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Shitshows: Charles

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Today's Shitshow Review is brought to you by Eater contributor Paul Caine.
[Bobbing kumquat and the unisex bathroom]

Charles, it seems, has had to modify its sky-high expectations. The days of Waverly Inn associations, e-mailed reservations, and reviews in which Frank Bruni assumes the character of a vapid socialite are over for this West 4th Street eatery. The management even took the newspapers and construction tape off of the windows, and did something so vulgar as post the menu outside. I mean, you could e-mail for a reservation, if you wanted to, but why not just walk in? That's what we did at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night. We were the only ones in there.

But once we sat down—and that happened immediately—our service was professional and observant, a pleasant surprise. Rarely did we get more than two sips into our water before having it refreshed, and never did we feel ignored. At Charles, we weren't the little people—we were the only people.

We began with two cocktails (each $16), both named after West Village streets and both insipid (although one had the benefit of having a kumquat bobbing around the martini glass like a life preserver), along with a portion of the grilled octopus ($15) and a complimentary, very serviceable flatbread with olive tapenade. The cephalopod in question was a critical punching bag a few months ago—”We basically could of [sic] thrown the darn octopus at the wall, and it would of [sic] bounced back and smacked me in the face,” according to one New York commenter in November—but it turned out perfectly here, the high point to an otherwise unexceptional meal.

Well, maybe unexceptional isn’t the correct term. As the room filled throughout the night, it became clear that many of the larger tables weren’t occupied by guests at all, but by associates of the restaurant. At one banquette sat the owner, Doug Akin, with a couple of lady friends. A guy who looked like a partner in the enterprise sat nearby, barking occasional orders to the waitstaff. And who took the table right next to us? None other than Danielle Staub, star of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Naturally, we feared that tables might end up overturned [1], but that seemed unlikely with Charles' other owner, Cobi Levy, serving as wingman for Staub's shiny-shirted date. At one point Akin walked over to the table, shook hands with the everyone, and told Danielle that he and her date went way back, to the days of “tearing up the Long Island bar mitzvah circuit.”

Before we could wrap our minds around the spectacle, main courses arrived. The halibut ($28) was a disaster. It sat on a bed of pea shoots, which gave the dish the flavor of a lawn, and the tangerines atop the fillet added nothing to the dish except an additional layer of nonsense. The short ribs ($26) fared better, although to complain about meat that's been braised for hours and melts in the mouth is to waste one's time. Dessert, meanwhile, was a testament to the kitchen's laziness. A biscotti ice cream sandwich—“a bestseller,” according to our waiter—had been frozen for hours, rather than assembled to order, and tasted at once soggy and iced-over. By that point, though, we'd dedicated most of our energies to eavesdropping. When we left, the room was mostly full. They were still accepting walk-ins, and didn't seem to be consulting any sort of “master list.” [2]

So what did we learn? Principally, that Charles is a deflated restaurant, a would-be hotspot that had a narrow window to make its mark and failed to do so. It exists in a sort of purgatory now: too expensive and mediocre to serve as a neighborhood standby, too late to recapture the glory days of papered-up windows and boldface names. It is an establishment utterly without cachet, and it is not a very good one to boot. If you're a friend of the house, it's probably not the worst place in the world to hang, but for those of us peering in from the outside, well, yeah, of course it's a shitshow.
—Paul Caine
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[1] Real Housewives of New Jersey Season Finale: Teresa flipping tables LITERALLY!!!! [YouTube]
[2] From the Eater Lounge: Cobi Levy and Doug Akin [~E~]