French Quarter: 801 Chartres St.
The Chart House is a national chain of “dinnerhouses” (to use the industry jargon), now part of the Landry’s colossus and not hardly extinct. Its thirty locations are concentrated almost entirely on the West Coast, in Florida, and in the Northeast. It’s a mainstream American place, with an emphasis on moderate steaks, seafood, salads, and hamburgers. Not the kind of place one gets nostalgic about. (Not this one, anyway.)
But the Chart House in New Orleans. . . well, it’s gone, and fondly remembered.
In its 1970s heyday the Chart House was far ahead of its time. Although the menus were uniform, the restaurants themselves were scenic or otherwise special. The appeal was so strong that many of its customers endeavored to dine at all of them–the one in Hawaii being the most ambitious move. The company encouraged this with a club for its enthusiasts.
The New Orleans Chart House was loved by many locals, including some who disdained chain restaurants. We considered it our own, and with good reason. It occupied the building that is now Muriel’s, an historic structure overlooking Jackson Square from the corner across from the Presbytere. It went up in the early 1800s, housing what passed for heavy industry in the French Quarter. In the late 1800s, when Italian immigrants filled these streets, it was a macaroni factory–the headquarters of the Taormina Company, which evolved into Progresso Foods.
The Chart House used only the second floor, but used it well. Here were the only commercial balconies on Jackson Square–prime spots for cocktails, off the large, comfortable, rustic lounge. Dining rooms with walls of well-worn, slightly crumbling brick spread through the remainder of the floor space. The environment was unalloyed New Orleans, rivaled only by the grande dame restaurants like Antoine’s.
Local people felt good at the Chart House. Not just because of the environment, but because we knew that the Chart House corporation was headquartered in Metairie. We ignored (if we even knew) the fact that Chart House was the world’s biggest Burger King franchisee–bigger than Burger King itself.
The food raised no serious objections. We used it as a respite from our gumbo, red beans, poor boys and bread pudding. The menu was simple, held together by three qualities. First, most of the raw materials were reasonably decent. Second, the portions are titanic.
Finally, the Chart House had one of the best staffs of waiters and waitresses to be found below the top-dollar tier–and better than some of those. The training they received would be the moving force behind the takeover of most of the American dining dollar by chains across the country in the past two decades.
You could start with oysters on the half shell. The Rockefellers were also very good, as were the oysters casino (cheese, bread crumbs, bacon). On the other hand, the Chart House eschewed great local shrimp in favor of the flavorless but pretty Pacific shrimp. And instead of remoulade there was anywhere-USA cocktail sauce.
But if you wanted something cold at the beginning, you were probably thinking of salad–a major Chart House specialty. Its early years coincided with the peak of the salad bar in America. Few restaurants could match its selection and quality. When the salad bar went out of vogue, the Chart House introduced a shallow wooden bucket filled with almost everything you’d get on a salad bar–enough for about four people, and refillable to the all-you-can-eat level. The vegetables are all in pristine condition, the dressings were made in house, and the course was beyond reproach.
The grill dominated the entree section of the menu, which bulked large with steaks. Places like this usually featured cuts of beef you’d never run into at the likes of Ruth’s Chris. Some were good: the baseball teriyaki steak. Cut from a narrow end of the top sirloin, it was the size and shape suggested by the name, so thick that it grilled very well. The teriyaki was part of the necessary tenderizing program, but it all worked. I’ve had filets with much less less flavor and tenderness.
Some of the steaks came with a brandy peppercorn sauce, described as being prepared tableside. The entire preparation consisted of pouring a prepared sauce over a steak on a very hot plate. A sizzle and a pillar of steam thus erupted. Silly, but stuff like that moved many an inexperienced diner in the direction of more complicated eats.
The Chart House handled fish reasonably well, and even had a fair amount of Gulf fish in addition to the inevitable salmon. They had lobster on the menu, but Florida tails, not Maine. Those can be okay, but the price seemed out of line. A better surf ‘n’ turf (this is the kind of place that still offers such a thing) could be had by pairing a steak with the fish of the day. Grilled sea scallops–almost unknown in New Orleans in those days–were very good.
We were getting tired of the Chart House in the 1990s, what with Emeril and his ilk dazzling us with far more interesting ideas. The company was downsizing all over, and the new owners didn’t seem to understand the Chart House concept–certainly not the New Orleans edition of it. If you find yourself in a city that has one, don’t expect it to be much like what you remember on Jackson Square.
A better idea: wait until you get home and go to the incomparably better Muriel’s.