Fill up on the Cheap
Tucked between an auto-body shop and Kemps Dairy on North Broadway in Rochester is a timeless local institution: Cheap Charlie's. The diner/cafe has been serving up meals for almost 60 years.
Rochester has changed considerably over that time, but the restaurant and its surroundings haven't.
"That's what makes us so special," says owner David Tran.
This unique spot opened in 1955 with Rochester's Charlie Clark the owner. At the time, it was a 14-stool joint named the Ideal Cafe, and Clark and his family lived on the second floor. Clark later re-named it The 400 Cafe, after a 400-passenger train that stopped nearby.
After a 1968 redesign, he changed the name again, to Cheap Charlie's, and not much has changed since — other than the ownership. Tran bought the business 16 years ago from Richard Chia, who earlier had purchased it from Clark.
Cheap Charlie's is a mainstay, and so are some of its customers, including a few who have been regulars for decades.
"We had one man who sat on the same stool and ordered the same breakfast for 40 years," Tran said. "We have businessmen who come in at 6:30 (a.m.), meet upstairs together, and then head out to their offices at 7:30. It is mostly local, retirees, blue-collar, construction workers, all of whom feel comfortable coming here just as they are. We are not a fancy place."
Tran has even delivered meals to hospitalized customers wanting a taste from their favorite restaurant.
And the cafe has had its share of celebrity visits over the years, starting with Hubert Humphrey, who grew up with Charlie Clark and made the restaurant a regular stop whenever he came to town. Even today, many political office-seekers make it a point to stop in.
To what does Cheap Charlie's owe its success and longevity?
"People like the casual atmosphere," Tran said. "It is friendly and welcoming. Also, our portions are generous. You definitely won't leave hungry.
"We pride ourselves on the consistency of what we serve," Tran said. "Chef Shawn Prom has been here for over 20 years — he's an expert. Our prices are also reasonable. In fact, we haven't raised them in over two years. Where in town can you get an 8-ounce New York Strip steak for $8.99?"
The menu hasn't changed much over the years, though Tran says that in the early days it was much smaller. Among the many choices are omelettes, breakfast specialties, lunch and dinner entrees, soups, sandwiches and burgers. Dessert? A scoop or two of ice cream. If there are daily specials they appear on a menu board by the cafe counter.
Let's not forget the landmark-status pig on the roof. What's with that?
"Charlie had a bet with a local construction worker," Tran said. "Charlie won, and one day the pig was on the roof. It apparently came from a dairy farm in Wisconsin, or so the story goes. All I know is that it is cement, bolted down and I go up and paint it every year."
Is Tran bothered by the expanding upscale restaurant scene downtown, just a few blocks away?
"I never look outside of Cheap Charlie's," he said. "We are very good at what we do and that's all I care about."