Friday, August 24, 2012

Charlie's Kitchen: Half a Century of Burgers and Beers

By Keller McGuinness

Tracing its roots all the way back to the 1950’s, Charlie’s Kitchen has long been a fixture in Harvard Square. It has gone through some changes and improvements over the nearly two decades that I’ve been a customer, (the asphalt area on the left-hand side has been transformed into a “beer garden,” the live lobster tank has disappeared from the front of the first floor, patrons can now have alcohol along with their meals at the tables on the sidewalk out front), but the menu has remained largely the same. The food is, for the most part, “greasy spoon,” roadside diner fare. The food is also incredibly inexpensive, considering the location, and it is pretty darn tasty, if I do say so myself.

Though I occasionally venture out into the land of the tuna melt and the surprisingly excellent chicken fingers, my go-to Charlie’s meal is the double cheeseburger. This is something for which they are, or at least make a neon claim to be, famous for. I’m not entirely sure about the legitimacy of that, but I am sure that you simply cannot beat the $5.25 it’ll run you for the twin patties, served with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, and placed upon a sesame seed bun. Who doesn’t love a sesame seed bun? Their regular thin fries also come with it, but if you’d like you can switch those out for mashed potatoes. I’m fairly certain the latter come from a box in powdered form, so if that’s not your thing you can also choose to upgrade to waffle or beer fries for a small charge. If you’re like me, and you have a culinary death wish, then might I suggest asking for some gravy on the side. It won’t cost you anything other than a few minutes off of your life, and is a must for the fries, unless you’re one of those boring ketchup people. Don’t be one of those boring ketchup people.

As previously alluded to, there are quite a few dining areas to choose from. The downstairs feels the most like a traditional diner, with booths along the left-hand side and a bar along the right. It is a good place for families, as well as those disinclined to climb stairs. The second floor is my preferred haunt, with a comfortable meandering bar and plenty of booths and tables. Other attractions are the fantastic jukebox, featuring an eclectic assortment of punk, metal, soul, rap, as well as local music, and a cave-like and generally windowless atmosphere. The latter is good for avoiding the accusatory rays of the sun while enjoying a few pints on a random afternoon.

If you are the type who enjoys the outdoors, you can sit in the small section of tables set up on the sidewalk in front. But if rumbling buses and Harvard Square traffic are not your idea of a pleasant backdrop for a meal, then you can opt for the “beer garden.” Enclosed in the area to the left of Charlie’s and behind the small building next door, it is a world unto itself. It has its own smaller bar and a number of tables and tends to attract a bit of a younger crowd. Though I am all for imbibing a few outdoor beverages when the weather calls for it, I’ve never gotten acclimated to either spot. Give me the faded, yellowed, drop ceiling, and cocoon-like ambience of the upstairs any day!

Are you going to have the best meal of your life here? Not likely, unless you’ve been eating nothing but cardboard and expired yogurt your entire life. But you will get far more than your money’s worth and you will leave satisfied. And with the extra money you saved on food, you can get an extra beer or two, or maybe upgrade that PBR to a Brooklyn or a Lagunitas. Live a little!

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