Published in Roadside Magazine, 1997
The last thing Steve Turner needs is to see his name in print again. Certainly Charlie's Diner, where you'll find him tending grill, deserves any exposure it receives, and anyone looking for a good source of stories and diner lore would do best to speak to the man for whom the diner is named, Steve's father Charlie Turner. Even Steve's sister Kristine, the one who toils (though not in silence) in the back kitchen deserves her 15 minutes of fame. But for better or worse, Steve Turner is the face of Charlie's Diner. Whenever a TV crew visits or a reporter from the local paper chooses to feature this wonderful 1947 Worcester, Steve's mug gets in the way of the camera. Somehow, business hasn't seemed to suffer.
Don't get me wrong -- I love Charlie's -- and I believe that, all things considered, this diner is the best in the city. It's clean and it serves good, honest food prepared by real people. The diner itself is well-preserved and unpolluted by cigarette smoke or any of the gimmicky nostalgic clutter too often found in some places. I do wish that the Turner family would extend the hours and at least serve breakfast on Sunday, but by and large, I'm just grateful to have such a great place so close to where I live.
Steve and Kris, Charlie's son and daughter, make up the third generation of Turners to operate the business. Their grandfather, Charlie Senior, began the business after purchasing the diner in 1950. He moved it to Plantation Street in Worcester from Wareham, MA where the Mill Pond Diner now stands.
So, if this article deservedly also belongs to Kris and Charlie, why devote it to Steve? Because it is time to set the record straight.
In the past year or so, Steve Turner has appeared in a published interview in Worcester Magazine; a photo accompanying a food review in the Telegram & Gazette; a story by local columnist Dick Cerasuolo (factual errors and all); and most recently on a broadcast segment on WCVB-TV5's "Chronicle Magazine." Truly, Steve's 15 minutes of fame expired long ago, but as a regular of the diner, I'm bothered by the fact that none of this exposure has quite managed to capture the true essence of Steve Turner.
First of all, the best thing about Charlie's, besides the food, and Charlie himself, resides in the generational transition between father and children, reflected as well in the profile of the customers. Old timers still come to the diner because Charlie has done such a fine job maintaining a tradition of excellence. A new customer base has emerged because Kris and Steve have developed their own following, but also because more people want real home cooking. When the diner went smoke-free, the Turners reported seeing more families stopping by for a bite. All this helps to secure the diner's future.
The food at Charlie's can best be described as solid Yankee cooking. The menu generally features the usual breakfast staples, but unlike many other places, you can get fresh-baked ham sliced to order with your eggs. Also, the day after Wednesday's corned-beef dinner, Kris fashions some of the finest corned beef hash you'll find anywhere. For lunch you can get the usual suspects, but most items are fresh-made and best of all, Kris whips up great chowders and a good turkey dinner. The diner also serves a wonderful pea soup, and if you're lucky, you'll drop in when Kris decides to bake cookies or brownies.
But then there's the floor show, with your host, Steve Turner. Young, brash, and aggravatingly handsome, Steve embodies the wise-guy grillman often described in stories of diners, but updated for the 90s. Not exactly the big burly former sailor one imagines wielding the spatula, Steve cuts a leaner figure honed by his obsession with bicycling.
A typical greeting by Steve goes something like this: Bellowing loud enough for a diner three times the size, Steve will ask me "What are YOU doing here?" And the fun begins.
One day I made the mistake of actually riding my bicycle to the diner. Thinking somehow that I might actually impress this Tour de France contender, he instead notices that I'm breathing heavier than normal.
"What's the matter with YOU?" he exclaims with his trademark #!@%$-eating grin.
"I just rode my bike up that big hill," I reply between my panting, referring to the gradual but mile-long incline known as Shrewsbury Street.
"WHAT big hill? You mean SHREWSBURY STREET? You call THAT a big hill?!"
"To me it is, yes!" I insist, but Steve just starts to laugh. "Man, you ARE out of shape." Then he turns to another customer, delighting in my embarrassment. "Did you hear that guy? He thinks SHREWSbury Street is a BIG HILL." And so on. Though this exchange took place more than a year ago, it still comes up almost every visit.
Women, on the other hand, see the other side of Steve.
"Welcome to Charlie's. How LOVELY it is to meet you. You seem like a very nice person, so why would you want to hang around with THIS guy?"
I interject. "She's a friend of mine, Steve."
I walked right into that one. The response is either "You have friends?" or "I wasn't talking to you."
A long-running joke at Charlie's tells of Steve's unabashed propensity for dismissing customers who demand too much, or who just happen to get on his nerves. The no-frills menu at the diner balks at most attempts at tinkering, but sometimes a customer tries to "customize" things a little too much.
On one such occasion, as I quietly ate my lunch at the counter, I heard someone call out to Steve, then very busy at the grill, asking for a glass of water. With the spatula and bacon press still in his hands, he pivoted to face the customer.
"You want me to drop these?" he asked loudly. "You want me to DROP THESE?" Already laughing to myself, I almost fell off the stool when I heard the CLANG of the objects hitting the floor.
"Okay everybody!," he announced. "Your food's going to BURN while I get this GLASS of WATER!"
Typically one doesn't find this brand of public relations in any restaurant, and for good reason, but a judicious ejection sure makes for good copy. I've heard stories of bagels not being round enough, or toast with too much, too little, or improperly spread butter, or coffee too hot, too cold, too weak, too strong, etc. Anyone who expects anything but basic wait-service at Charlie's should probably go elsewhere -- you were warned -- but some still persist. Also, if you'd rather not hear Steve's (or Kris's for that matter) opinions on what's wrong with the world, then I suggest getting take-out. I'll stay around for the floor show, thank you.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, it's entirely possible to eat at Charlie's completely without incident. People can come and go with nary a word exchanged between themselves and any of the Turners, save for placing their order. The Turner family runs a completely professional operation, and unlike other overly casual places I've visited, the jokes fly only after they take care of business first. Of all the reasons to visit, or even live, in Worcester, Charlie's ranks in my top five.
Charlie's may not be the place for everyone, but if you appreciate honesty both in your dealings and your food, then you will feel quite at home here. Yes, you can have it your way at Charlie's, but just don't think you're entitled to it.