Matthew Dwyer, bartender who revived beloved New Orleans restaurant Charlie’s, dies at 49
BY IAN MCNULTY | STAFF WRITER OF THE TIMES PICAYUNE NEW ORLEANS ADVOCATE
Regulars at Charlie’s Steak House know that there is no menu, that the extra-large T-bones will arrive sputtering in iron pans and that proprietor Matthew Dwyer will always be on hand.
With his easy smile, snappy jokes and genuine hospitality, he seemed like the personification of this scrappy, beloved old New Orleans dining institution.
Now, Charlie’s regulars and Dwyer's many friends across the community are mourning his loss.
Dwyer was found dead at his Algiers home on Friday morning, confirmed his longtime friend Glenn Bove, manager of Charlie's. Dwyer was 49. Steven Moore, a close friend, said that early signs indicate a heart condition led to Dwyer's death.
A New Orleans native, Dwyer grew up in Lakeview. He started working as a bartender as a young man and spent 10 years pouring drinks at Madigan’s, the Carrollton Avenue bar he later managed. He was living Uptown in a shotgun house that happened to be next door to Charlie’s Steak House. He eventually picked up shifts behind Charlie’s bar too, opening St. Pauli Girl beers and mixing old fashioneds for a crowd who came by like clockwork.
Tucked in to its Uptown neighborhood on Dryades Street, Charlie’s goes back to 1932. It was named for founder Charlie Petrossi Sr., an immigrant from Ustica, an island off Sicily, and subsequently run by his son, Sonny Petrossi, and daughter, Dottye Bennett.
In the New Orleans that existed before Katrina, Charlie’s was an unchanging time capsule of old traditions, oddities and lore. The night’s menu was dictated over the table, and waiters often simply decided which customer would get which steak. The prices were low, the fusty ambiance of windowless paneled walls and sagging ceilings was somewhere between diner and VFW hall.
To Dwyer, it became a second home, a place where he could swap stories with the customers at the bar and observe the inner workings of a New Orleans classic.
Damaged by flooding after Katrina, the restaurant sat empty and its prospects were in limbo until Dwyer bought it from the Petrossi family in 2007. The task before the bartender and first-time restaurateur was to bring back a restaurant that nobody wanted to see change but that needed a massive overhaul to return. He reopened Charlie’s in 2008 with a scratch crew of friends he recruited one by one and the full knowledge that customers would be watching closely.
Dwyer struck a balance by keeping the restaurant’s character intact while fixing up the physical trappings, and updating the menu a tad. He did it by infusing Charlie’s with his own personality.
“He kept the place immaculate but he never tried to make it something it wasn’t,” said Justin Kennedy, a close friend and manager of Parkway Bakery & Tavern. “He kept it a classic.”
Dwyer saw himself as a caretaker of an institution that began long before he arrived, and the beneficiary of the relationships Charlie’s regulars already had with the old place.
“It’s Charlie’s with our twists to it, the tradition continues,” Dwyer said in a 2018 interview.
While the kitchen staff had all retired after Katrina, Dwyer tracked down old recipes to ensure his menu would match expectations. He continually consulted with Dottye Bennett, who gave her blessings to the changes he did make.
"I know my family is up there in heaven and looking down at Matt and saying 'go, man,'" Bennett, now deceased, said in a 2007 interview. "He's going to be successful because he loves people and that's what Charlie's was all about."
Eventually, Dwyer became part of the Charlie’s lore himself. He once claimed that he was “born a wiseass,” and that his years as a bartender only refined the innate skill.
Always careful to avoid mentioning a menu, verboten at Charlie’s, he still managed to create a list of snacks to serve at the bar under the title “drinking accoutrements.” When a customer pined for the pre-Katrina days when Charlie’s house pour was cheap boxed wine, Dwyer fetched up a bottle, put it in a box and proclaimed it boxed wine.
When old customers would recount the times they saw celebrities at Charlie’s who never actually visited, Dwyer would usually just let the stories ride.
“I used to try to correct people, but it’s pointless. It’s their story,” said Dwyer.
The ambiance across Charlie’s remained easygoing. If some steakhouse dining rooms resemble a corporate board room, Charlie’s embraced its vintage vibe. Preserving the laid-back feel, but keeping the old restaurant viable in the ever-changing New Orleans dining scene was a tribute to Dwyer’s skills behind the scenes, Bove said.
“He had such an eye for detail, he didn’t miss a thing,” said Bove. “All the little things that seemed insignificant, that all added up to what he wanted Charlie’s to be.”
Charlie’s was closed Friday. Bove couldn’t yet say what the future plans for the restaurant will be.
Many of Dwyer’s friends have contacted him, however, eager to pitch in shifts at the restaurant when the time is right.
“There’s been an outpouring of support,” he said. “Matt was really loved.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.