A Quirky Icon

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris June 03, 2021 16:17 in Dining Diary

When Dottye Bennett, sister of the late founder of Charlie’s Steakhouse, decided to retire from the restaurant business, she sold the iconic Uptown landmark to regular customer, Matt Dwyer, who kept things exactly as they always had been.

Matt was a careful steward of the beloved Charlie’s, even navigating through the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Charlie’s emerged cleaner and energized after the havoc wreaked by the storm. In our first post-Katrina visit, Matt recounted tales of mountains of the pewter dishes in the street, which were cleaned and sanitized, just like the restaurant itself. Gone were the greasy walls with an arc from the constant delivery of sizzling steaks. And sizzle they do! All accounts of the splattering grease are not exaggerated. The tradition is to hold the large green napkin in front of you when the steaks arrive.

Other traditions at Charlie’s Steakhouse are the single starter of fried onion rings, and the salad of Blue cheese dressing on an iceberg wedge. There is no menu at Charlie’s Steakhouse. Word of mouth guides the newbies, who come to experience what everyone else seems to know. Charlie’s has a list of a few steaks, all the usual ones, accompanied by sides like steak fries, scalloped potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, and creamed spinach.

I have only been to Charlie’s Steakhouse maybe three times prior to this visit. But I have heard about Tom’s personal tradition there, going with his best friend Oliver Kluna and writing notes on the back of a picture hanging above their preferred table as a way to keep track of whose turn it was to pay.

One night I accompanied Oliver, and his wife came too, and the four of us had dinner at Charlie’s. The next time was after Katrina to see what had changed, and one last time about ten years ago Tom and the Marys were in for a meal.

This is blasphemous, but I don’t see what the fuss is about. I find the place quirky in a raffish way, and old-fashioned in a less-classy way than its slightly younger competitor across town, The Crescent City Steakhouse. Both are throwbacks to yesteryear, but Charlie’s used cheaper ingredients in the building, in the servicewear, and in the food. 

After Matt’s surprise and untimely death at only 49 last year, the future of Charlie’s Steakhouse was in question. It wasn’t long before the stewardship of Charlie’s would land in good hands-Aaron Burgau of Patois and also Central City BBQ. Maybe he wanted something in the middle to add to his portfolio.

This was a great development. One of the first things Aaron did was upgrade the meat. And he brought on Neal McClure, formerly of McClure’s Barbecue, to turn out meat to not only sink one’s teeth into, but to savor. The rest of the menu remained the same.

In fact, everything about the experience was the same. We arrived as walk-ins and were seated in the downstairs main room. I was relieved to see that the stringent COVID policy on their website’s front page had been relaxed. No stress.

Our tall, friendly waitress came right to the table, immediately fielding Tom’s question about oysters. A 12 year veteran of Charlie’s, she had never seen oysters served there. Neal McClure explained that twenty years ago Charlie’s had them, making Tom’s request seem less absurd.

At one time I remember Charlie’s hand-cut onion rings lauded as the “best in town.” Maybe because back then it was only frozen onion pulp breaded and fried that passed for onion rings. These were nothing special. Fortunately the waitress suggested that our small party of two should stick with a half order. Glad we listened. They were limp and surprisingly greasy. Since they were considered the pinnacle of onion rings a lot of better versions have surfaced. Today’s hand cut onion rings may be thin like Charlie’s, thick like Keith Young’s, or medium like Blue Crab, but all are crunchier and crispier and definitely less greasy than these.

The famous wedge of iceberg lettuce with homemade Blue cheese dressing and half a slice of tomato was considerably smaller than I remembered, which was fine because I didn’t want a lot of this. It was a quarter of a head of iceberg and completely covered in Blue cheese crumbles and dressing. Blue cheese tires the palate quickly, and there is no need for more of this.

And then the steak came sizzling from the kitchen, the pewter plate covered in seared on grease, and a mist of grease following the plate. The steak was black on the outside, and literally swimming in butter. It is quite a show. Exciting!

We also ordered scalloped potatoes and creamed spinach, both of which were smaller in portion size than I expected. Again, it was all I wanted. I’m glad we cancelled the mushrooms.

The steak was cooked perfectly. I kept cooking the pieces for me on the searing hot plate. It was practically fork tender. It was obvious this was quality beef. This steak was terrific. That cannot be said of the side dishes, which were ordinary at best. Still, this was a satisfactory steakhouse experience, but hardly worthy of the phenom designation it had in its halcyon days.

But Charlie’s is not only about the food. It is a tradition in this town of traditions, a place to go to get the expected, and to be totally comfortable with that. It’s a place to see people you know and to share an experience comfortable, absolutely unchallenging, and just tasty enough to make you happy on any given night.