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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Charlie's Steak House and The Dry Dock Bar & Cafe

Photo courtesy: charliessteakhousenola.com

Charlie’s Steak House

That’s not to say there’s anything inherently bad about the steaks, but it doesn’t take more than a bite or two to realize that the beef being served isn’t USDA Prime (or if it is, someone might want to think of standing the chef in front of a firing squad).

It took Charlie’s Steak House three years to re-open after Hurricane Katrina, during which time The Sensible One and I would check monthly to see if there was any word. Before the storm, Charlie’s had been a tattered, down-at-the-heels neighborhood place featuring okay food served with a cranky attitude. It was cheap and we were living on our paychecks, so there was a certain symbiosis to the arrangement.

When word got out that Charlie’s had reopened, we were overjoyed. We went, and we were disappointed.

Maybe our palates had become more sophisticated, or it could have been that our wallets had gained a little weight and we had started patronizing pricier places with better grades of steak.

Or it could have been that compared to the old dump, the new place had been spiffed up a little and was beginning to border on being the kind of restaurant I could take people I wanted to entertain, rather than unnerve.

After reconsidering it a little, however, I feel comfortable suggesting it to friends, albeit guardedly.

As an aficionado of tattered, threadbare places that surprise with good chow, then delight with reasonable checks, I am prone to outbursts of nostalgia, particularly when acts get cleaned up. To me, Cinderella was far more interesting as a beleaguered stepsister than a glass-slippered princess, the sudden prince was never as riveting as the cursed frog and Charlie’s was more enticing ramshackle than respectable.

That said, Charlie’s still exudes a raffish charm, starting with its menu or, to be more precise, lack of it. Once you are seated, your server will snarl something along the lines of, “Whaddya want?” Upon realizing that you’re a hopeless rookie, he or she will bark out, “We got the little T-bone, the big T-bone, the Charlie and we got the filet, so whaddya want?” You’re expected to know that the Charlie is a 32 oz. T-bone that drips over the side of the plate as well as what sides they offer, so who needs a menu? You say you do? “It’s been da same since Mr. Charlie Petrossi opened da door in 1932, so where’ve you been?”

The gruffness, of course, is part of the tradition and on occasion not sincere, but it serves to tell you that you’re not in a fancy place so you better not act like it.

Regarding the sides (and there are six of them), they are as old school steakhouse as everything else about the place – onion rings, potatoes au gratin, steak fries, salad, sautéed mushrooms and garlic bread. They are so good and the portions are so enormous I’ve started working on this idea that one night, I could pretend to be a vegetarian and only order side dishes, hoping they don’t toss me out into Dryades Street.

Very few New Orleanians would dispute the primacy of Charlie’s onion rings in the city and quite possibly far beyond. The salad greens are basic, B-flat iceberg lettuce, but they come engulfed in a blue cheese dressing blended with enough garlic to keep Italy operating for a month or two. The garlic bread is made the time-honored Italian way – buttered, studded with garlic cloves and broiled. Having gorged myself with onion rings, salad and bread every time I visit, I have yet to get around to the potatoes or mushrooms.

While the notion of going to a steakhouse for the sides instead of the main event may be unusual, it actually makes some kind of left-handed sense at Charlie’s, because, in fact, the sides are better than the steaks. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently bad about the steaks, but it doesn’t take more than a bite or two to realize that the beef being served isn’t USDA Prime (or if it is, someone might want to think of standing the chef in front of a firing squad). The steaks are most likely USDA Choice, generally on par with what is sold in a supermarket. It’s very good meat, but it’s just not up to the level of the top two percent (Prime), which is sold in so many “big boy” or “A” steakhouses in major American cities these days. But to Charlie’s everlasting credit, they don’t charge big boy prices for what they proudly put on the plate.

The crux of the story is that the quality grade of the beef is what keeps Charlie’s from becoming one of the small circle of elite steakhouses in a city that isn’t as well known for very good steak as it might be. But a major part of the true beauty of the place is that it doesn’t pretend to be what it isn’t.

Charlie’s is a good neighborhood steakhouse that serves a good steak dinner for a good steak price, and its lack of artifice may very well be one of the key reasons it’s been a going concern for nearly eighty years.

Consider the exceptional sides and being treated like an in-law as an added bonus.

Charlie’s Steak House, 4510 Dryades Street

(Between Napoleon Avenue and Valence Street)

Serving dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 – 9:30 p.m,

Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m.

Dark Monday and Tuesday

Reservations for Parties of Ten or More

Major Credit Cards Accepted

Telephone: (504) 895-9323

Website: www.charliessteakhousenola.com

Photo couresy: www.thedrydockcafe.com

The Dry Dock Café & Bar

It’s an unassuming place both outside and in.

At the foot of Canal Street, next to the Aquarium of the Americas, you’ll find the entrance to the Canal Street Ferry, one of my favorite places to kill a spring or autumn afternoon.

It’s not much of a ride, taking about ten minutes to chug across the Mississippi River to the West Bank, and the terminal, particularly on the New Orleans side, is a depressing specimen of municipal architecture. An industrial, institutional pile, the first thing the terminal makes me think about is how out of place it looks in a city devoted to pleasures of the senses.

Once you board the ferry on its upper deck, negotiate your way down the steep stairway to the auto deck and make your way to the uncovered end of the boat. It seems that even on days when the heat covers the city like a wet wool blanket, there’s still a breeze on the mighty Mississippi, and as the wind tousles your hair, you have the opportunity to lean against a rail and behold one of the better views of the city. The historic French Market and the triple spires of St. Louis Cathedral define the Vieux Carré and to their left rise the towers of downtown. A bevy of ships pass by, from barges to tankers to cruise ships, and even the sternwheeler Natchez glides past like a wedding cake on the waters with her rolling paddles and piping calliope. It is truly a way to start feeling at one with the 300-year history of New Orleans and the river that has forever been her lifeblood.

Better still, it doesn’t cost a nickel.

Once you disembark, you’ll be in Algiers Point, a town that was born in New Orleans’ infancy. Over time, Algiers Point has been a railhead, home to shipyards, naval stations and even the Civil War powder magazine for her sister city. Until the “Crescent City Connection” bridge was completed in 1958, the Point was most accessible by the ferry and remained a small and sleepy town. That small town character remains today, when one can walk the levee around the tightest bend in the Mississippi River, look one way and see a shimmering cityscape, then look the other direction into a neighborhood dotted with Victorian era housing and an unforeseen number of steeples.

Down the hill from the ferry terminal is the Dry Dock Café & Bar, a blue gray frame building that looks like it could be equally at home in a small town along the New England or Chesapeake coasts. There are striped awnings on the windows and three outdoor tables under patio umbrellas. It’s an unassuming place both outside and in.

There’s a small bar in front and a medium sized restaurant behind it. A quick glance at the bar leads one to believe that the house drink is most likely bottled beer. The restaurant side of the room is green and covered with décor that appears to have straggled in one item at a time compliments of regular customers, and then filled in by friendly breweries. In the corner is a tall spiral stairwell going who knows where.

The Dry Dock’s menu is longer than one might expect, but it isn’t all that ambitious. It’s mainly pub grub, Louisiana style – po’boys, gumbo, salads, about a dozen lunch plates and a list of bar munchies designed to keep the deep fat fryer busy. Were it not for the food’s New Orleans accent, the Dry Dock could be a nondescript bar in most small coastal towns on any American coast.

Truth be told, I don’t give a damn. The Dry Dock is a friendly, comfortable bar that serves food with a local flavor, and there are times when no one wants anything more than just that. The old Chinese proverb is, “The journey is the reward,” and the Dry Dock makes a genial halfway house on one of the city’s most pleasant outings.

The Dry Dock Café & Bar, 133 Delaronde Street

(One block from the Algiers Point Ferry)

Restaurant Hours, 11 a.m.-10 p.m; Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Bar hours: 11 a.m. - until...

Major Credit Cards Honored

Telephone: (504) 361-8240

Website: www.thedrydockcafe.com

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