Charlie's Steak House
4510 Dryades St., 895-9705; www.charliessteakhousenola.com
Fidelity to the menu and spirit of a scruffy New Orleans classic
A daunting, if authentic, grease level; higher prices will surprise some
A legendary and peculiar template endures with modern updates
Charlie's Steak House was known for waiters prone to dictating what diners would order; for sputtering hot butter leaping from steak plates onto your shirt front; for shabby dining rooms sheathed in Nixon-era wood paneling; and for steak prices so low they might have seemed like misprints, if only there was a menu in the restaurant on which to print them. This all stoked the lore of the place, which first opened in 1932 and had in modern times grown into a storied backstreet classic.
Charlie's sat dark after Hurricane Katrina until Matthew Dwyer, a neighbor who occasionally tended bar there, bought the place from the family of original owners. He completed a laborious reconstruction to reopen it in August 2008. There were some Faustian bargains to bring the antiquated legend up to current code and financial viability, but it's hard to believe anyone could have done the job better.
At Charlie's, personality always trumped creature comforts, and there's no getting around the absence of the old staffers who gave the place such soul and have either moved on or retired. Training for new waiters must include a rundown on the service style former regulars expect, since the oral recitation of the brief menu and familial approach are the same. But to their credit, no one apes the gruff schtick of the old servers, which would hardly be believable from the fresh faces of today's staff.
Most notable of the trade-offs between the old and new involve the steaks themselves. It's clear the quality of meat has increased significantly, and it's also clear when the bill arrives that prices have followed suit. Since there's no written menu or printed prices, those remembering Charlie's great bargains should keep this change in mind lest they get a surprise at the end of the meal. Charlie's is still cheaper than many upscale steakhouses, but it is no longer the deal it once was.
More important than the quality of steaks at Charlie's was the manner in which they were prepared and served, and this is faithfully preserved. Steaks are blasted at very high temperatures, and they continue cooking when they're slapped down on worn, piping-hot iron plates (originals from the old kitchen). They smoke up like props in a Cheech and Chong movie when the cook ladles on liquid garlic butter just prior to service, and they crackle furiously as waiters rush them to the table.
Fortunately, most side dishes are indistinguishable from the old days. The blue cheese dressing on the iceberg salad is just as mouth-puckeringly sour, onion rings are as flaky and thin as ever, and potatoes au gratin is still a creamy potato pie under an orange-hued cap. There's a wine list now, which is impressive only when compared with the boxed wine options from Charlie's final, pre-Katrina years, but it gets the job done.
It's anyone's guess how much longer Charlie's Steak House could have creaked along in stasis had the levee failures not forced the issue. It's surely a different restaurant today, but the new guard is keeping the old essence of the place sizzling.