Monday, March 5, 2012

An Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe - A Historic Breakfast Joint I've Historically Passed On

Since I moved to Boston in 2001, I’ve walked or ridden by Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe on Columbus St. almost every weekday. Over ten years, 300+ times a year, I’ve thought “what a cool sign. I should really stop there some time for breakfast.” Usually, this occurs to me on my way home from work, when I’m in no mood for sandwiches or eggs and they’re not open anyways.

I’d have been inside without issue back in the 1960s, when Charlie’s was a 24-hour hotspot for black jazz musicians (who I imagine played at places like Wally’s on Mass Ave.) and late-nighters. These days though, their hours are limited to mornings and early afternoons.

The trend of “should have, didn’t” ended one morning last week when I went for a ride before work. Riding by that classically designed sign reminiscent of Cheers, but more authentic, I made a U-turn and locked my bike up on a fence next to some renovated tenement-houses-turned-luxury-condos and went in.

I was greeted at the door by a college-aged man who informed me I could sit anywhere. The options were a long counter with diner stools that may have inspired a scene or two in Grease, or a variety of small table scattered throughout a small space. I scanned the room – a couple of elderly men chatted over coffee and eggs at one table. A family on vacation chatted at another over plates of everything. Two college kids sat at the counter. I opted to join them, taking up the second-to-last stool from the entrance to the very visible kitchen. A pretty but plain blonde girl who couldn’t have been more than eighteen asked if I wanted coffee and gave me a menu. I told her I did, and continued scanning the room. I spied a number of tacky but appropriate signs, a woman who seemed to be in charge scanning over the whole place but not really seeming to be doing anything, and an older man cooking over four different pans. Above his head, directly in front of me, was the same menu I was looking at written out on a whiteboard.

The pretty, if forgettable girl brought me my coffee and I surmised that these people could be, but probably were not, a family. She asked me if I knew what I wanted and I realized I’d not actually read the menu, as I was distracted by the charm of the diner’s plainness. And it was a diner. The name notwithstanding, almost everything in Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe smacks of cheap, tasty breakfast.

Given my lack of menu knowledge, I blurted out an order of over-easy eggs with white toast, home fries, and bacon. It was an old standby for me, and a sure thing at any breakfast counter. As she walked away, I sipped my coffee – good stuff by diner standards – and listened to the bustle around me. I listened to pieces of conversations as more people shuffled in: was a patron going to some church event? Where did the family want to go: Museum of Science or Aquarium? When do you finish school? This unlikely collection of humanity chatted on about pleasantly irrelevant minutia, chowing all along of what I anticipated would be a tasty, if a touch pricy breakfast.

The old cook was a master of his craft. He had half a dozen pans going at a time, all the time walking away momentarily, only to return at exactly the right second to throw an egg in the air without breaking it, or take bacon off without burning. I heard him talk, and while I’m not sure if he was foreign, I believed he was, if for no other reason than to add to the majestic legend of the place. At Charlie’s, you dine on standard fare cooked up – no, created… Created by experts who crossed the Atlantic. This guy was like Anton at Union Oyster House – an expert from a distant nation and expert at his craft at a level that Americans simply didn’t have the heritage to produce yet.

All this before I even ate!

I realized at the last second that I was watching my own meal being prepared when it was suddenly plated and presented before me not by the waitress but by the woman whose job I wasn’t clear on. She wished me good eating and returned to her seat. Just then a couple from England or Australia (I still can’t distinguish. I’m sorry) entered and were told they could sit at the counter or share a table. I looked up and realized that the place had filled up almost to capacity.

As the Aussie/Brit couple sat next to me and debated what to order, a group of college kids came in, one of which was enthusiastically greeted by the whole staff. He used to work there, apparently. This put a dent in my groundless assumption that all these people were a nuclear family, but added to my appreciation of the joint’s old-Boston appeal.

I ate my breakfast, which was, like my waitress, good but easy to overlook. There was so much going on in there that was better than the completely serviceable food. These people – travelers and locals alike – were friendly, happy, and being well-fed by an equally friendly staff of people who didn’t even seem to care how good they were at their jobs. Instead, they just did it. They exuded a level of confidence in their work that said “of course your food is good. I’ll ask, but I don’t need to.” They were right. They didn’t have to ask, but I’m glad they did.

As I finished my meal, I took a moment while waiting for my bill to commend the cook on his flawless work. I don’t know if he didn’t hear me or ignored me, but I wasn’t offended. I echoed my sentiments to the waitress and the mystery woman. The latter expressed her understanding. “He’s great,” she said.

Eggs, bacon, toast, and homefries, with coffee ran over $10. I admit that if there’s a flaw with Charlie’s, it’s that it’s a bit overpriced. While I wouldn’t say the food was worth that, the ambiance of the interior and affability of the workers was. I look forward to going back. I’ll sit anywhere, even if I have to share a table. I left $15 on the counter and went out the door to a chorus of thanks and well wishes from a team of gold-medal stewards.

Experience Rating 1-5

New Experience: 4.5 – I’ve never been to Charlie’s, so in that respect it was totally new. I’ve been to places like it in my travels (and frankly, in the movies), so it wasn’t completely new. It was the familiarity with this unfamiliar place that made its appeal.

Others Can Do It: 5 – If you’ve got a few bucks and a half hour, and you’re available from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., you can do this.

Enjoyable: 5 – There is no reason not to recommend Charlie’s. I’d like to go back for sandwiches if you’re interested.

Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe is located at 429 Columbus Ave, Boston, MA, not far from Back Bay Station. They are open 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon-Fri, 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. They don't have a website.

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