We all love the new restaurants, the hot chefs, the glitz and the flash. But there's something to be said for longevity, for those who tough it out in the trenches of the restaurant business for years. In "Dine-Hards," a new series, we chat with those veterans.
There are, in this world, still people who strive to do things right. Not outrageously, not selfishly, not as pioneers, but right—free from pretention and flair, without hype, and wholly sincere. In food, these concepts tend to get lost among influxes of hot ingredients, up-and-coming chefs, and frankenfood trends, making us lose sight of what it is we actually enjoyed in the first place.
But still there remain those unsung traditionalists among us that rage against that culinary bastardization, not so much perfecting their output as preserving its existence. Without them, our very gastronomic identity as a community would be lost, faded after years of neglect and misuse. And along with it, the dishes that create that identity.
Consider, for example, the noble hamburger. Essentially ground beef, cheese, and bread at its core, it is an elegant, long-loved combination that speaks to all that is primal and comforting in our want of food. Though, lately we've been screwing that up by pulling stunts like replacing the buns with tacos or confusing burgers with breakfast.
"That ain't right," says Steve McDonald, current owner of Charlie's Hamburgers in Folsom, Delaware County - an institution in the area, and purveyors of all things right in burgers. "Nowadays, they'll put anything on one."
But not at Charlie's. In business since 1935, very little has changed across the two locations, four owners, dozens of employees, and countless customers that have walked through the burger joint's doors—nothing that matters, anyway. It is, in effect, a standing testament to the blue-collar, "if it's not broke, don't fix it" attitude that is the hallmark of Delaware County as a community. For McDonald, a Charlie's staff member since 1966, it's a little more personal.
"I don't like change," he says. "I'm hard to change. My wife added bacon to the menu a little while back, and that took me a long time to get used to."
But as far as changes to the menu go, that's about it. The burgers, thin and seared, are still served on toasted, just-greasy-enough buns with your choice of several toppings, all of which nestle atop of gooey slice of Velveeta that more often than not is of equal size to the patty itself. The shakes, still made with Bassetts ice cream, serve as a perfect pairing in any flavor, but the smart money is on the unbeatable black-and-white.
Two burgers and a shake runs around $10, so the price has changed, but the portion is still enough to leave you satisfied. And, still, even after all these years, satisfaction is the name of the game at Charlie's—the burgers, merely vehicles for that satisfaction.
"People should be leaving happier than when they came in," McDonald says. "It's a pretty simple philosophy."
And, besides the food, it is that philosophy that continues to bring four generations of Delconians into the shop on a nearly daily basis. Regulars and newcomers alike crowd the small storefront regularly, with Charlie's averaging about 75-dozen burgers sold on any given day. On a busy Saturday, that number can balloon up to some 120-dozen burgers, every one pressed from the patty machine that McDonald says he is "pretty sure Washington crossed the Delaware with." At this point, though, the shop essentially runs itself.
"As long as people stay in line, it's easy," McDonald says.
So far, they have—even when Charlie's returns from its annual winter break and people clamor for what they can't taste for the better part of three weeks. These days, the restaurant still closes up shop, as is tradition, for a few weeks around the winter holiday period. It's torturous, but still, it's better than when founder Charlie Convery took off for three months or more. He was what McDonald calls a "snow bird."
McDonald's father, Bernard "Bunny" McDonald, former owner and longtime manager, wasn't, and started shortening Charlie's winter flight when he took over in 1986. Even in those days, though, Charlie's still closed up shop every Tuesday—as, again, is tradition—following the "Meatless Tuesday" call of World War II. That tradition, in fact, continued up until last July, owing the continuation more to a convenient cleaning day than any direct patriotism.
"Now we're open seven days a week," McDonald says. "The kids wanted more hours. I couldn't give them any, and someone suggested we open up Tuesdays. I said, 'go ahead.' It was good because I heard so many complaints when I came in on Wednesday. I mean, people would really be upset."
Less so today, thanks to the more open schedule, which prompted a slogan change from "Closed Tuesdays" to "Closed Holidays," as McDonald's wife suggested. A simple change, but, then, that seems to be exactly what Charlie's employs best, if they're going to change at all. It is, after all, those simple changes—more hours to cater to the customers, adding bacon to the menu—that allow the shop to keep its beloved identity and taste while simultaneously giving the people of Delaware County more of what they've wanted for nearly 80 years.
For that reason alone, Charlie's is distinct and valuable. But for McDonald, what they're doing in their corner of Folsom just makes sense.
"We're nobody special," he says. "We're just a little hamburger stand, you know?"