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Thu July 23, 2009
A Tale of Two Charlie's
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, LA –
This is a tale of two Charlie's - that is, two restaurants named Charlie's. One is Charlie's Steakhouse in Uptown New Orleans. The other is Charlie's Seafood in the old upriver suburb of Harahan.
These are different restaurants, with obvious different specialties written into their names. But in the topsy-turvy world of post-Katrina New Orleans, the two have been reborn under very similar circumstances.
Neither was famous in the way of New Orleans' French Creole restaurants, but each had earned a place in the hearts of their many respective regulars. Both also closed down, and appeared consigned to join the ranks of lost neighborhood joints.
But both Charlie's Seafood and Charlie's Steakhouse are back in business today thanks to new owners who felt strong connections to these eating institutions.
Charlie's Seafood traces its roots to 1951. Around that time, the family of New Orleans chef Frank Brigtsen moved in nearby and promptly made the casual seafood place a regular destination for family outings.
The future for Frank Brigtsen held a culinary career along quite different lines than Charlie's bedrock of boiled and fried seafood. In 1988, he and his wife Marna opened Brigtsen's Restaurant in the Riverbend, and the contemporary Creole cuisine served there has earned high-profile accolades, including a James Beard award.
The Brigtsens were not looking for a second restaurant venture, but when Charlie's Seafood closed in the years after Hurricane Katrina, something clicked. Driving past Charlie's on the commute to their own restaurant -- and seeing the old family favorite shuttered -- began pulling on the heartstrings.
So they bought the half-century-old business, gave its building a round of repairs and reopened with a revamped menu that still revolves around seasonal Louisiana seafood. On the very day it reopened, smiling patrons poured in, snapping pictures, ordering too much food and congratulating the staff on bringing the old place back.
A similar scene occurs nightly at Charlie's Steakhouse. For generations, this Charlie's in Uptown New Orleans was one of the most peculiar restaurants in a city known for idiosyncratic dining institutions. There was no printed menu, and waiters might just dictate what you would have for dinner anyway. The dining rooms were dark, shabby time capsules of another era. And the oversized steaks were served on piping-hot iron plates that smoked up like locomotives as waiters rushed them to tables at frantic pace. It had character galore, and this stoked it into a storied backstreet classic.
But Charlie's sat dark after Hurricane Katrina, a condition that Matthew Dwyer just couldn't abide. He has lived next door to the steakhouse since the early 1990s, and occasionally tended bar there as well. The thirty-something Dwyer is a whippersnapper compared to the old guard who used to run Charlie's, but he was eventually able to buy the restaurant from the original Pettrosi family owners. After a laborious reconstruction of the timeworn, flood-damaged building, he finally reopened Charlie's in the summer of 2008.
Some Faustian bargains went into bringing the place up to modern code and financial viability, but changes were made with a faithful eye toward the lore that endeared the place to its fans. After all, like the revived Charlie's Seafood, this isn't a historic reproduction of something lost, but an inspired second act for a local legend.
8311 Jefferson Hwy., Harahan, 504-737-3700
4510 Dryades St., New Orleans, 504-895-9705