by Ian McNulty
One of the lingering questions of New Orleans restaurant recovery has been the fate of Charlie's Steakhouse (4510 Dryades St., 895-9705), a scruffy, iconic Uptown steakhouse that first opened in 1932 but remained closed after Katrina.
Charlie's is now open again, thanks to the efforts of new owner Matt Dwyer, a local bartender who has lived next door to the steakhouse for 14 years.
Dwyer bought the landmark restaurant in 2007 from the original Pettrosi family owners and began a thorough round of repairs and renovations to the neglected, flood-damaged structure.
Though the place is under new ownership and underwent considerable change with the repairs, Dwyer has endeavored to keep the same casual feel and basic menu that had endeared the restaurant to generations of New Orleanians and visitors. For instance, while all members of the pre-Katrina kitchen crew have since retired, he gathered the original Charlie's recipes that resided mainly in their minds to ensure the restaurant's food and traditions would endure. One change: he's using fresh rather than canned mushrooms now. Otherwise, expect a cleaned-up but familiar Charlie's Steakhouse ready for a new round of weathering and buttery, beefy memories yet to come.
Charlie's has long been a place, after all, that cultivated memories, stories and characters. A friend of mine grew up in New Orleans taking regular family meals at Charlie's, 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 a story all unto herself 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 an interview last year. "I could never make the grade anywhere else. I just brought out the T-bones and tried not to burn myself on them plates."
Ms. Dottye doesn't work at the new Charlie's, but I'll surely think about her every time I visit.
Charlie's is now open for dinner Thursday through Saturday and will also begin lunch service on those days next week.
- Ian McNulty