No one expects a meal to fight back. The traditional diner/dinner relationship is that the meal passively accepts being consumed, but at Charlie's Steak House, the steak doesn't accept its fate lightly. Steaks leave the kitchen on metal plates, spitting butter sauce and juices. Patrons often hold up their green cloth napkins as a line of defense, saving their clothes from the steak's defiant, final gesture.
Lift the tablecloth and you can see burn marks on the table tops from the hot metal plates, despite the layer of cloth between them. The flat heads of tacks around the perimeter suggest the burnt tabletop isn't the original one.
"We've put new tops on them lots of times," Dottye Bennett says with a laugh. At 78, "Miss Dottye" is the hostess, waitress and face of Charlie's Steak House. Her father, Charlie Petrossi, opened the Uptown restaurant in 1932, and she started working as a waitress there in 1952. For years, she worked the upstairs dining room, which is now open only on the weekends. Upstairs looks like a rumpus room, covered with sports pennants and autographed photos of celebrities and athletes. Miss Dottye is particularly proud of her pictures of the Manning boys in their youth. A few Saints whose celebrity has waned hang defiantly on the wall, but she took some of her favorites home when she decided she'd had enough of climbing the stairs with plates of steak and moved to the downstairs dining room.
Downstairs has the feeling of a good neighborhood bar. Time moves on outside, but it stands still in the restaurant, or at least it passes more slowly. The links to days gone by are everywhere, like a 10- or 12-inch color television that gets its reception via an antenna. The large, faded-to-teal air-conditioning unit in the corner has lost the "C" and "r" from the "Carrier" logo, and the hat and coat racks hanging from the wood-paneling walls are a throwback to days when men wore coats and hats and had the manners to take them off at the table.
Like at a good neighborhood bar, the clientele is largely local, and they know the ropes. Walking in the front door to a beautiful but unmanned bar doesn't mean you've come in the wrong way or that Charlie's is closed; it's just how it is. When Miss Dottye announces, "Tonight we have the filet, the small T-bone, the medium T-bone and the large T-bone," they don't wonder what else is on the menu, nor do they stew over what it costs. When the bill arrives, it seems more than reasonable, so why worry?
"I am the menu," she says with a smile. "There's so little on it, we never needed one." After the steaks, a salad, steak fries, potatoes au gratin and mushrooms, there's not much left but drinks.
The menu, obviously, is focused, and so are the dishes. Each delivers what you want from it. The salad -- the token green item on the menu besides the flecks of parsley in a Bordelaise sauce that almost has a shoal of garlic in the butter-olive oil mixture -- is a quarter of a head of lettuce with onions, a few tomatoes, and an overflowing bleu cheese dressing. The bleu cheese flavor is so intense that it resembles more a melted block of cheese than a dressing. Similarly, the potatoes au gratin could be more accurately named gratin au potatoes. Those who want a pure hit of potato opt for the steak fries, or "potato clubs" as someone at our table dubbed them. With some pieces the size of kindling, they're wonderfully crispy outside and slightly firmer than mashed potatoes inside, and great for soaking up excess meat juice.
The steaks themselves are an inch thick and absurdly large. The small T-bone is plenty for any civilized carnivore, prompting me to imagine a large that would have to be served on a manhole cover with "Sewerage & Water Board" seared into its underside. Unfortunately, the steak cutter was sick that day so Charlie's was out of the medium and large steaks. Regardless, Charlie's steaks are delicious and cooked exactingly. One medium rare, by request, had just a thin pink line through the center of the steak, while the others were largely pink. A rare filet was a beautiful burgundy inside. As much as the food is an attraction, the experience itself is the real reason to go to Charlie's -- it's always the same. The restaurant has remained in the Petrossi family from the outset, and the staff doesn't change. Regulars recognize Rudy Contreras and Michael Brown, the latter now the upstairs waiter on weekends. "I've been working here since 1974," he says. "I know because when I started, I bought a brand new '74 Vega." His mother, Agatha, has been the cook for more than 40 years. In a New Orleans without K&B, McKenzie's and Schwegmann's, it's nice to know there's still Charlie's.
- Eileen Loh Harrist
- Charlie's Steak House has been in the Petrossi family since Charlie Petrossi opened it in 1932.