The first time I convinced myself it would be reasonable to consume an American-sized steak after midnight was at Minetta Tavern. The year was 2009 and the earliest available booking was 11 p.m., so we took it. This was mistake number one. We ordered the cote de boeuf. This was mistake number two. It was big. Too big. I don't really remember how it tasted — there’s surely journalistic evidence of my opinion somewhere on the internet — but I can recount, in remarkable detail, the gastrointestinal consequences.
I went to bed at 2 a.m. Two hours later, it felt as if a catnip-addled feline was chasing string inside my chest. My organs, burdened with a pound of dry-aged cud, were engaged in the metabolic equivalent of powerlifting. My heart was racing; my body was covered in sweat; and my stomach was lurching. I don’t know what kind of lie I told my employers when I rolled into work at whatever time I did the next day —“I actually didn’t drink that much,” — but I vowed never to consume well-marbled beef at such imprudent hours again.
I contemplated that broken promise to myself when, earlier this month, I stumbled out of bed sometime in the afternoon following a midnight steak dinner in Greenwich Village.
Four Charles Prime Rib, hidden like a speakeasy in a Charles Street townhouse, is the offending venue. Like any New York steakhouse, overindulgence is the norm here – you will eat too much, drink too much, and spend to much – but what sets Four Charles apart is the following ignominy: You will not, with few exceptions, sit down to eat before 11 p.m. There are just ten tables.
Brendan Sodikoff — the Chicago restaurateur behind Gilt Bar, Bavette's, and Au Cheval, the late-night spot heralded for serving some of the country's best burgers — has arrived in New York, and his chief export is expensive exclusivity. Replicas of the Au Cheval burgers are on the menu at Four Charles, but the star of the show is the prime rib, a single order of which can cost about as much as a Michelin-starred tasting menu.
On a good night, the prime rib can be stellar. It’s roasted for twelve hours, which means some poor bloke apparently shows up at 6 a.m. to start the ovens. By 6 p.m., cooks start cleaving off slabs of beef. Waiters in tuxedos then serve them to well-heeled patrons drinking $19 mezcal old fashioneds. The meat practically glows; its crimson hues could qualify as bioluminescent in this inky, jazz-filled room. Heady carafes of jus accompany each cut, lending the presentation a carnivorous perfume. Watching someone tear into the flesh evokes the gastro-athleticism of Kobayashi. Four Charles is a beautiful and bloody ballet.
But none of this means you should actually eat here.
This Isn't The Right Way to Do Late Night Dining (or Reservations)
I call up Four Charles for a booking. A voice-recording tells me all seats must be reserved online. I look on Resy and there’s nothing before 11 p.m. and nothing at all for solo diners. I send an email inquiring whether walk-ins are accepted, and I learn, via auto-reply, that walk-ins have a best shot after 10:00 p.m. I show up at 10:30 p.m. and ask for a seat at the bar. There is no real bar (This is discussed in the auto-reply, which I should’ve read in full). I wait at a nearby dive bar until Four Charles texts me and seats me around 10:50 p.m.
Four Charles is a beautiful and bloody ballet.
Reservations are released 30-days out and snagged minutes after their release. Currently, there are no pre-11p.m. bookings for two available for the rest of March or April. A waiter tells me that some nights, walk-ins aren’t accepted at all.
I’ve long argued that New York needs more diverse late-night dining. But there’s something distinctly dyspeptic about having almost no other choice but to dine at 11 p.m. This is all the more true when the artery-clogging fare that can leave guests feeling as if they’ve consumed the caloric and alcoholic equivalent of two Thanksgiving dinners in 90 minutes flat.
Or let me put it this way: When one of the country’s most heralded operators confines himself to a venue the size of a studio apartment, and when that owner releases most of his tables a month ahead of time — requiring guests to plan for a steakhouse dinner further in advance than for a trans-Atlantic vacation — it’s natural to be skeptical. This style of late-night dining doesn’t so much feel like a supply constraint as it does a manufactured sense of hip inconvenience backed by credit-card cancellation fees.
It Feels Like a Theme Restaurant
The carbonara is "too fuckin’ rich," a waiter told me, a curious descriptor for a restaurant that specializes in fatty, two-pound cuts of beef.
When asked for recommendations, he found an empty chair at a nearby table and sat down in that slouchy way you'd expect from a guy at a bar who's about to issue a minute-long opinion. This turned out to be true, though I can’t quite remember the substance of his remarks. I wasn’t really paying attention; I was simply enjoying how frequently he dropped the f-bomb.
Such showmanship is not unexpected in a room of low ceilings, dark-wood paneling, and leather booths evoking Michael Corleone’s barroom from The Godfather II. Everything here is a study in exaggerations both large and small. The art — paintings of old ships and ladies in extravagant hats — looks as if it were raided from a garage sale. The waiters act a bit too casually; they might cuss, dance, or have dinner next to you. As the case may be at any proper steakhouse, dishes are comically big. The Dover sole comes in one size: two pounds. It costs $85.
For $25, you’re served two giant breadcrumb-topped cakes, with the flavor of the crustacean’s flesh as monochromatic as its natural color. If someone told me this was actually plant-based crab made by the Impossible Burger guys, I’d believe her. Shrimp scampi is a $24 excuse to dip toasty garlic bread into garlic sauce. You can discard the shrimp which are cooked to the texture of styrofoam.
Appetizers, true to steakhouse form, are best when cold or raw. Oysters are clean and perfectly shucked; anything less would be unacceptable for $48 a dozen. And the shrimp cocktail is chock full of sweet crustacean flavor.
And the carbonara, which is actually called cacio e pepe carbonara for reasons that are quite frankly unclear, was practically swimming in egg. The server was right. It's too [expletive-omitted] rich.
The Prime Rib Is Occasionally Bonkers, But. . .
In the words of Nick Solares, my meat expert colleague, a prime rib, at its best, "embodies all the finest aspects of meat cooking — the heartiness of a stew, the tenderness of a long braise, the bodacious, up-front flavors of steak, and the salty and peppery punch of barbecue."
Though Four Charles offers the pre-sliced, English Cut for $40, a better decision is the Chicago Cut, 16 ounces for $66. What makes this such a compelling study in meat cookery is that both the longissimus dorsi (the interior eye) as well as the spinalis dorsi (the fatty cap) boast the same brilliantly red hue; there are no overcooked grey areas. The eye boasts a musky, irony, tang, while the more flavorful cap pulls apart like Texas brisket. Dunk the eye in jus to let the beefiness skyrocket on a Richter scale. Then slick the cap with horseradish cream to tame the intensity.
But during a later visit, that prime rib and the jus were aggressively under-seasoned — a heck of an oversight for a restaurant's signature product. Even more aggravating: Variety comes in portion size, not flavor. All three prime ribs are wet-aged only and as a result, they don’t quite pack the next-level complexity of the same cut at Smith & Wollensky, where it’s sweeter, beefier, funkier, cheaper, and available at prime time for walk-ins at the bar. Something to think about.
Does Four Charles Serve the City's Most Expensive Pie?
The chocolate pie with Oreo crust sits in your stomach with the same weight as a prime rib. Lemon meringue, a wedge of overly-sweet curd with a mile high-layer of forgettable meringue, is frequently and improbably sold out. Both cost $18, which makes them pricier than some of the city's best ramen or pizza. Still, they're cheaper than three scoops of fudge-slicked ice cream with candies, a creation that somehow commands $21. Some perspective: That sundae is just a dollar less the veal flank steak at St. Anselm in Williamsburg.
The proper dessert is a third cocktail, which, alas, will ultimately make you feel worse when you show up late to work the next day. But if you’re all about the now, go order an overproofed, overpriced Old Raj martini that will quell the aching of your distended stomach. And let your mind wander in this wonderfully dark, magical, world, where a cinema-like sound system means when you put your hand on a banquette, you can feel the vibrations of Sonny Boy Williamson’s harmonica. It makes you realize: This really, definitely, almost is a special place.
Cost: Cost: About $150 per person or more.
Sample dishes: Shrimp cocktail ($22), Chicago cut prime rib ($66); Four Charles cut prime rib ($76); mashed potatoes with chicken jus ($12.50), burger ($19), fries ($9).
What to drink: Strong, stirred cocktails.
Bonus tip: Maple pork belly, succulent and intoxicatingly sweet, is the new standard for a steakhouse bacon course.