By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Thinking he was going to retire, Dee sold Chardees in 1995 to Don Hazlett. But retire he hasn't -- Dee, now 70, recently sank $2.5 million into the Schubert Resort to refurbish the swank gay guesthouse in Victoria Park. He's still landlord of Chardees, and he thinks of it as his "baby."
"I took the place from nothing way up to the top. We had everybody coming here. The night Glenn Miller's band played, I called up my aunt in New York; it was her 80th birthday, and she listened to the whole two-hour show over the phone."
In April of '97, George Kessinger opened a rambunctious gay bar and café called Georgie's Alibi across the street from Chardees in a decrepit strip mall. And that did it. A slew of gay or gay-friendly businesses moved in too -- coffeehouses, real estate agents, clothing stores. That same year, Jim Stork plunked down Stork's Bakery and Café on NE 15th Avenue; three years later, Wilton Manors elected its first gay mayor, John Fiore. Norm Kent founded the tribe's local paper, Express Gay News, in December of '99. Today, Wilton Manors has become the center of Florida's queer universe. The few hundred feet between Georgie's Alibi and Chardees on Wilton Drive is the nexus of one of the gayest towns in America; if you believe the census reports, 40 percent of its 13,000-plus residents identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. And the restaurants keep springing up to feed them: Galanga, Dorothy's Deli, Acapulco Lindo, Hamburger Mary's, Costello's, Tropics.
In the intervening years, Chardees lost some of its gloss -- by the time Artzt bought it in May, the place was seating only 30 or 40 diners a night. But the Saturday night we visited, things were back in full swing -- every table and half the bar were brimming with happy people.
Chardees is loads of fun. The staff is just ridiculously nice. At least three servers stopped by our table on various occasions, beaming with smiles, to see how we were doing. You feel welcomed, taken care of, beloved by strangers, instantly relaxed.
It's classic supper-club fare all the way. Entrées like grilled lamb chops ($20.95) or veal chops ($24.95) come with either soup (a savory if oversalted beef barley the night we visited) or a simple salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, and grated carrot. Chardees is the kind of place where waiters still hustle out plates bearing plastic covers to trap the heat.
You know what your food is going to taste like before you take a bite: This is the comfort food from dinner tables of the '50s and '60s, before nouvelle and global cuisines turned our gastronomic world upside down.
The lineup of appetizers has hardly changed in 15 years -- baked French onion soup ($5.50), crab cakes ($7.95), and escargots ($6.95); unprepossessing sides like baked potato, onion rings, and a vegetable du jour ($4.25). Still, this is decent, hearty food at fairly gentle prices -- and those prices get even gentler on Monday and Wednesday nights, when two-for-one entrées attract singles and budget-conscious couples who'd rather be tripping the light fantastic than slaving over a hot stove. A full meal for two on Saturday evening cost us a measly $56 before tax and tip.
Our martinis ($8) were cold; a basket of bread with butter pats wrapped in foil was hot and crusty. We started with stuffed mushroom caps ($6.95), juicy with butter and white wine and stuffed with breadcrumbs and minced seafood, then broiled for a minute to give them a crust. These weren't bad; they just lacked imaginative zing -- they could have used a pinch of fresh herbs.
From a list of specials that included Caribbean-style lobster tails and several fresh fish entrées, including tilapia stuffed with crab meat ($20.95), I ordered coconut-crusted snapper ($18.95) served in a buttery citrus sauce and garnished with a fragrant sprig of rosemary. It came to the table piping hot, flaky, and deliciously edible. But those coconut flakes didn't do anything for the fish -- there was no synergy. And a bland side of unseasoned, unbuttered, steamed broccoli and cauliflower added nothing to the flavor profile.
By most accounts, Lawrence Frank opened the original supper club, Lawrey's, in Beverly Hills in 1938. Frank served glistening prime rib carved tableside from a cart, mashed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, creamed corn and sweet peas, all of it seasoned with a special salt you can still buy at any grocery store. His clientele of celebs and big shots took home their leftovers in another Frank invention, the doggy bag. To honor the man who started it all, we ordered Chardees prime rib ($19.95), evidently one reason the restaurant stays so busy these days, a celebration for local carnivores. That prime rib is a big, tender slab of meat, delivered to the table beautifully cooked, with lots of sinful fat (a hunk of which our dog enjoyed at home later.) We did miss the Yorkshire pudding, though. And the pool of au jus was dumbed down with what tasted like canned -- or worse, powdered -- beef stock.
All fairly niggling complaints when you consider that Chardees is serving satisfying and generous meals at reasonable prices to people who may be on fixed incomes, with a little bit of jitterbug or box-step on the side. We finished with a slice of caramel pecan pie ($4.25), straight out of the box but sweet and comforting nonetheless.