without hesitation. “If they work with us long enough they’ll get there.”
A comeback with one-liners
Dwyer has a line for just about everything.
He contends that he was born a wiseass; as a bartender, he refined the impulse into pro-level repartee. The New Orleans native worked around town, including a 10-year run at Madigan's in the Riverbend. He started picking up a few shifts at Charlie’s back in 2002, more out of neighborly courtesy than the need for a gig.
Otherwise back then, Charlie's bar was usually empty, just a holding area beside the dining room with no bartender on duty. Beer came from the white household fridge standing in the corner of the dining room, and many regulars knew to serve themselves, adding to their tally on the honor system.
“'Dottye, we grabbed two St. Paulie Girls,' they’d just yell across the room,” Dwyer said.
Memories are strong about Charlie’s, but maybe not consistent. People have sworn that they ate here before the second floor was added (impossible, Dwyer said), that there used to be a different entrance, that they spotted American presidents and rock stars dining at Charlie’s who likely never visited.
“I used to try to correct people, but it’s pointless. It’s their story,” said Dwyer.
The point of Charlie’s is not perfection. It's more jovial than refined. If some steakhouses feel like an adjunct of the boardroom, this one is more like a rumpus room. Maintaining its history in the modern restaurant world takes a sense of humor. Dwyer has it.
When someone asked for a menu recently, he whipped out a list of po-boys from Parkway Bakery that he happened to have on hand. It was a menu, alright, just not for Charlie’s.
When someone complained that she liked the wine better in the old days, when boxed wine was the standard, Dwyer found a random box, stuck a bottle of white in it and set this on her table.
“Boxed wine,” Dwyer said, recalling the gag, almost straight-faced.
If Charlie’s Steak House built its original following on characters, its fans should feel lucky that it has been rebuilt by someone who is a character in his own right.
4510 Dryades St., 504-895-9323
When Arnaud’s was closed for heavy renovations back in the late 1970s, a cadre of regulars were issued their own keys to its Richelieu Bar. Th…
The sign over the door at Nephew’s Ristorante is small, but it says it all.
Longway Tavern opened on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter in May. That’s barely enough time to get a few scrapes on the varnish. But stil…
As Tujague’s restaurant marks its 160th anniversary, it’s legacy and its latest chapter under new owners is up for evaluation, staff art, arch…