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Finding Cocktails, Peking Duck, the Elderly at Charlie Mom

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This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Krieger, 12/30/10]

I would not be surprised if told Charlie Mom was founded in 1963, but it's only been around since 1983. It's the sort of Chinese restaurant that was once seen in abundance in New York, the kind that makes cocktails and offers choices from Column A and Column B, and a Peking Duck meal for $19.95. The odd space is L-shaped, the entrance on Sixth Avenue dominated by the large take-out and delivery operation. Many delivery men hang out near the cash register waiting for their marching orders, and there are more than enough chairs and benches for all of them to be seated four times over. Follow a mirrored corridor past the kitchen doors and look to the right and you'll find the dining room, which looks out on 11th Street, and has the feeling of a santum sanctorum. It's a good size and there are always a number of people who have chosen to dine in. They want a comfortable meal with little of the attendant fuss to be found at more formal restaurants.

Who comes here?, I asked my waiter. "Old man. Old woman," he said with halting English and stunning frankness.

I looked around. My eyes confirmed his blunt assessment. Nearly everyone was old. Very old. They talked of ailments and pensions. Some had long gray hair and beards. One silver-haired, rumpled man ate his Chow Fun while paging through the latest issue of Time Out New York—not exactly the mag's target demographic. Many ate alone. Some had dragged along a younger relation or friend.

"Why do old men and women eat here," I asked the waiter. "Don't know," he said. "When die, no more." I couldn't tell whether he meant the customers of the restaurant would be no more when they passed. Either way, he wasn't a sentimental chap. He walked away to join the other waiters, who hawkishly surveyed the bland, tan room, with its ugly, functional furniture and it's lone potted palm. Diners at Charlie's Mom aren't so much waited on and watched over. Once the food's been set on the table, the patrons would rather be left alone.

A rare young couple has some trouble with the menu. The woman needs to know if there are nuts in any of the dishes she's ordered. It's not the kind of question that the Old Men and Old Women tend to ask. The waiter, thinking the woman is on a diet, reassures her. "No," explained the woman. "I won't be able to breathe if there are nuts." The exchange introduces a rare wisp of stress into the room.

The young woman obviously did not read the solemn, page-long message on the menu. It was written by one Joseph P. Hou, O.M.D. (Doctor of Oriental Medicine), Ph. D., and reads, in part [missing words and capitalization theirs]: "We truly our dishes will do something good To Your Stomach As Well As To Your Health and Happiness."
—Brooks of Sheffield