Chef Mark Johnston and general manager Soufiane Elaamili, Charley's 517

Comeback Kids!

"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."

Take entrance no. 2 off Main, mosey through Rice campus and see what they've done to the place. Rice has one of the few college campuses that you can actually drive through without being accosted by the police or hitting a dead end every 20 feet. If you don't lose your nerve when you see the stadium parking lot (it's awfully big for such a little school), you can cut all the way over to University Boulevard or Greenbriar and sail into West U by the back door, avoiding both the construction and the maddening Bissonnet traffic jams.
Andy Fastow was the creator of those infamous outside partnerships with the Star Wars names that diverted millions from the company to his family foundation and the bank accounts of fellow employees. After winning a conviction of accounting giant Arthur Andersen for illegally shredding Enron documents, government prosecutors have given every indication that they may go after Fastow's scalp next. Runner-up: Hamilton Middle School Principal Kenneth Goeddeke, a fave with parents and students who resigned after district computer police caught him using his office computer to access adult porn sites.
After years of successfully defending local celebrity clients like QB Warren Moon (spousal abuse) and Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich (DWI), former Harris County prosecutor Rusty Hardin finally jumped to the major leagues with national coverage of his roles in the Anna Nicole Smith probate jamboree and the Arthur Andersen shredding trial. Hardin got so under Smith's skin during cross-examination that she immortalized him for the nation's court TV junkies by snapping, "Screw you, Rusty." The lawyer charmed reporters from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal during the Andersen trial with his country mannerisms and hokey off-color suits. He repeatedly ridiculed the government's case with the slogan "Where's Waldo?" Unfortunately for Rusty, Waldo turned out to be Judge Melinda Harmon, whose instructions forced the jury out of a weeklong deadlock and into a conviction of his client.
Minute Maid Park
God bless that American tradition of elections -- those august times when the populace flows into frayed schoolhouse hallways or churches or even humble homes or garages to exercise their voting rights. But the downtown crowd, at least the Republicans, got a better deal on this democratic notion in the party primaries. While the lesser Democrats of the same precincts were packing into the Knights of Columbus Hall, the GOP (as in Grand Ol' Park) was granted access to the airy delights of Union Station, a.k.a. Minute Maid Park. Makes sense. Ballots take on the look of lineup cards. There's a turnstile of sorts to take the straight-ticket voters. The players in this game have already tapped into their base of fan support with fat PAC backing. A dangling chad dispute? Call in the ump. And electoral turnout would soar if they could only expand the process to let fans vote on fresh candidates for some of the Astros' positions -- or even on a new owner.

East End native Carol Alvarado has been crusading for other people's municipal campaigns ever since she could walk, and last fall she finally won her own place on Houston City Council. The former aide to Mayor Lee Brown weathered an acrimonious contest against two opponents to win the District I seat without a runoff. This success came to her despite the fact that she was opposed by both her term-limited predecessor, John Castillo, and the other Hispanic member of council, Gabe Vasquez. The 35-year-old Alvarado won her race by utilizing a wealth of contacts built through more than a decade of community involvement. Somewhere down the road she might just face off with last year's Best Politician, Councilman Vasquez, for the right to become Houston's first Hispanic mayor.
Kyle Janek, a West U anesthesiologist, knocked off former GOP county chair Gary Polland by a decisive 66-34 percent margin in the spring primary for State Senate District 17, effectively putting to sleep Polland's incipient political career. Janek also may have ended Polland's reign as political payout king of the Harris County courts, where Republican judges for years have showered the defense attorney with lucrative appointments to represent indigent defendants. Janek, a rock-ribbed conservative, had to weather a Polland campaign attack that accused him of being a "left-winger." When Republican voters stopped laughing, they went to the polls and voted Janek.
This 40-year-old native Houstonian went public with his battle with severe depression in 1994, and since then he's become a leader in public health care legislation. He's been repeatedly lauded by Texas Monthly in its yearly evaluation of lawmakers and honored by the Texas Medical Association. After disclosing his illness, Coleman began taking antidepressants to control his condition. Last year the legislator was arrested on charges of assaulting the owner of a Montessori school attended by his children. He eventually pled to a misdemeanor and apologized to the man. Coleman denies that the incident was related to his mental illness. Associates point to family history: Coleman's father, the late Dr. John Coleman, a political kingmaker in Houston's black community, was famous for his temper. Coleman also may be taking up the kingmaking role of his dad. He was heavily involved in the campaign of Ada Edwards for the District D City Council seat last fall. Although most of the heavy hitters in the black community went with her opponent, Gerald Womack, Coleman's candidate won.

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs feels compelled to add her personal two cents to anything any citizen happens to say during the City Council public session. A dermatologist, Sekula-Gibbs has also appointed herself the resident expert on all matters medical. Like any gadfly, she means well but can drive colleagues up the wall with her time-consuming gab.

Retiring Harris County elections supervisor Tony Sirvello, a veteran at the county for two decades and a favorite with media, oversaw the computerization of county election returns as well as the installation of a new computerized voting system to replace the much-maligned "hanging chad" punch ballots. He wanted to stay through the fall general election, but County Clerk Beverly Kaufman decided otherwise, forcing his resignation. Sirvello won the respect of Houston political reporters and campaign consultants through his accessibility and nonpartisan handling of his job. The jury's still out on Kaufman's new election crew. It took three people to replace him. Can they fill his capacious shoes? Wait and see; time will cast its vote.

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