Cover Story

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

by Mary Tutwiler

For 25 years, Charley G’s has been fusing south Louisiana ingredients with new American cooking over the flame of a wood-fired grill. “To me, it’s like Cheers.” That’s Abbeville attorney Anthony Fontana. “You walk in the door, they call you by name, they know what you like to drink and bring it to your table without your having to ask.” That’s a martini.

The past five Mondays at lunchtime, in between sessions in court, Fontana could be found working his way through a bowl of the restaurant’s signature duck and andouille gumbo. Then he came back for dinner Friday night.

“The smell of the wood grill, the garlic, the smoke...what more can I say?”

On a busy Friday night, diners are exploring their way into the new fall menu. With the wave of cool air, oysters turn plump and salty, and they turn up in two appetizers, the four cheese ravioli with crispy oysters in a mushroom calvados cream sauce or the pecan crusted oysters atop herbsaint and bacon creamed spinach. There’s not much conversation at the table, mostly “mmmmm,” as diners taste and swap, and close their eyes in appreciation. Charlie Goodson, owner and good-will ambassador for his namesake restaurant, drops by the table. “Everything OK?” he asks. And he’s already summoned our waiter, noticing we’ve guzzled the last drop of wine, making sure we have what we need before we notice it ourselves. He suggests we follow up with the braised shortribs cloaked in a truffle-port wine reduction, another new addition to a menu that changes with the seasons. Unless we’re feeling like fresh Gulf fish from the grill. It’s an embarrassment of riches; we order more than we can ever eat and hum along with the piano player to “Stardust,” as blissed out by the clubby booths and warm chatter of the crowd as we are by the food.

“Nobody knows more about the restaurant business than Charlie,” says his lifelong friend, former partner and owner of Café Vermilionville, Ken “Poncho” Veron. That’s apparent in every detail of the dining experience, which is as much theatre — the open kitchen and flaming grill, the cheery attentiveness of the wait staff, the camaraderie at the piano bar — as it is the creative prowess of his executive chef, Holly Goetting. After a quarter of a century that has brought a gyring cycle of ups and downs, Charley G’s is hitting on all cylinders tonight.

Photo by Robin May

Goodson doesn’t have a degree in restaurant management, and his friend and former executive chef, Pat Mould, says he can’t cook his way out of a paper bag. His formal education, if you can call it that, was at the school of Guidry, Guilbeaux and Hebert. “I graduated from the Cajun Entrepreneurial University,” says Goodson.

Guidry and Guilbeaux are Preston Guidry and Ken Guilbeaux, at that time joint owners of The Keg. In 1967, Goodson, a 22-year-old civil engineering student at USL, was working part time at The Keg. Guilbeaux also owned the Bulldog Inn on The Strip near The Keg and the Loose Caboose, where Goodson moonlighted. Both were college hangouts, and Goodson says he liked the work a lot. “I enjoyed the camaraderie with people. It was like when you went to work, you were actually going to where everybody was.” Poncho Veron, a classmate, was a bartender as well. “Charlie was the guy everybody liked,” says Veron. “He’s friendly, everybody knew Charlie, he was a real popular guy on campus.” Goodson realized his career path wasn’t civil engineering, and he went over to USL to change his major. “Back then, they didn’t have any courses at all in restaurant management, nothing. They had one course related to food service in the home economics department, and no red-blooded American boy is going to major in home economics. I decided I would do it on-the-job, so I quit school and started managing bars.” Guidry and Guilbeaux had a falling out. Guilbeaux kept The Keg, and Guidry bought another bar in the neighborhood, dubbed Uncle Pete’s. (Uncle Pete’s would eventually become Pete’s, now on Johnston; the brick building that housed it is where The Bulldog is today). Uncle Pete’s had live music as well as burgers; Goodson got on as manager and stayed for a couple of years. Then another friend, Earl Hebert, who owned Beef and Ale, invited Goodson to work for him.

Charlie, Del, Anna and Claire Goodson

Photo by Robin May

Goodson now had some management experience under his belt and felt like the next step was to open a place of his own. “On my days off, I’d ride around looking for a location. I wanted to open a little college bar of some kind. In those days, you either went to a hotel lounge or The Keg. There was no in-between for single people. As you got older, you got too old to go to The Keg, but too young to go to the Holiday Inn lounge. You could go to Chez Pastor, but that was much older. Toby’s, Jacob’s — those were both older crowds. Boo Boos, now that was a good club, there was music; it was out in Breaux Bridge, but you couldn’t go there on a Tuesday night after work. It was a dance hall, and they opened late.” Hebert spotted the ole Maison Acadien building on Pinhook for lease. He called Goodson, and they leased it on the spot, Goodson recalls. That was in 1972. The bar they opened, Judge Roy Bean’s, became a Lafayette institution from the get go. The building was 200 years old, one of the most historic structures still standing in town. Away from the college atmosphere of The Strip, adjacent to the booming Oil Center, there was beef stew and red beans and rice for lunch and the saloon stayed open all hours. “Back then, there was no closing time,” says Goodson. “I’d leave there at 6 or 7 in the morning on weekends.” A dozen years later, in 1981, the lease came up for renewal. Hebert wanted out because he decided to concentrate on his painting. Goodson, who by that time was married and had a child, was ready to move out of the bar business and into a full fledged restaurant. His old friend Poncho Veron was still managing The Keg, but Veron was hungry to get into a more food-oriented business as well, so he bought out Hebert. Veron and Goodson became partners, and they changed the name to Café Vermilionville.

“The basic thought behind the original café idea was a seafood La Fonda,” says Goodson. The pair was looking for a heavy bar trade plus food. At first blush, that food was going to be fried seafood, but they quickly realized the old standbys, Don’s and Riverside Inn, had cornered the market on fried food. So they turned to fine dining. Veron and Goodson hired a European trained chef, Leopold Langoria, and went for the white tablecloth crowd.

They found their sous chef in a cook turned waiter, Pat Mould, who was serving tables at The Landing. Langoria was turning out French classics, using imported ingredients — Alaskan king crab as a garnish on the Veal Oscar. Mould, from Crowley, insisted on backfin blue crab from Vermilion Bay. Crawfish. Oysters. The changeover to a Louisiana-driven palate elevated with French technique set Café V apart and pulled diners in the door.

Langoria didn’t stay long. “When Leopold left,” says Veron, “Charley and I jumped in. We had to learn how to get by behind the stove.” Mould, at 27, took over his first kitchen.

Chef Holly Goetting and Goodson

Photo by Robin May

The oilfield was booming, the restaurant thriving, and in 1984, five years after the Acadiana Mall opened its doors, they signed a lease on another location, a new building on Ambassador Caffery. “In 1985, Poncho and I opened Charley G’s together,” says Goodson. “The Superior Oil building was next door. Next to that was the Tenneco building which had been next door to Judge Roy Bean’s, which had been a big boost. So we said “Look, let’s go out there, where Tenneco is now, we’ll keep the café here, and have another restaurant on that side of town, where a second Oil Center might develop. First Superior Oil left, then Tenneco left town. We had signed the lease, the building’s under construction, and they’re all gone.” The oil bust nearly did both restaurants in. “We almost starved to death,” says Goodson. “What we realized is we had taken a good little business, a café, and split it into two restaurants. People who were coming to us twice a month, would go to the Café one time and Charley G’s one time. Neither one of them had enough business to survive, plus the economy was in the pits.”

They made a decision to split up the business and each carve out a niche. Goodson’s name was on the Ambassador Caffery building, so he took that. Veron kept the historic café.

Mould was trying to run two kitchens, but, according to Veron, “Charlie got Pat in the divorce.” For the new restaurant, Goodson designed a wood burning grill, a healthy trend he had identified, and which to this day sets Charley G’s off from other local restaurants. “Charley is always on top of what’s going on in the food world,” Mould says. “He was the one pushing for fresh, seasonal ingredients within a regional setting.”

“When we came out here, we wanted to do something different,” says Goodson. Charley G’s was intended to be more downscale, but ultimately each restaurant took on the personality of the owner. Southern cooking was going through a renaissance. The Paul Prudhommes of the world had just stepped out into the limelight, and regional cooking was becoming popular. “We had the most valuable regional cooking in the United States,” says Goodson. “Cajun and Creole culture and its food is one of the authentic regional foods of our county. We were thinking about relying on our regional background, our cultural background, to develop a menu.” Mould hired a Creole chef, Wayne Jean, whom he relied on for the deep brown gravies and active spices that are a hallmark of great Creole cooking. The pair developed a smoked duck and andouille gumbo, right out of hunting camp tradition. Mould created a creamy crab cake unlike any being served in Lafayette. Those two dishes have survived, untouched on the menu at Charley G’s for the entire 25 years in business.

By the 1990s, the economy was showing signs of recovery. Goodson, in partnership with Mould and foodie George Graham, opened Hub City Diner on South College. The same year, 1992, Goodson, in partnership with entrepreneur Jerry Young, opened a Charley G’s in Metairie, in suburban New Orleans. Five years later they opened a second New Orleans restaurant, Metro Bistro on Magazine Street, as well as Thib’s Seafood Café in Destin, Fla.

Goodson sold out of Hub City Diner, which now belongs to an old friend, Jimmy Guidry. The bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, he says, rang the death knell on Metro Bistro. In 2002, he decided not to renew the lease on the Metairie Charley G’s. “I was probably growing faster than I could put my little mind around,” says Goodson, “and I was running around from one place to the next not making a meaningful contribution to any of them. The Charley G’s here suffered. I did not have the coverage or expertise to cover myself when I left. I wasn’t a multi-unit operator, didn’t know how to do it well. Each one that I opened, Hub City, Metro, Thib’s, they were all new concepts with no track record; it was all in my mind, it wasn’t on paper. So I was developing it, just like I did Charley G’s, day to day. Developing the clientele, the menu, the service style. When I wasn’t there, development stopped. Today, all the satellites are gone. I got too old,” he says without the least bit of regret. “I feel much more comfortable. If I ever did another project it would be local. I don’t want to travel again.”

These days, the staff at Charley G’s meets on Tuesdays at 2:30 p.m. to brainstorm. Goetting, sous chef Pat Meador and manager Courtney Vincent all bring ideas to the table. Often these ideas wind up on the twice a month Wine Dinner menus, and if they’re a hit, onto the seasonal menu, which turns four times a year. Goetting, one of the few women to guide an Acadiana kitchen, worked her way up to the top spot with Goodson, where she’s led the kitchen for five years. “Charley gives me as much freedom to invent and express myself as I want,” says Goetting. “He’ll go over and beyond to help you out. He’s hands on when it comes to the restaurant.” If he wasn’t the boss, she continues, laughing, “he’d be our best employee.”

“Being younger, Holly brings a freshness to the kitchen,” Goodson says. “It’s been a fun relationship.” Goetting isn’t the only woman making sure Charley G’s is running smoothly. Del Goodson, Charley’s wife, is back keeping the restaurant’s books. Daughter Anna is in charge of marketing. With his back covered, Goodson is free to do what he loves best, working the floor, connecting with his guests. Comfortable, confident, he’s signed a new lease, good for another five years at his well tempered location. Saturday night, he’ll host a Halloween Wine Dinner, in costume.

The soft spoken restaurateur drops by our table once more. “Can I tempt you with dessert?”

“No,” we groan.

“Chocolate bourbon sweet potato pecan pie?” he grins. There is no defense against this convergence of everything we love about fall food. “And a glass of port?” We’ve given up all pretense of self-control. Goodson will turn 65 this December. He looks younger, happier than I ever can remember him.

We have all grown up together, the clientele, the new American cooking, and the soft spoken man who has built a restaurant that feels like our favorite club. It’s been the blink of an eye. It’s been 25 years. Happy anniversary, Charley G’s.