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STEAKS WELL DONE

When it comes to eating meat, steakhouses still reign supreme. What meat-eater is not enamored with those dark, lavish dungeons that allow us to feast to our blood-craving heart's content? Even those who rarely go out to eat are likely to occasionally splurge on an outing at a local steakhouse institution – one like my long-standing favorite, Charley's Steak House. It dresses up, yet sensibly. It's hedonistic, yet polite. It's luxurious, yet wholesome.

The minute you step through the opulent wooden doors of Charley's, you know right away that you have entered an old-school establishment. Even the newer location on International Drive transports you to a time when the steakhouse was the only option for fine dining. The low-hung lamps and yellow lighting might appear outdated in another setting, but they just made my mouth water as I remembered years of celebration meals here – proms, anniversaries, graduations and birthdays. (No meal at Charley's would be complete without hearing "Happy Birthday to You" from across the room.)

Our evening started with the opening of the heavy wooden doors. The charred fragrance of porterhouse mingled with cigar and port, as we heard the refrain of the birthday song and the sizzle of meat and asparagus on the open-fire grill. We were led into one of the many nooks and crannies and were shortly greeted by our server. Charley's has great service, but it's more science than art. Every move made by the servers and hosts seems programmed by market surveys and management policy, and they rule the upselling roost. I was midway through ordering crab legs ($15.95) as an appetizer when the server suggested the "seafood sampler" ($29.95). The "seafood sampler" is not listed on the menu, however,and I wasn't aware at the time that I was being cajoled into spending twice as much money. I find this behavior irritating in a server. Call me crazy, but I want a server who is as much my ally and advocate as the establishment's robot.

The next round of upselling was the server's insistence on adding an additional side dish to our order. I naively bought in to his spiel and believed that without the chef's spinach and artichoke casserole ($5.95), we would be lacking a substantial meal. Not only was the casserole mediocre in taste, it was sheer gluttony to have it on our table. I would have been just as happy (and full) with the side dishes of jumbo grilled asparagus ($6.95) and baked potato ($2) alongside the delicious porterhouse steak (29.95). I also enjoyed the fresh chopped salad that came with my meal, but when the server offhandedly asked me if I wanted some blue-cheese crumbles, I should have known there would be an extra charge on the bill.

Let's get down to business: Charley's has some of the best steaks in town – no bones about it. The meat is superior. They cure and cut it on the premises, rub it in a secret (heavenly) spice blend and then flame-grill it over oak and citrus wood in temperatures that reach over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The result of all the carnivorous muss and fuss is a sublime steak.

Appetizers and dessert are merely the parentheses around the main affair. Our dessert was a ridiculously big piece of chocolate Grand Marnier cake ($7.95) – something Charley's has on hand to accompany the chorus of birthday tunes, I presume. Even the side dishes are trifling dashes, momentarily interrupting the meat-eating. And don't bother with the lobster (market price), one of my usual favorites. That's not what you come here to eat. Thinking ahead to the next time, I think I'll go for a filet mignon ($24.95) appetizer, a porterhouse main course and a T-bone ($20.95) dessert.

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