withstood the test of time, but also transcended it.
When Charles and Ruth Petrossi opened the doors to their new place on Jefferson Highway in Harahan, the American restaurant industry as they knew it was quite a different animal than the one into which it would ultimately grow.
It was 1951. Harry Truman was in the White House. Seven million coast-to-coast viewers made Milton Berle and Texaco Star Theater the top rated show on television. The interstate highway system hadn’t made it to the drawing board yet, and it would still be another year before Harland Sanders would put a pressure cooker in the back of his car to travel the country trying to sell his idea for quicker cooking fried chicken to skeptical café owners. Cadillac tailfins wouldn’t stretch to full size for eight more years.
There was precious little different about Charlie’s Seafood for its times. It was not so much a restaurant as a neighborhood café, not unlike the tens of thousands of similar establishments that sprang up during the boom years following World War II. The formula for success was straightforward: hard-working owners, good food, fair prices, family friendly. Mom and Pop were chasing, catching and carving out their slice of the American Dream.
It was a time when franchise or chain restaurants were at best minor players in the industry. White Castle, America’s first burger chain, set up shop in Wichita as a hamburger stand in 1916, sixteen years before its Southern cousin, Krystal, started selling “button burgers” in Chattanooga. A&W can trace its history back to the hot day in June 1919 when one of the company’s founders sold his first mug of root beer for one nickel in Lodi, California. It wasn’t until 1925 that Howard Deering Johnson would serve the first scoop of his new and richer recipe ice cream at the soda fountain of his Quincy, Massachusetts drugstore.
Consider, if you will, that when the Harahan seafood restaurant opened as “Charles Sea Foods” in 1951, mixer salesman Ray Kroc was yet to even meet the McDonald brothers, and event that wouldn’t occur for another three years. It would be seven years before Pizza Hut tossed its first piece of dough, fourteen years before Subway opened the first of its current 33,000 worldwide sandwich shops, and a full eighteen years before Dave Thomas opened his first hamburger stand in Columbus, Ohio, and named it after his fourth daughter, Wendy.
Truth be told, at a time when casual family cafes were the mainstay of American dining, Charlie’s Seafood was little more than another dot on the map. Harahan itself was little more than another nondescript bedroom community along a federal highway. Even the new airport in neighboring Kenner had a more colorful history (named after daredevil pilot John Moisant, who crashed quite fatally on the site in 1910 while it was still farmland).
In a decade that would come to be known for its celebration of conformity, the restaurant fit right in. Now, sixty years later, the place still leaves little to no doubt about what it is. With glass bricks flanking the corner doorway beneath a bright red sign, another faded Pepsi sign touting the oysters to be found inside and Christmas lights tracing the roofline, it’s clearly a neighborhood seafood joint that has not only withstood the test of time, but also transcended it.
That’s not to imply that success came instantly once the door opened or steadily as the world around it changed and the restaurant became more iconic. In the wake of Katrina, Charlie’s shuttered its doors and stayed closed until a celebrated local chef got tired of having memory tug at his sleeve as he drove by twice a day.
The chef is Frank Brigtsen, whose family moved to Harahan when he was one year old and whose eponymous restaurant in Riverbend is widely regarded as one of the city’s true landmarks of Louisiana Heritage cuisine. To Brigtsen, himself a James Beard Award designee, Charlie’s was always his neighborhood’s family eatery, if not a root source for some of his ideas about native home cooking. Passing by the vacated Charlie’s as he drove back and forth to one of America’s most renowned restaurants, Brigtsen found a wistful nostalgia growing in his heart for the vacated café of his childhood, where he probably ate for the first time in a highchair. It finally got to him. He and his wife, Marna, bought the restaurant and reopened it in early July of 2009.
Two essential ingredients shared by both lionized chefs and prosperous restaurateurs are finely honed instincts and the steely determination to follow them. Brigtsen’s intuition told him to change as little as possible, and he listened. In fact, the only noticeable change to the restaurant’s exterior was a fresh coat of blue paint. The interior would require a little more ingenuity.
Resisting the temptation to rebuild Charlie’s into a stripped down version of his flagship restaurant, Brigtsen instead made the conscious decision to keep the menu as true to its original roots as possible. There are no real surprises here. The heart of the menu is seafood, most of it cooked in a predictable manner. You’ll find plates of shrimp, oysters and catfish with fries or potato salad and cole slaw with a homemade tartar sauce. There are a half dozen 12-inch po’boys and 8-inch “po’babies” to choose from, including the obligatory roast beef with gravy made from scratch.
The seafood served at Charlie’s is also available grilled for the more health-conscious and boiled in season. There are the salads, gumbo, bisque and shrimp etouffée you’d expect in a mom-and-pop seafood café, and a fixed rotation of daily specials. The few surprises to be found on the menu include an oyster and artichoke au gratin, shrimp calas (Creole rice fritters), buttered pistolettes filled with dirty rice mix (but no rice itself) and handmade Cane River Meat Pies® with Creole mustard and pepper jelly.
So just what is it that lifts Charlie’s Seafood above the hundreds of other similar restaurants that retain their status of “just another dot on the map?” There are two things, I think: the ironclad adamancy about both the freshness and provenance of the seafood that their purveyors cart through the door, and the enigmatic je ne sais quoi that separates the legendary chef from the glorified line cook.
The restaurant buys only Louisiana farm-raised or wild-caught Des Allemands catfish that is “deep-skin cut” for cleaner flavor. The shrimp is chemical-free from the Gulf Mexico. The “unwashed” oysters are harvested from meticulously inspected Louisiana beds; the blue crabs come live from Lake Ponchartrain and, on the rare occasions when live crab are unavailable, only locally caught and processed crabmeat is used. During their short season, soft-shell crabs are delivered alive straight from the bayous. Imported seafood is quite simply not tolerated. Period.
While Brigtsen’s duties at his namesake restaurant require him to spend the bulk of his time six miles from Charlie’s, his influence is still felt as strongly as if he was standing in the midst of a swarm of hissing fryers and steaming pots in the kitchen. Chefs Ronald Prevost and Gabriel Beard were, of course, hand-picked by Brigtsen, as was Cane native Janet Caldwell, who makes her Natchitoches-style meat pies by hand on site. One can only imagine the pressure they must feel to live up to the rigid standards Brigtsen used to build not so much his local restaurant as his national reputation.
It’s been said that the greatest kitchens are built upon a foundation of painstaking attention to the pickiest detail, and one gets the feeling that this is precisely what is going at Charlie’s. The food is all made from scratch, which in and of itself comes as no surprise; the one piece of kitchen minutiae that spoke volumes about the place to me was that the homemade tartar sauce starts out with homemade pickles.
On our first visit to Charlie’s, The Sensible One opted for the “Catfish-n-Grits” from the restaurant’s standing menu, a mustard and cornmeal catfish filet served with stone-ground Cheddar cheese grits and a Creole sauce. Instead of the expected plain piece of fish on a lump of grits, the presentation was more vertical than horizontal, giving the plate the overall effect of what one might more expect in a downtown white tablecloth restaurant that a resuscitated family place in suburban Harahan.
Leaning toward the shrimp etouffée until told that the day’s off-menu special was a braised duck breast with gravy served over dirty rice, I was rewarded with a dish the both embodied and embraced the cooking traditions of Louisiana’s early Cajun settlers. Beneath the surprisingly rich gravy, the duck could have been domesticated or shot on wing, I frankly wouldn’t know which, but the flavor was wild rather than gamey and enhanced by the deep and smoky flavors of the dirty rice.
A quick glance around the unassuming dining room makes me think that Charlie’s can seat roughly eighty people, give or take a few. If you’re going at night, you might want to plan on an early dinner, because they don’t take reservations, and as word has gotten out, the waits have become longer.
For people who, like me, grew up in the 1950s and 60s, Charlie’s Seafood is a defiant refutation of the notion that there’s no such thing as a time machine. It’s a throwback to a time when the night skies were lit by a silvery moon instead of golden arches, an era when America liked Ike, John Wayne was big man at the box office, and it was Howdy Doody time.
Under the watchful eye of restaurateur Frank Brigtsen, it’s still possible to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, if only for an hour or two, when dinner meant sitting down with the family instead of a burger in a bag. You should plan on going before any more sand manages to slip through the hourglass.
Louisiana Casual Cuisine
8311 Jefferson Highway in Harahan
(Approx. 12 miles by auto from the
junction of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue)
Open Monday, 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Tuesday-Saturday, 11:00 am - 9:00 pm
All major credit cards accepted, no reservations
Telephone: (504) 737-3700