Don & Charlie's: Eric Schaefer's Comfort Food
Editor's Note: Prompted by a few restaurant closings and the "ABC nonsense," occasional Chow Bella contributor Eric Schaefer felt compelled to write about his "culinary happy place." Enjoy.
I've written about Don & Charlie's before, and I'm sure to write about it again. But, in the midst of way too much restaurant drama as of late, it is my belief that Don & Charlie's is the textbook example of drama-free dining and, in many respects, the epitome of why we -- as humans -- go out to eat in the first place. Forget about the recent bevy of high-profile restaurant closings and media hailstorm about a particular Scottsdale restaurant portrayed on television that doesn't even warrant being mentioned by name. Just go to Don & Charlie's, dammit. Go now.
If you've never been there, let this be your motivation to try it for the first time. If you've been there before, go again. And I will feel personally indebted to you because it is my sincere desire to see Don & Charlie's survive in perpetuity or at least until I'm long gone. I have no financial interest at stake. I adore Don & Charlie's for the recurring role that it has played in my life since I moved to Arizona in 1983 and can say, with almost absolute certainty, that in the course of my 40 years, I've eaten there more than any other restaurant in Arizona (barring some fast food joints for which I make no excuse).
Unlike the [Insert Name Here] Hot Restaurant of the Moment That Won't Last, Don & Charlie's is the antithesis of drama. You might not agree if you try to walk in during the peak of spring training, when the lobby is packed tightly with tourists and locals alike hoping to get a peek at which major leaguers are in the dining room. But I avoid this restaurant during prime season. Going to Don & Charlie's in the summer months is one of life's simple dining pleasures. It's quiet, relaxed, and reliable. It's been doing essentially the exact same thing since 1981, and that gives a place plenty of time to perfect it.
My love letter to Don & Charlie's has as much to do with the food as it does the entire experience, which is as perfect as any restaurant -- anywhere. Some of the serving staff has been there for the better part of 30 years; they know the menu and they know how to make you feel comfortable whether you're a regular or newbie. There isn't a window in the place, giving it a cool vibe that reminds me of Dan Tana's in Los Angeles. One can't re-create this; it has to happen over time. It's authentic. The bar room, off to the left from the lobby, is a perfect spot to dine solo, whether you want some anonymity or just a good meal while you watch a game on television. I just wish I could smoke a cigar in there, because that bar deserves cigars.
But the dining room is where it's at. If you want to look like a regular, be sure to sit side-by-side if you're a party of two. It's de rigeur at Don & Charlie's and the hostesses expect it. I'm not sure that's standard protocol at Durant's, and the food is better at Don & Charlie's. Especially on quiet summer nights, I dread leaving the homey dining room and being blinded by the western sun as I head to my car. It's like being awakened from a dream, startled and pissed off.
The food is primarily classic chophouse fare with a definite Chicago accent (Don Carson, the owner, is from Chicago), but this is not Portillo's, and "classic chophouse fare" is not intended as a negative. In fact, the food is delicious, well-prepared and mostly consistent. In 30 years of eating there, I can't remember many missteps. I dare you to find a better rack of baby back ribs in the Valley or a better baked potato, for that matter. Shrimp de Jonghe, covered in garlic? Yes, please. And the New York Strip, charred, is easily among the best steaks in town. It isn't cheap, but so what. You get what you pay for. I always cringe at their "Championship Dining" slogan on the sign which, to me, lowers the expectation of the food and makes it seems like a sports bar. Don & Charlie's, despite the sports memorabilia collection, is not remotely akin to anyone's preconceived notion of "sports bar."
People also come for the prime rib, broasted chicken (like fried chicken but allegedly healthier and definitely juicier), and a picture-perfect burger. But, whatever you eat, shell out five bucks for the chopped liver platter. Sure, I'm Jewish, so the stuff is to me what Guinness is for an Irishman, but I suspect that it's good enough to make a chopped liver lover out of even the most stubborn liver hater.
Dessert should consist of one thing and one thing only: a hot fudge sundae. Skip the "gold brick" sauce that hardens when it hits the ice cream and go with classic hot fudge. Heavy on the cocoa, I'm not sure where they get this stuff, but there is no better hot fudge sauce anywhere. It's a simple pleasure reflective of a simpler time, and Don & Charlie's is one of the few restaurants where I always order dessert.
It might sound a little bit sappy, but I get a little bit emotional each time I eat at Don & Charlie's with my kids. It's where I ate as a kid, and it makes me happy to share a part of my history with them. I hope they love it as much as I do, and I think they do. They know it's something special. I let my dad read this piece before I submitted it and he said "it sounds like an infomercial for Don & Charlie's." And that's okay with me. I wish there were more restaurants in Arizona with history and character.
In a restaurant scene dominated by strip malls, chain restaurants and the destined-for-failure media darlings of the moment, Don & Charlie's stands alone. Timeless, delicious, and without drama. Just what we all need right now.
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