Published on November 28th, 2012 | by The Dork0
Review: Charlie and Barney’s Bar and Grill
Admittedly I was nervous to kick off the review section of this blog with a local landmark. I have worked in downtown Indianapolis for over ten years and have never tried the institution that is known as Charlie and Barney’s. Actually there are two simple reasons for this intentional oversight. First, I had (wrongly) figured that the chili that Charlie and Barney’s is famous for was of the Cincinnati variety, and friends, that kind of swill is simply not in any way, shape, or form, chili. Cincinnati style chili is just over glorified spaghetti sauce which is why I guess it is always served on top of limp and overcooked noodles. Secondly, I always feel like I am missing a critical this or that when a local legend doesn’t live up to the hype presented by my native Hoosier friends and then I must deal with the accompanying pressure of trying to explain myself to those same friends. Without naming names I can think of both a steakhouse and a bar, both supposedly world famous, that for one reason or another have never impressed me.
Nevertheless, I needed a review to christen this blog so I headed out into the brisk lunchtime air to try some of that world famous Charlie and Barney’s chili.
I had walked by Charlie and Barney’s many times and from the outside it looks like a nice sit down type of place. Walking in the front door revealed an aging steak house like decor. This is not necessarily a bad thing as I like places with a certain eccentricity about them as compared to today’s generic and bland chain restaurants, but judging by how worn and wobbly both my chair and table were it can be assumed that the early 1970′s lounge lizard theme was not an attempt at nostalgic kitsch.
I can understand not having a hostess station as it was obvious on entry that this was a very self service type of establishment, but as this was not the traditional lunch hour with regular patrons readily available to mimic, signage explaining where to order would have been helpful. I ended up letting the person that walked in behind me go first so I could get a feel for the ordering process.
Beyond chili Charlie and Barney’s compact menu consists of various salads, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers. Since my friends rave about the burgers and of course the chili, I decided on a small bowl of beef chili ($4.95) and a bacon cheeseburger ($7.45). Although my server was competent and friendly my mouth dropped aghast when she pulled out the one old timey food service tool that I had hoped was forever relegated to the bastion of Burger King bad ideas. Yes, you guessed it, she pulled out a walkie talkie and screamed my burger order back to the kitchen. You can say I am not a fan of this method of order submission as I prefer to keep the public’s knowledge of my glutinous indulgences private.
The server ladled up some chili and sent me on my way down to the chili fixin’s bar. If you have ever spent time trying to coax the dude behind the Qdoba counter to give you extra cheese, salsa, or sour cream on your burrito the serve yourself build bar at Charley and Barney’s will be a most welcome sight as you can pile on as much of these chili enhancers as you would like. I went light on the extras as I wanted to be able to taste the chili in it’s own right. I slid to the checkout, grabbed an IBC root beer, and told the cashier my order. My cashier was nearest the kitchen and the noise emanating from the back room made it impossible to hear my total or for the cashier to correctly understand me. After sitting ten minutes and letting my chili get cold I approached the cashier and asked about my burger. Remarkably, even though the server had previously proclaimed my love of bacon cheeseburgers from the walkie talkie mountaintop, my burger had not been rang up nor had it been cooked. To the cashier’s credit, he apologized and said he would have me a burger out in less than five minutes and he did – after paying full price of course.
The small bowl of chili was served in what appeared to be the size equivalent of a regular household soup bowl. The deep red soup consisted of a pleasing tomato base that melded with the beans and meat into a perfect consistency for chili and thankfully no cinnamon or sugar was detected in the mix (aka Cincinnati style). Although the chili was heartily constructed, it was missing anything resembling a kick. Once I thoroughly stirred in my fixin’s and some extra chili powder that is conveniently left on the table it began to resemble what I consider a good chili. While it was definitely better than the ubiquitous store shelf canned chili, for $4.95 a bowl I was expecting more than just a pallet on which to paint my own chili masterpiece.
Much like the chili, the burgers are designed to be doctored at a separate fixin’s bar. The standard accompaniments such as lettuce and tomato are available along with some unique sauces such as horseradish and packets of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise. I was pleased with the large burger. I’m assuming it was a 1/3 to 1/2 lb piece of delicately seasoned beef that perfectly fit the oversized sesame seed bun. The edges were perfectly crisp and the burger featured that amazing taste that seemingly can only come from an older grill that has been richly seasoned from years of heavy use. Another pleasant surprise was the bacon which was cooked perfectly to my liking – not soft and chewy but also not so crisp that it shatters dental work. My only complaint about the burger was that the bottom bun, without condiments, was soggy and barely managed to hold the sandwich together. As the burger itself was not overly greasy, I can only guess that the bottom bun was over buttered.
As witnessed by many of the patrons and staff being on a first name basis it is obvious that Charlie and Barney’s has a very dedicated pool of customers. Yet overall, much like my opinion toward other long standing local legends, I rate Charley and Barney’s as average. Personally I did not find enough reasons to work this restaurant into my regular lunch time rotation. What I initially assumed were endearing quirks quickly became annoyances and the chili is not on par with the varieties formerly served at the now defunct Hard Times Cafe. Even though the burger is very tasty it is not quite good enough to pry my lunchtime dollars away from the many burger centric restaurants such as Bru and Punch Burger that are now open in downtown Indianapolis.
Charlie and Barney’s Bar and Grill
225 East Ohio Street
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204
Cuisine: American (Famous for Chili & Burgers)
Review Time: 1pm. 11/27/2012
Review Meal: Lunch
The Dork's Forks
Summary: While Charlie and Barney's may be an Indianapolis institution, strange eccentricities and a chili base lacking anything resembling a spicy kick leave The Dork wondering why all the hype?