Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eulogy for a Restaurant

I mourn my restaurants when they are gone.

For my whole childhood, December 23 was a celebration day for me, because that was when Granddaddy took us to Charlie's Steak House, to celebrate Grandmama's (and my dad's) birthday.  Charlie's was a dark, hushed tones place that served excellent steaks.  Sure, it was probably less than ideal for a small kid, because Chicken McNuggets never quite made it onto their kids' menu. 

For that matter, there was no kids' menu.

The salad was fresh iceberg lettuce with one sad quarter of a fresh tomato.  You had your choice of four dressings: blue cheese, thousand island, french and ranch. They were lovingly dumped into a serving tray, to be ladled out into your small bowl of lettuce.

You didn't go to Charlie's for the salad.

There were crackers and butter to eat while you waited for the entree to come out. 

You didn't go to Charlie's for the crackers.

The sides for your entree were a nice baked potato, with sour cream and butter, or limp french fries.  Neither of which were a draw.  There was both chicken and fish on the menu.  I am pretty sure that they kept one of each, in case some silly non-local came in with a desire to eat something else.  I never saw it happen.

You went to Charlie's for steaks.  Huge, juicy, tender steaks. 

Urban legend has it that during WWII, Charlie got the concession to feed some of the troops before they left for the European theatre.  The army provided the meat, and Charlie would prepare and serve the steaks.  His stipulation was that the steaks needed to be the right kind of beef.

The delivery was made, and Charlie refused it.  When the officer came by to see what the problem was, Charlie opened up the compartment, and started walking through the delivery.  "That one is a cow that has calved four times. This one a hiefer. This one, a cow that calved twice.  My instructions indicated that I would only serve steer meat.  Take it away and send me what I asked for.  I will not serve meat that is below my standards."

Charlie was also a skinflint.  A match seller came in and started in on his schpiel about how Charlie could buy this amount of promotional matches for his restaurant, but for just X amount more, he could get...

Charlie said, give me the best deal you can.  The cheapest per-matchbox price available.  And I'll sign the contract. 

Forty years later, the contract expired.  And Charlie had bought matches all of those years - the same matches - for a fraction of the cost
that he would have gotten them at market prices.  Granted, he had to sign a forty-year contract, but he got a deal on them.

A couple of years ago, Charlie's doors closed.  He had passed the restaurant on to his daughter, who had been running it with the exact same decor (upstairs had a large area sealed off with wavy green glass, and it looked like an underwater scene, unchanged for the thirty years I attended) and the exact same menu and the exact same Tootsie rolls to take as you left, and the exact same matches.  And after she had run the restaurant all her adult life, she retired.

And closed the restaurant.

I miss that place.  I had not joined in for the celebration for a number of years.  But there is something nostalgic about a place that is so embued with memory. 

I look at some of the other favorite restaurants that have disappeared through the years, and feel the same way.  Not all of them were fancy, and many of them were not even good.  But they all marked me.  And like old friends, I miss them when they are gone.

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