Metairie: 111 Veterans Blvd.
(Lafayette location still open.)
Restaurants in New Orleans office buildings have not done well. Charley G’s beat that curse–for a time, anyway–and was the most successful of all time. In the Heritage Plaza tower, it easily filled the house at every weekday lunchtime. But it really beat the odds in attracting a very strong dinner business throughout the week–even on weekends, when the eighteen floors of offices above it were deserted.
Everything about Charley G’s was perfect for its time. It was a good-looking, comfortable place with a large and lively bar. The menu–brought over wholesale from the original Charley G’s in Lafayette–was dominated by Cajun dishes more polished than typical. Among the house specialties was a duck-and-andouille gumbo that rivaled any other (even Mr. B’s), and a crab cake that became a signature dish just as crab cakes became popular in New Orleans. Either was reason enough to eat at Charley G’s.
During its heyday Charley G’s was managed by Michael Reiss, who came from the Commander’s Palace team and used the same playbook for Charley G’s, particularly in the service department. Reiss was a sharp, likeable, innovative guy who wasn’t satisfied with merely putting good food on well-served tables. He held frequent wine dinners when such things were much less common than they are now. He also hosted cigar dinners and murder-mystery dinners during the six or seven days when those trends were active.
Owner Charley Goodson had a big hit with the original Charley G’s in Lafayette. He and Reiss opened the Metairie branch location of Charley G’s in a dog of a location. Even though the Heritage Plaza was full of busy class-A offices, a succession of restaurants came and went without coming close to becoming a hit. The place couldn’t even draw a crowd with a buffet (Cornucopia, which made you feel you were in Cleveland).
If ever a proof were needed that great food and service are the secrets of success in the restaurant business, we saw it happen at Charley G’s. Past the gumbo and crab cakes, one found an assortment of sausages–duck boudin, andouille, and Cajun hot–grilled over wood. A grilled artichoke bottom filled with crabmeat in an herbal cream sauce was a rich winner. Fried eggplant with a brown, aromatic meuniere was an idea somebody should revive. They even had a distinctive salad dressing–basically a ranch, spiked with lots of pepper, crunchy shallots, and capers.
From the wood-burning grill (more a rarity than now) came first-class fresh fish, steaks, duck, chicken, and enormous grilled shrimp. I remember a cedar plank-roasted ruby red trout. (A farm-raised fish, pointing to one of Charley G’s shortcomings: not enough local finfish.)
Good desserts, the most memorable of which was the Bullwinkle. (A chocolate-layered thing called a mud pie in most of the South.) An almond mousse in an almond tuile with chocolate sauce was hard to resist. Also here was a white chocolate bread pudding so rich as to set your teeth on edge.
Michael Reiss started as a wine guy at Commander’s, and he kept a good list at Charley G’s. If you stepped up to the bar after a day of stationery engineering, you could ask for a tasting of almost whatever you want.
Finally, Charley G’s had a house policy I’ve never heard of in any other restaurant. If you didn’t like the meal, they’d give you your money back. Period. It was on the menu and in their ads.
The best proof that Mike Reiss was Da Man at Charley G’s was what happened when he left to join Ralph Brennan’s organization. Charley G’s took an immediate and obvious downturn. Other issues appeared. The building started charging for parking, and even though it would be validated at Charley G’s, the little inconvenience of getting a ticket and going through a puzzling array of gates turned away an astounding number of customers. When the casinos opened on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, business at all restaurants in New Orleans took a hit, but nowhere more than at Charley G’s. Reiss told me that his Saturday business had declined to less than that of a Wednesday.
And then it was gone, replaced by another run of short-lived, undistinguished places. Ralph Brennan took over a year ago, opening his Heritage Grill–but just for lunch.
But note again: Charley G’s is still very much alive in Lafayette, where it remains one of the best places to dine.