A Long And Distinguished History Isn't Enough To Redeem Charles Restaurant.
By Rebecca Cook
LONG BEFORE IT became a part of my job, I valued fine dining. Although some people consider it a superfluous expenditure, I've always maintained that an outstanding meal in a posh restaurant can restore both mind and body in ways that make the difficult business of living altogether tolerable.
In leaner times it wasn't unusual for me to take the remaining balance in my checking account and go out to dinner. Cradled in the lap of luxury for a few hours, I reveled in the delight of attentive service and food marvelously at odds with my usual fare of frozen burritos. By meal's end I had reconnected with the reasons why life is worth living. Some people do therapy, I do food.
In Tucson we're fortunate to have a number of "therapeutic" dining options. Choose carefully, however, because should you end up in a restaurant that deftly pockets a wad of your hard-earned cash without providing a meal of corresponding splendor, your mild case of the blues could turn into a definite mood indigo.
With this in mind, let me tell you: Charles Restaurant is one very depressing place.
Considered to be one of Tucson's finest eateries, Charles has a long and distinguished history. Owned originally by Tack Room alumnus Charles Kerr and wife Katherine, Charles Restaurant is located in the mansion-scale former winter home of a Parke-Davis pharmaceutical heiress. Now under different ownership, Charles still exudes aristocratic aspirations. It's quite true that the building and grounds are reminiscent of the setting for a Barbara Cartland novel. In fact, it's possible some might feel slightly intimidated by such opulence.
Relax. Charles Restaurant is like the Wizard of Oz--behind the curtain you'll find nothing but delusions of grandeur.
The debacle began shortly after we arrived for dinner one night. Earlier in the day I'd called for reservations and requested seating in the non-smoking section. Once there, however, the hostess, who never checked our name in the reservation book, promptly seated us in one of the draughty side rooms, where, as it turned out, all the smokers were relegated.
When we insisted they honor our reservation request, we were informed we could move to a non-smoking room, but we'd have to wait awhile. We opted to stay put and choke through our meal, with our jackets wrapped around our shoulders in a futile attempt to keep warm.
This glitch would prove but the tip of the iceberg. The service at Charles was positively lethargic. Our waiter acted as though we'd put a skid on his night just by showing up. To register his annoyance, he seemed to go out of his way to ignore us. Nor did we see much of the support waitstaff, who didn't seem the least bit interested in keeping water glasses full or clearing the table between courses.
Perhaps slight allowances could be made for the lousy service if the food were outstanding. It wasn't.
Food at Charles falls into two categories: that which is fried (you can use the word "sauté" if you wish, but that crisp, oily breading is a dead giveaway), and that which is heavily sauced.
An appetizer platter ($15.95) featured oysters rockefeller with a béarnaise sauce, shrimp scampi, fried stuffed-mushroom caps, fried mozzarella sticks and fried zucchini rounds. What can I tell you? The sauced seafood was too much of a mediocre thing and the fried goodies weren't even on par with the neighborhood bar.
The entrees took an interminably long time coming out of the kitchen. The piano music from the bar was beginning to grate, comprised as it was of songs--to quote my companion--"you thought you'd never have to hear again." By the time our musical host ripped into "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," my appetite began to waver anyway.
I'd ordered the beef tournedos ($22.95), medallions of filet mignon cooked to order and topped with mushrooms and, in this instance, béarnaise sauce. The beef was undeniably tender and cooked to my medium-rare specifications, but it was absolutely devoid of flavor. Except, of course, for the cloyingly salty béarnaise sauce, which overwhelmed every other taste sensation on the plate. Accompanied by oily, barely cooked, sautéed vegetables and a frozen variety of twice-cooked baked potato, this was a barely edible meal. In fact, I left most of it on my plate and declined the offer of a take-home container. Once was already one time too many.
My companion fared no better with the salmon special of the day ($24.95), a moderate wedge of fishy-tasting, dry seafood topped with more of that tasty scampi sauce (I began to develop a theory that Charles has but two sauces, scampi and béarnaise, which they slather indiscriminately on everything).
This culinary ordeal lasted well over two-and-a-half hours. I decided to forego dessert (a rarity for me), which turned out to be just as well, since it was never offered by our nonchalant waiter. Total bill for the evening (gasp!): $96.80.
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