It doesn't matter if she's at her weekly outing to the bowling alley, shopping at Wal-Mart or pushing her beverage cart from room to room on her rounds at Touro Infirmary. Everywhere Dottye Bennett goes these days, people ask her what's up with Charlie's Steakhouse. The affiliation is hardly surprising, considering the 81-year-old has long been the public face of the scrappy, working man's steakhouse her father opened in Uptown in 1932. Ms. Dottye, as she is universally called, worked at Charlie's for 55 years, delivering T-bones sputtering with butter and colossal piles of onion rings to successive generations of locals in the know about the low-key, backstreet restaurant.
The levee failures closed the place, seemingly for good. Longtime proprietor Charles 'Sonny" Pettrosi Jr., son of the restaurant's founder and namesake, died a few years before Katrina and his widow was uncertain about reopening the flood-damaged business. In the interim, most of the staff decided to retire or, like Ms. Dottye, found other jobs.
Still, as the parade of post-Katrina restaurant reopenings rolled forward, everyone kept asking about Charlie's. As of this fall, Ms. Dottye finally has a good answer to provide. Local bartender Matt Dwyer bought the restaurant and hopes to reopen it before the end of the year.
'This is going to be Charlie's and nothing but Charlie's," says Dwyer. 'We're updating the systems and some other things, but when you walk in it will still feel like Charlie's."
Compared to the crew previously at the helm, Dwyer is a whippersnapper. But the 36-year-old is no newcomer to Charlie's. For the past 14 years he has lived in a cottage right next door, close enough to smell the broiling steaks and hear the kitchen hood vent turn over like clockwork at the start of each shift. He ate there constantly and occasionally poured drinks at Charlie's on those rare nights when its beautiful but practically mothballed bar was actually staffed. Dwyer is sensitive to the unique chemistry that lay at the heart of Charlie's appeal, even if some of those aspects seem counterintuitive to the investors helping him revive the restaurant.
After all, Charlie's was one of the most peculiar restaurants in a city known for idiosyncratic dining institutions. It was old and it showed, and not in a graceful way of weathered patina but in worn out fixtures, broken equipment and frightening restrooms. A small black-and-white TV played in the corner of the dining room, near the household fridge that held ice cream desserts. There was no printed menu. The waiters recited the small selection of steak cuts and sides, or simply informed customers what they ought to order.
'It wasn't like the waiters were surly, they just told you how it was," Dwyer says. 'If a lady ordered a steak and onion rings and potatoes, this one guy would always be like "no potatoes, that's too much food for a woman.' And he wouldn't place the order. He was kind of known for that."
These waiters would nearly run down anyone in the way as they marched out of the kitchen with steaks smoking and popping on battered metal platters, making sounds more like radio static than sizzle. If no one warned you in advance on your first visit, you certainly knew enough on your second trip to hold a napkin between the steak and your shirt when it arrived to blunt the flying butter. It was all part of the experience, and along with the personalities, the low prices and the time-warp vibe of the old place, it ensured a steady and diverse mix of customers.
'I don't want to say the place was a dump, but you know we were very laid back," says Ms. Dottye. 'I was always very close with my customers and they always came back."
While Charlie's could have creaked on for years more without change, the time it spent shuttered and dark after the flood triggered inspections, and in order to reopen it must be brought up to code. The first floor, including the main dining room, bar and kitchen, has been gutted and is being rebuilt from the studs out.
Dwyer is well aware that when Charlie's reopens the old regulars who file in will be appraising more than the building repairs. The food was basic at Charlie's, but highly specific. The steak fries were like golden, crispy logs. The Roquefort dressing for the iceberg lettuce salad was incomparably delicious, pungent and decadently rich. No one ever pretended the steaks were prime, but they were broiled so expertly and delivered with such panache that they were always fantastic feasts, served in humongous portions and priced at bargain levels.
To make sure he gets it all right, Dwyer tracked down Rhoda Patterson, a veteran cook from Charlie's going back to the 1960s and a repository of the restaurant's institutional memory bank of recipes. She retired after Katrina but agreed to walk Dwyer through the old recipes and will even assist in the kitchen for a few days around the reopening.
Reopening a 75-year-old New Orleans institution with a new owner " after a massive renovation and with a completely different staff " may sound daunting, but Dwyer seems endlessly upbeat about his prospects and says he has gotten golden encouragement from Charlie's well-known ambassador.
'I know my family is up there in heaven looking down at Matt and saying, "Go, man,'" says Ms. Dottye. 'He's going to be successful because he loves people and that's what Charlie's was all about."
Charlie's Steakhouse (4510 Dryades St., 895-9705) is expected to open in late December.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Matt Dwyer is rebuilding the Uptown steakhouse Charlie's from the inside out.