The stools at the counter are covered in red vinyl. The wooden refrigerator is original, and there’s still no bathroom. For nearly nine decades, almost nothing changed about Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, even while everything else in the neighborhood did.
Through a time when hookers and trouble were what you found on that corner of the South End and an era when Duke Ellington could eat there but not in the clubs where he performed, Charlie’s remained an unshifting island.
Everyone was welcome. Cops ate next to mobsters next to politicians.
So it seemed inconceivable that the landmark on Columbus Avenue with the old-time green awning and the sign that proclaimed “Charlie’s” in cheerful script would ever go away.
But it is. The owners announced Monday that they will close the doors next month, presumably signaling the end of a business that’s been running since 1927.
“I’m 73, in good health, and I want to be able to walk out of here, not be carried out in an ambulance,” said Arthur Manjourides, who has run the place with his siblings since taking over from their father some 40 years ago. Arthur and his brother Chris, who live in apartments upstairs, wake up at 3 a.m., five days a week, to open the doors at 6 a.m. On Saturdays, they open a little later, 7:30 a.m. He said the decision to close was a painful one, but the siblings ultimately felt it was time.
The family owns the entire building, and it’s not yet clear what they will do with the property. They have not ruled out selling the restaurant to a new owner, though Manjourides said that’s unlikely. Their own children, he said, have careers of their own and are not interested in taking over.
The news came as a shock to regular customers, who often line the sidewalk outside the diner waiting for a seat at the counter and a plate of its signature turkey hash. Many dropped in Monday to grieve the loss of the beloved 35-seat greasy spoon, and also to thank the Manjourides family for preserving the establishment for as long as they did.
“A lot of people are sad, but I came in to thank them for one heck of a run,” said Bill Zeoli, who is a regular at the counter. “Now they need to go and enjoy their time and stop slaving away on us customers.”
Manjourides said he and his siblings feel more than a little guilt about the decision to move on. They, and their customers, describe Charlie’s as a big family, and breaking up that family is going to be heartbreaking. “It will be sad to walk out that door for the last time, but it had to happen. It was time,” Manjourides said. “I’m just happy that we were able to do it on our terms.”
Charlie’s became a local icon through its longevity, and also its authenticity. It is a place dripping with nostalgia, largely unchanged since it was opened in the Roaring Twenties by Charlie Poulos, a Greek immigrant. The South End, meanwhile, has gone through a sea change in that time, with massive gentrification and a new crowd of breakfast customers who use brunch as a verb. “It used to be you would only come down here if you were looking for trouble or women or both,” Manjourides said.
George Cuddy, a former employee who wrote a book about Charlie’s, “Where Hash Rules,” said it’s décor was not the only anachronism that appealed to diners. “When the regular customers would come in, the people who have eaten the same thing for decades, Arthur and Chris would see them coming and start their order,” Cuddy said. “That’s a magical thing that doesn’t happen in many places. It’s that connection to the community that just kind of takes you back to a bygone era.”
In its early years, Charlie’s was known as being one of the only “color-blind” establishments in Boston, making it a favorite of black musicians Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, who weren’t permitted to eat at the clubs where they performed. At that time, the diner was open 24/7, and was at its busiest from 1 to 3 a.m., Manjourides said.
The walls of Charlie’s tell the story of its many famous visitors through the years, from Ted Kennedy and Al Gore to Mark Wahlberg and former mayor Tom Menino, who was visibly unhappy when told of its closing.
“Oh, my God!” Menino exclaimed when he heard the news on Monday. “Another icon in the neighborhood is leaving.” Menino, who is battling cancer, said he last ate at Charlie’s a few months ago, though he would not disclose what he ordered. “My doctor would not like it,” he said.
Perhaps the most famous visitor to Charlie’s was President Obama, who made an unannounced stop last June while he was in town campaigning for Senator Ed Markey. He got a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and mustard, and french fries (the combo is now on the menu as the Obama Burger), and also got some ribbing from Marie Fuller, one of the siblings who runs the place. She teased him about what the famously health-conscious first lady would think of his lunch.
Also on the wall is the photo of Roxanne the Bulldog, who was a Charlie’s regular for a decade — she had a biscuit most mornings — before she passed away. Her owner, Merrill Diamond, was sitting at the counter on Monday, having a salad, and wondering what he was going to do when Charlie’s finally closed its doors.
“I’m not going to be the only one who feels a big void when the place closes,” Diamond said. “It’s such an institution, it would be like no more swan boats or Red Sox. It’s part of what makes Boston Boston.”