Monday, January 3, 2011

Ah, sweet mysteries of life.

According to a news item I read yesterday on the Chicago Tribune’s website, the owner of the Charcoal Oven restaurant in suburban Skokie died in his sleep on Christmas Day.
While this probably means absolutely nothing to 99½% of the people reading this post, I need to tell you that I grew up one block away from this strange little establishment, which offered frightened customers an unexpected trip to the Twilight Zone for more than 60 years. The map below indicates: A) the house where I grew up; and B) the Charcoal Oven restaurant.
I never knew anybody who ate at the Charcoal Oven. My family never ate there, my neighbors never ate there, and my friends never ate there, either, probably because it was just too damn close to home. When you get dressed up to go out for dinner you don’t want to drive 11 seconds to the next block and park the car.

And so here’s my strange story. It’s a late Saturday afternoon in the mid-1980s, I’m spending a few hours at my parents’ house and dad asks why don’t we all walk over to the Charcoal Oven for an early dinner. Keep in mind ... this is the first time he’s ever suggested it, and he and mom had lived one block from that restaurant for more than 30 years.

Have a seat. You’re entering the Twilight Zone. When we get to the Charcoal Oven it’s around 5 p.m., the parking lot is jammed with Cadillacs, and the restaurant is COMPLETELY EMPTY inside except for one waitress and a busboy with a pitcher of water. We’re ignored for ten minutes before we finally have a chance to ask for a table. The waitress tells us it might not be possible because we don’t have a reservation. There are no other customers. She seats us anyway, gives us our menus, drops off a basket of bread and vanishes for 45 minutes. Dad eventually walks into the kitchen to look for her. She’s not there. And he doesn’t even see a chef.

When she finally comes back from the depths of hell (or wherever she disappeared to) we attempt to order dinner and find out that nothing on the menu is available. If we want food we have to order one of their two daily specials with string beans. It’s another 45 minutes before we get our salads. Nobody asks if we want beverages, nobody refills our bread basket or water glasses (the busboy is gone, too), and when our entrees finally show up they’re room temperature, unseasoned and strangely chewy. Dinner lasts almost three hours. We’re still the only customers in the restaurant.

After we finally flag down Satan the Waitress for our check, she hands us a grocery bag filled with homemade bread (the same bread nobody bothered to refill during dinner) and half a dozen home-grown tomatoes from somebody’s back yard. The parking lot is still full of Cadillacs when we leave.

Conclusion. Mom’s the one who first mentions this because she always loved old Edward G. Robinson movies: THE CHARCOAL OVEN IS A FRONT FOR THE MAFIA. It’s a restaurant with no food, no staff, no customers and no chef ... and a parking lot that looks like a Cadillac dealership. Everybody is probably in the basement running a bookie joint or planning a hit.

So that’s it. Phillip Georgouses died on Christmas Day and one of his daughters will take over the empty Charcoal Oven, Skokie’s oldest Twilight Zone restaurant that doesn’t sell any food. Thank you for reading this.


Marilyn said...

Hey, Marcy,
I, too, was always fascinated/terrified by the Oven, and I lived about four blocks farther away. Once, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, I went there for dinner. I don't recall having the same experience as you did (Satan waitress, disappearing staff, limited menu offerings), but I do remember leaving there with a bagful of tomatoes! As I recall, the place had very few other customers. And yes, there are often many cars in the lot -- probably far more than patrons in the establishment. That place definitely raises a few of my (graying) eyebrows.... Thanks for sharing this story.

Marcy said...

Thanks for your comment, Marilyn! BTW, if you Google the Charcoal Oven you'll find a long list of reviews that sound a lot like mine (and yours). I have no idea how or why they're still in business. Out of curiosity, do I know you? Are you from Skokie? Do you still live in the area?