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"Back in the '80s, people used to tell me I had the best restaurant downtown," says Clive Berkman, owner of Charley's 517. "I would laugh and mutter under my breath, 'I have the only restaurant downtown.' "
Charley's 517, which opened in 1971, was originally an old-school dinner house, with waiters in tuxedos and a stuffy private-club atmosphere. But a succession of great chefs elevated the food there to something quite unique. French nouvelle cuisine blossomed there under chef Amy Ferguson in the mid-'80s. And in 1988, the New American cuisine debuted there under London-born chef Bruce Auden, who now owns the highly acclaimed Biga in San Antonio. Arturo Boada, now chef and owner at Solero, followed Auden, bringing a Spanish flair to the classical kitchen long before the Nuevo Latino era. More great European and classically trained chefs succeeded these culinary pioneers. But when a fire closed Charley's 517 in 1994, Berkman decided to try something different.
"Our customers had changed," he recalls. "The old, stuffy, high-end restaurant market was going away and being replaced by this new baby-boomer high end, which was quite different. So we downscaled the restaurant. No more tuxedos on the waiters. And we went to sort of a steak-house menu." The name of the restaurant was changed to Clive's, and Berkman became the head chef. The formula worked for a couple of years, but then in 1998 the city began tearing up the streets. "We started experiencing what Main Street is experiencing right now," says Berkman. The construction was finally finished in 2001, just as Tropical Storm Allison arrived, devastating the arts district. Soon after 9/11 came the Enron scandal. Funding was cut in the arts, and business dried up at Clive's. "Enron, Arthur Andersen, Dynegy and Reliant made up 60 percent of our corporate business," says Berkman. "All of a sudden it was just gone."
About three years ago, Clive Berkman found Jesus. And since July of last year, he has been a minister at Second Baptist Church. For a guy who was raised Jewish, and who had long fought the Baptists over liquor licenses, his transformation was a bit of a surprise. "Now my life has taken on a whole new meaning," Berkman says. The Lord also moved Berkman to remove his toque. "I never was that good at it; I was just all I could afford," he admits. Last year a classically trained Irish chef named Mark Johnston took over in the kitchen. The steak-house menu was dropped, and so was the name Clive's. According to Berkman, Johnston's new menu is a nostalgic homage to Charley's 517 "through the ages," with borrowings from all the former great chefs who have worked there.
"The old classic dining rooms of Houston have faded away," says Berkman. "Maxim's is gone, and Tony's will soon be replaced by Anthony's, if you believe the rumors." Berkman hopes that Charley's 517 can fill the old-fashioned dinner-house void with an elegant place that isn't stuffy or pretentious. It will be a few years before the Charley's 517 comeback pays any dividends. "Downtown is a mess now," Berkman says. "But in two years, when the construction is done, this area is going to take off like a rocket. Then we will really be back."