We've got Bern's, the Bay area's world-renowned temple of cow flesh and vino. We've got the ritzy chains — Ruth's Chris, Fleming's, Capital Grill and even Shula's — each with its own style of coaxing large sums of money from slavering steak fans. We're even the home base of the great equalizer from the land down under, the spurious Outback with its butter-basted beef and reasonable prices. With all these options, where does Charley's fit?
At first glance, Charley's seems to be competition for the big boys. All the trappings are there — wine and cigars in private lockers for patrons willing to pay for their own little piece of Charley's, a décor that manages to meld upscale hunter's cabin/ski lodge/urban men's club into a surprisingly coherent whole, and prices that are a little above the typical family's comfort range. Look a little closer, though — at the atmosphere, the service and even the beef — and you might find that Charley's has more in common with the Outback.
At Bern's or Flemings, waiters have an informed gravitas and dignity. Here at Charley's, waiters wear an archaic outfit of a patterned cummerbund and white button-down shirt topped by a giant epaulet. Huh? Haven't seen anything this outdated since my last trip to Hooters. Our guy is well-informed and reasonably efficient, but he always seems just a little concerned about what's happening at the other booths down the row. He's rushed.
That's somewhat understandable, because the place is packed. Charley's is huge — with multiple dining rooms surrounding an extensive bar area, all full of people. There are a lot of families, a lot of casual clothes and a lot of noise. I'm not saying that it's full of the unwashed masses, but maybe Charley's is the ritzy steakhouse for the common man?
When our server lugs out a heavy tray laden with bright red cow flesh to display the cuts, I start to relax. If the meat's good, who cares that drops of water from somewhere in the rafters occasionally fall on my back. Or that a cobweb flutters above my companions' heads every time someone passes by. Meat can solve a lot of problems.
There's no rib eye (my favorite cut) at Charley's, but I've been eyeing a Kansas City cut that's listed on the menu. Let me sum up the waiter's spiel: All beef is carefully selected, graded choice or prime by the USDA, dry-aged for 4-5 weeks and hand cut, then inspected before each nightly service. Sounds good, but I wish it was all prime grade, and there's no Kansas City cut on his platter. They don't have too many steaks of this cut available, the server says, but he manages to snag me one of the last. Turns out, he shouldn't have bothered.
The other half of Charley's claim to fame is "market fresh fish," and there are 14 different varieties listed on the menu, available blackened, grilled or bronzed with a choice of eight different sauces for $3 more. Lots of options, until you see the disclaimer: "Some selections available in season only." Tonight we are given the extensive choice of salmon or tuna. Yep, that's it. I think I'll settle for pork.
Before the meat arrives, though, we dig into an intensely decadent dish of shrimp la bella ($14.95). Each bite explodes with delicious fat — lush hollandaise, buttery bread crumbs, gooey provolone. There's also some mushroom and shrimp in there, but who can tell amid this delicious mess. I manage to stop myself before I can actually feel my arteries hardening.
Charley's tartare ($14.95) arrives pre-chopped, then mixed tableside. There's something pleasant about eating seasoned raw meat. I feel like a mountain man, albeit a mountain man who cultivates capers and onions, makes his own mustard and toasts buttery bread to pile the meat onto. I guess that's as backwoods as I get.
When my Kansas City steak ($26.95) arrives, it has a seared crust and is two inches thick — at one end. The steak, actually a bone-in New York strip, is a ski slope, the thickness gradually decreasing to a scant 3/4-inch at one end. You can't cook such a poorly cut piece of beef evenly, I think to myself. Whadda you know? I'm right! Call it almost rare at the bone and almost medium-well at the dainty edge, with a little of my requested medium-rare in the middle. The flavor's fine, with that distinct nuttiness that comes with aging and a perfect amount of salt on the crust, but it's not very tender and the temperature is totally screwy.
The filet ($27.95) has more of that dry-aged flavor — a welcome addition to a normally bland cut of beef — but the vaunted texture isn't there. It's softer than the strip, but lacks that ethereal tenderness that defines filet. All that is easy to forget once I dunk a few bites in more of Charley's uber-rich hollandaise, though. Still, I feel a little cheated.
It's hard to feel cheated by two massive pork chops for $15.95, the still-sizzling fat along the edge evoking the aroma of smokey bacon as they hit the table. Ordered medium, these gigantic chops ended up medium rare, with the interior meat near the bone almost uncooked. I like my pork with a lot of pink, but I think the heat should at least reach the interior of the meat. Although the outside is salty and smoky, the nigh raw interior is almost devoid of flavor.
Oh yeah, sides. Expensive sides are a steakhouse staple, barely justified by family-sized portions. Here at Charley's, the price is reasonable but the product is nothing to get excited about. Au gratin ($4) consists of hunks of smashed potatoes blanketed by cheese and a little cream; grilled veggies ($5.95) are slightly charred and fresh from the pit; and creamed spinach ($6.95) is rich and blasted with some spicy cayenne heat. Adequate? Sure. Worth the $7 addition to a humdrum $30 steak? Not so sure.
When it comes time for dessert, you might question shelling out $9.75 for a slice of chocolate cake as big as your head, considering the rest of your meal. You know what? Go for it. It's good, possibly the best thing you'll eat at Charley's. Or better yet, save up an extra few dollars, put on your fancy pants, and head to Bern's.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.