I hadn’t stopped by Charlie’s Chophouse on Marine Aveue since they closed down last year to perform a major interior renovation. Gone are any nods to pan-Asian interior design, like the leafy ceiling fans, and in their stead is wood: honest-to-god, honeyed American wood glowing in every nook and cranny.
The pièce de résistance, the elephant in the room, is a great stone hearth that houses a wood stove. The stove is buttressed by a wall constructed of stacked firewood that separates the dishwashing station from the main dining room and open kitchen.
This cacciatore aesthetic is not especially unique to Astoria and the greater Northwest. You can see the hipster take on this at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge. Seattle steakhouse Miller’s Guild has tweaked a more upscale version of it. Closer to home, Camp 18 has gathered a great collection of logger kitsch and Astoria’s own Albatross & Co. pulls off the dark cabin vibe with a careful curation. But the woodsman’s mise-en-scène — saws and the like — definitely works for what Charlie’s is trying to accomplish and doesn’t feel forced. There’s a stump on the hearth with an axe lodged in it.
This is the kind of room that makes you want to sip whiskey and mow down a grilled steak pronto.
And the décor is not purely ornamental. Those wood splinters around the bulbous rock at the base of the stump are there because the staff actually uses that axe to chop wood for the stove. As of this writing, the wood stove was also a necessary component, as the heating system was down and waiting to be repaired, so the stove was responsible for heating the entire restaurant. On a clear, cold day, it was more than up for the job.
Everything about Charlie’s feels classic — the menu, the bar, the atmosphere — without the grime of nostalgia or the film that comes with a deep fryer running steady for 40 years. It’s cozy.
I slipped into Charlie’s just as they opened on a recent late afternoon. It was the Thursday right before the fisherpoets would land in town to guzzle all of Astoria’s brews and booze while offering up maritime song and verse in exchange. Local musicians Luke and Katie, of Blind Pilot fame, were set to serenade the dinner service the next night in front of the wood stove. Charlie’s Chophouse has started to book live music nearly every weekend.
As the neon “open” sign sparked on and a sandwich board advertising a $7 beef stew special was lugged out onto the sidewalk, I can’t say I was surprised that I was first customer in the door that day. The staff was only four deep at the time — kitchen, waiting and bar combined — and everyone was gregariously bearded; most were capped with a wool beanie, save one, which made me feel right at home. The fire was already burning bright, and two employees were playing card games at the substantial wooden bar, prep well behind them, as they awaited the early bird crowd.
Tyler Little was manning the bar. Little is pretty much ubiquitous in the Astoria bar scene at this point — he’s slung shots and cocktails at The Voodoo Room and The Chart Room, among other venerable establishments — and is, rightly so, comfortable splashing spirits into a glass.
Beyond his bar work, Little is probably best known as the photographer who conjured up “The Boys of Astoria” monthly calendar. This mid-March, expect Little to drop a deck of photographic playing cards titled “Some Astorians,” which will obviously feature some Astorians — kings, queens, jacks and the like.
So the drink poured was an Old-Fashioned. I have probably covered this a few times before, but any drink that has been served since the mid-19th century tends to have grown tentacles and spawned many variations. Charlie’s seems to be pretty close to the original. No simple syrup, no ginger beer or soda water — just the essentials: Bulleit Rye, a sugar cube, traditional Angostura bitters, a graft of orange peel and a Bordeaux Maraschino cherry the color of a venison heart.
Bourbon tends to be the preferred spirit for an Old-Fashioned these days, but a nice rye helps bring out the spicier and drier notes offered by the bitters. Every bartender has their preferred method to develop the flavor of the orange within the drink. Some muddle, while others run a lit match underneath the orange peel to release its essential oils. Little simply rubs the rim of a rocks glass with the peel before adding it to the mix.
Little contemplated his choice shortly after seating the drink in front of me. “This might be kind of boring,” he said. “Maybe I should make you something else?” This is something I hear quite a bit when doing this column. When bartenders are faced with utilizing their full arsenal, they often second-guess their decision.
But it wasn’t boring. It was classic, just like Charlie’s.
• 2 ounces (or more) Bulleit Rye
• 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters (Fey Brothers is a popular brand)
• 1 sugar cube
• 1 large piece of orange rind
• 1 Bordeaux Maraschino cherry
In a old-fashioned glass, rocks glass or lowball, dissolve the sugar cube in the bitters. Muddle if necessary. Add the ice and the rye. Rub down the rim of the glass with the orange peel and then submerge the peel and the cherry in the glass.
—Recipe courtesy of Tyler Little, bartender at Charlie’s Chophouse, Astoria