The Post-Katrina recovery may finally be complete.
Years after Hurricane Katrina, restaurants were still making their way back to New Orleans’ bustling restaurant scene. It took two long years to restore the revered Dooky Chase, and three years for Charlie’s Steak House to come back to life. Even longer was the 2017 return of Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine, a classic of black Creole cooking, along with Gabrielle, and in 2018, Barrow’s Catfish. We share two of the many tales of resilience that serve as a testament to the spirit of New Orleans.
Charlie’s Steak House was an institution, the kind of place that had no printed menu because none was needed. All the customers were long-time regulars and knew they’d get a great steak. All the waiter needed to know was what size and how they liked it cooked. That, and legendary potatoes au gratin and onion rings were more than enough to keep the place packed from 1932 until 2005. Shuttered post-Katrina for two years before former bartender Matthew Dwyer purchased the place and began a year-long rebuilding, it was far from certain that old customers would return and younger diners would try it out. But Charlie’s comeback was orchestrated perfectly, reflecting contemporary tastes while still paying homage to its unique legacy.
General Manager Glen Bove explains: “Our first goal was to present a place that was like the old Charlie’s people remembered so well. Gradually, we made changes…using fresh mushrooms instead of canned, adding strip and rib-eye steaks, crabmeat au gratin, even tuna sashimi.”
What didn’t change was the loyal customer following. Regulars returned, along with people who hadn’t dined at Charlie’s in 30 years, but still remembered visiting with Grandpa. First-timers also showed up.
“They move away,” says Bove, “but they still come back.”
To Bove, that’s the payoff for the arduous work of restoring Charlie’s to its glory days.
“It’s there every day, hearing their stories and realizing how much this place means to them.”
And still, not a menu in sight.
Gabrielle, the 12-year miracle
Gabrielle restaurant had an equally fanatic following in its pre-Katrina days. Owner Greg Sonnier’s duck, roasted low and slow with orange-sherry sauce and finished off in the deep fryer, earned a writeup in the New York Times in 2004. Just a year later, the restaurant was destroyed by the storm. After a series of challenges that would have brought most people to their knees, including a flood a month before re-opening, Gabrielle triumphantly returned in 2017.
Greg, wife Mary and daughter Gabrielle each has an integral role in the restaurant’s renaissance. Mary runs the business operations, Gabrielle manages the dining room and Greg pursues his passion for cooking classic New Orleans cuisine with a twist. The three couldn’t be more committed to making the new Gabrielle bigger than before.
“I fell down a bunch of times, but you get back up and make yourself better than you are each day,” says Greg. “I wanted to return to what I enjoyed doing most: Making, tasting and serving food.”
Much had changed, and the Sonniers took it in stride, installing a new POS system, adding house cocktails to the menu and building the restaurant’s social media profile. The menu includes old favorites—slow-roasted duck is back!—and new dishes like gumbo with anise-flavored green sausage. True to its roots as an affordable, white tablecloth restaurant, wine is a reasonable $7 to $14 a glass.
Gabrielle’s loyalty program is simple, yet effective. “We provide a good value, and make it easy for people to come here more often,” says Mary.