Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 14, 2008

Charcoal Oven: A Restaurant Review/Field Trip Report

Charcoal Oven Restaurant & “Cocktails”,  4400 Golf Rd. (near Niles Center Rd.), Skokie, IL 

I’m sitting at the bar, it’s happy hour, but the joint is definitely not jumpin’. In fact, I’ve gone for years thinking this place was “mobbed up”– a front for a big card game or some other quiet but profitable entity. Why? Because there seldom seem to be any cars in the lot, but the lights are always on. But I’m sitting here now, inside for the first time, and I’m not so sure anymore.

It’s too dive-y, authentic and old-fashioned to be anything more than a break-even endeavor, money-wise. This is not a cultivated, polished “lounge” sort of atmosphere, created according to some designer/marketer’s carefully crafted Disneylike vision. It’s just intriguing and genuine, if a bit dusty. It’s where an Amy Winehouse type up-and-coming singer would be performing on a tiny corner stage in 1957 — except now it’s 2008, the only folks who come here to eat are regular joes, and there probably aren’t any performers who would want the gig if they even had a stage (which they don’t). 

There’s a big old National cash register directly in front of me. It does not work, but the owner’s 50-ish daughter/bartender says it only recently went down. So that’s the oldest thing in the building, which she says was built in 1927 or ’29. I think about those dates momentarily, and it hits me: Prohibition. The daughter confirms it: this was a speakeasy, back when Skokie was a thinly-settled town on the outskirts of Chicago. This joint is like a living museum, a roadhouse not so far from the city, but far enough to be off the radar of both the cops and the cultured elite.  

She says her father bought it in 1949. That’s almost 60 years ago. Holy crap. Could I do anything for 60 years straight? I think not. At the far end of the bar, a new (5 days old) LCD widescreen TV is the newest thing in the building… and proof that they’re not dead yet. The old tube tv is still at the opposite end, as is the old waitress Sonya, who has only one family out in the dining room eating. She says she’s been here for 17 years. 

Curious, I try the  liquer Campari for the first time, having seen it behind the bar near the other liquers. What a weird taste! 29 percent alcohol, and we have no idea what it’s made of (the label is of no help, and a look later at wiki tells me the recipe is a big secret, though it is a type of “bitters” with rhubarb, quinine, ginseng, and alot of spices). It’s bitter, kind of smoky, and dark pink. I drink it with soda, as a few regulars start coming into the bar.

One of them’s a teacher at a grade school in Highland Park, and we talk about those North Shore families and their sense of entitlement. (My wife recently took a new job, starting in the fall, moving from one of these North Shore towns to a more suburban/rural northern high school.) When this teacher asks about the owner’s health, his daughter says he’s not well… taking steroids for some illness. 

Now my wife calls, asking where I am. In theory, I only stepped out to get some toner for our computer printer. But it’s been an hour. So I gotta roll.  

Charcoal Oven… I think I’ll be back. Good 1950s atmosphere, good food (according to my new friend the teacher), and a casual be-yourself attitude.  And if I’m lucky, maybe on Saturdays at 11pm there’s a poker game in the back room.


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