by Ian McNulty
A friend of mine grew up in New Orleans taking regular family meals at Charlie's Steakhouse, which were always followed by slow drives around Audubon Park with opera playing on the car radio, back in the days when you could drive through the park. Another friend recalls how one of the restaurant's waiters would never allow him to order a filet, calling it a "woman's steak."
And I'll never forget the first time I set out to eat at the scruffy, disheveled Uptown restaurant. I arrived at the address and briefly thought the place had closed. The door was so forbidding a medieval looking thing with iron bars and clanking levers I thought I had found the service entrance. Inside, there were sounds of people and smells of food, but the front bar and ersatz reception area looked literally abandoned. I spotted another door, opened it to find a flight of stairs and made it up only a few steps before a waiter came charging down with a tray of grease-spattered metal plates. He directed me to the main dining room, just past the darkened bar, where what looked like a Shriners convention of hefty regulars were plowing through brontosaurus-sized T-bones.
Charlie's had some sort of gravitational pull for stories and lore. Just why is hard to say, but it must have had something to do with the people who worked there.
Case in point is Dottye Bennett (pictured above in 2005). She was never an owner of Charlie's, but she was part of its soul. Her father Charles Pettorsi Sr. opened the restaurant in 1932 and Ms. Dottye, as she is universally called by those who know her, began working there in 1955. After her brother Charles "Sonny" Pettorsi took over the restaurant, she stayed on and worked there right up until Hurricane Katrina closed it.
If you ever met Ms. Dottye, you probably remembered her. Her personality is so casually ebullient that just talking with her is enough to put you in a good mood. When she brought out your steak and onion rings and potato au gratin, she looked as proud as if she had just whipped it all up herself. If you ordered a round of St. Pauli Girl beers, Ms. Dottye might even have posed with the bottles for you. She added a lot to the Charlie's experience, though she thought nothing of it.
"I always said I wasn't a real waitress," Ms. Dottye said during a recent interview. "I could never make the grade anywhere else. I just brought out the T-bones and tried not to burn myself on them plates."
While Charlie's is reopening soon, you'll have to go elsewhere for a dose of Ms. Dottye. She started volunteering at Touro Infirmary during the severe labor crunch just after Katrina and the work eventually turned into a full time job.
"I'm in dietary services," said Ms. Dottye. "I go around to the rooms with a cart and say 'coffee, tea or me?' That's just what I tell them."
- Ian McNulty