Over easy at Charlie’s
Note: This column is from the Globe’s archives. It originally ran on May 6, 2005.
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that 12-year-old Arthur Manjourides was begging his father to bring him into the family restaurant and let him poke around.
Young Arthur meant for an hour or two. That first day, his old man kept him in the kitchen of Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe for a 12-hour shift. And while you’re here, kid, those dirty dishes aren’t exactly cleaning themselves.
That was 51 years and maybe 5 million eggs ago, and Arthur Manjourides has been in that storefront restaurant on Columbus Avenue ever since. He was there when the South End was marred by crime. He was there when gays reinvented the neighborhood. And he’s still there, now that property values are soaring out of control.
All the while, he’s been there beside his brother, Chris, and his sisters, Marie and Fontane, the four of them serving what are widely regarded as the fluffiest omelets and the tastiest turkey hash around. They are cooks and waitresses, these four, and they are the proud caretakers of one of the most beloved institutions in town.
Don’t take my word for it. Last week, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe was given the James Beard award as an “American Classic.”
For the uninitiated, meaning those who don’t clear their calendars for truffle season, this award is to cooking what the Oscar is to acting and what the Pulitzer is to journalism. Essentially, the family has just won the Nobel Prize for food.
All this in their diner with 32 seats, six tables, and a refrigerator that Arthur Manjourides says was purchased in 1927, used. Their father, Christi, a short-order cook, bought half the restaurant from Charlie Poulos in 1946, and it’s been all in the family ever since.
It’s a place where cops sit beside stockbrokers who sit beside professors, and where at 7 o’clock on any given morning, everyone knows everyone else’s name.
When I stopped by this week, Arthur disappeared for a moment and came back clutching the James Beard medal, clutching it like Larry Lucchino clutches the World Series trophy, he was that proud.
“I still get chills,” he said. “This is like an Olympic medal. Now I can retire. Now I can die happy. I read cookbooks. I watch The Food Channel. I never thought I could reach something like this.”
And then he told stories, about the time Charlie put a live turkey in the front window around Thanksgiving, not realizing that turkeys could fly. The creature soared through the room scaring customers and knocking glasses off the shelves.
He talked about the time Al Gore came in during the 2000 presidential campaign, and a photograph of the restaurant appeared on the front page of The New York Times.
His sister Marie talked about the time Bobby Brown (Mr. Whitney Houston) pulled up in a limousine and demanded a table of his own. He didn’t get it.
“We had a horse in here once,” Arthur said. He had the photo to prove it.
I looked around the restaurant, at the vinyl tablecloths and the mismatched stools at the worn counter, and asked when the place last saw a renovator’s tool. Marie shook her head, her elegant face falling just shy of a smile. “Never,” she said, adding, “Then it wouldn’t be Charlie’s.”
Indeed, Charlie’s has always been a place apart. In the early days, it was a rare restaurant in Boston to serve blacks. Duke Ellington was a regular. Sammy Davis Jr. tap-danced in the entryway. It was open 24 hours a day for 32 straight years.
These days, it’s strictly breakfast and lunch. Sundays it’s closed. On Saturdays, customers spill out onto the sidewalk, gladly waiting for the legendary hash, home fries, and pancakes.
Last week, Arthur Manjourides went to New York to collect his award in a ballroom filled with 2,000 of the brightest stars in the industry. When he saw a photo graph of the four siblings flash on a big screen above the stage, he called Marie to tell her, and she cried.
Charlie’s won a James Beard. Sometimes some things happen for all the right reasons.