If the number of people who asked me about the fate of a restaurant after Katrina were an indicator of its importance to the community, then Charlie's Steak House is the most essential restaurant in New Orleans. Even months after the old place reopened, I still get at least one call or e-mail about it every day. It's hard to figure what engendered this passion, but it can't be denied.
Charles Petrossi opened his restaurant--now the oldest steakhouse in New Orleans--in 1932, in the middle of a block of an only slightly commercial Uptown neighborhood. Staffed by Italian immigrants for most of its history, its waiters were utterly unique. One customer once said, "I like this place. The waiters scream at you and you scream back at them." Charlie Jr. took over in the 1970s,while his sister Dottye continued her long career waiting tables. Charlie Jr. died in 2003, and when Katrina flooded the place his widow was not of a mind to reopen. A neighbor, Matt Dwyer, persuaded her to sell the place, telling her that he would reopen a restaurant as close to the old one as possible. It reopened in August 2008 to enormous crowds.
Expectations were the big issue as customers returned to Charlie's. As simple a place as it was, it had so much personality that nobody wanted to see it change, even if that meant retaining its almost revolting grubbiness from the old days. But with a new owner and a deep Katrina cleanup and renovation--not the mention the retirement of almost everyone who used to work there due to old age--there was no way it would be as everyone remembered it.
The place was slammed in the beginning. They ran out of steaks night after night, and when they didn't, they couldn't serve the people fast enough. All typical for a new restaurant. Then, in November, all the reports I heard from my readers and listeners became good ones. It won't be long before the new Charlie's takes the place of the old in minds and hearts. It really is an improved restaurant.
Cut the new owners some slack on the issue of whether their Charlie's is exactly like the old one. It could not possibly be and it isn't. In many ways, that is a good thing. Come on a weekday. The initial crowds have subsided, but they still pack the house on weekends. Listen to the waiter's recommendations as to the number of side dishes you need for your table.