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In a display of what I thought was clever planning, I recently took some time off. Good for weather, bad for food, as I discovered that the summer edition of the Greek Festival at St. Sophia's in New London, fell on the same week. (Caveat: I live half an hour away and don't commute if I don't have to during time off. Not even for moussaka.)
Still, the seed had been planted, so naturally I had to get a Greek food fix upon my return to the region. I'd heard good things about the Greek eats at Charlie's Place in Niantic, and another web listing noted that Charlie's offers "the best breakfast in Niantic." Double score; off I went to Charlie's one rainy evening.
I had time for a quick meal between work and an appointment, so in the interest of time I kept my selections simple: one cup of lemon chicken soup ($2.75) and one grilled cheese ($4.95 with fries).
Now, we like to think that tomato soup is a grilled cheese's ultimate partner, but people, when the lemon chicken soup is as good as Charlie's, we can make exceptions. Thick and, indeed, lemony, shredded chicken makes the soup a hearty, delicious, soul-warming choice. Highly recommended.
As for the grilled cheese, it was everything it needed to be: generous on the cheese and toasted just right. No artisan sourdough or brioche here, just the classic toasted cheese sandwich that is made to hit the spot. The accompanying fries, too, were just right: soft, but not too soft, and retained potato flavor post-fryolater.
Spurred on by the wonderful soup, I brought home a Greek feast soon thereafter. In a move of great restraint, I only ordered the Chicken Souvlaki platter ($13.95; and actually has a choice between chicken or pork) and the Gyro Sandwich ($10.95), which turned out to be more than enough for two of us. The souvlaki comes with a side of delicious, soft pita and a mini Greek salad, complete with one stuffed grape leaf roll and loads of feta, and both dishes came with fries.
I opted for chicken-as-souvlaki-meat and was rewarded for the choice. When grilled chicken that's traveled 30 minutes still retains its flavor (a light herbal marinade, perhaps) and moisture, you know you're dealing with a capable chef. The two generous skewer-fuls of the chicken would have fed us both in less research-oriented scenario, because the ample side salad and the option to roll up some chicken in the pita bread filled out the meal nicely.
As for the salad, we loved the accompanying dressing (lots of herbs and lemon, we suspected). The veggies were crisp and fresh, and my husband enjoyed the many olives within. But both the dolmade and feta, while enjoyable enough, rank as average among the others I've tried; the dolmade offered an interesting, slightly sweeter spice note and the feta was a little softer and not as bite-y and salty as I prefer.
I managed to grab a few bites of the pita sandwich before my husband finished it off, and we'll have to get it again sometime soon. The zesty spice of the meat, paired with the accompanying onions, tomatoes, lettuce, made for a flavorful meal that left us full, but not moaning, and the strips of gyro meat were the perfect counterpart to the pillow-soft pita-bread vessel. We hardly needed the provided tzatziki sauce, which was quite creamy and fairly tame in bite.
Still intrigued by the breakfast menu, we returned to Charlie's on Father's Day for some brunch. (Breakfast is served until 1 p.m. most days, and until 2 p.m. on Sunday.) Despite the holiday, the fantastic staff got us seated immediately, promptly followed by coffee delivery. (Note: Charlie's coffee is above and beyond the usual high-test diner coffee. It's smooth, fresh, and plentiful.) While the aroma of the pancakes nearly got me, I opted for a higher protein breakfast and ordered the Breakfast Burrito ($6.95). This hearty wrap comes grilled and filled with scrambled eggs, jalapenos, onions, tomatoes and cheddar. It is as delightful as it is filling, and the jalapenos in my burrito packed plenty of kick (oftentimes, jalapenos can be tame).
My husband, a product of a Southern mother, had to order the biscuits and gravy, one of the day's specials ($3.95). I'm not a big on white gravy, but Charlie's was the best I've had, and the tasty biscuits maintained some crispy edges despite the generous amount of gravy poured atop them. The dish did not survive my husband's enthusiasm for it - not helped by his good choice of the hearty Philly cheese steak grinder ($9.95) for his "breakfast." Loaded with peppers, onions, cheese and steak that tasted like proper steak, we loved this sammie from the lightly toasted bread on up.
And if I may recommend one more thing, if you possibly have room, try the rice pudding ($2.75). Our heaping mound of none-too-sweet, toothy rice pudding was raisin-free (a plus) and delicious. And our wise waitress asked if we wanted it with whipped cream (um, yes), which lent a little sweetness (and fun) to the pudding, offset nicely by the bite of the well-measured dusting of cinnamon.
Our samplings only scratch the surface of the many dishes on Charlie's menu. We can only eat so much, but with such variety, we were assured that most diners will be able find something to enjoy over and over again.
26 West Main St.
Cuisine: Grown-up American diner and pub fare, plus Greek specialties, steaks, pasta and seafood dishes
Atmosphere: Family-friendly and bustling, with plenty of space for everyone; booths and tables available, plus lounge area
Service: Friendly and professional
Prices: Inexpensive to moderate; most dinner entrees hit the $20 range; sandwiches average around $8
Hours: Monday-Thursday 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Handicapped access: Well constructed ramp offers access to main entrance. Several parking spaces allocated for handicapped patrons.