Arthur Manjourides Reminisces About Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe
On the cusp of closing, the longtime owner discusses the luminaries, the grifters, and one runaway turkey that have made Charlie’s a South End legend.
Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe has been around for almost nine decades, and you can feel every minute of it as soon as you walk through the door. From the diner stools covered in cracked red vinyl and the wooden refrigerators purchased by the original owner, Charlie Poulos, to the black-and-white photographs of politicians and former jazz giants who have visited the Manjourides’ Columbus Avenue institution. Then there’s the olfactory overload, that all too familiar greasy spoon blend of saccharine syrup, stiff black coffee, and a flat top that’s seen its fair share of bacon and turkey hash. In 2005, the James Beard Foundation bestowed the title of “American Classic” upon the South End destination, which has been run by siblings Arthur, Chris, Marie, and Fontane for almost half a century.
On May 12, the family made the difficult decision to shutter their longtime restaurant, announcing via Twitter that they would close by the end of June. I caught up with Arthur to discuss the the motivation behind the Majourides’ mutual retirement, but I was entreated to far more. That straightforward question set off a procession of memories, and he regaled me with stories of guys (“characters,” he calls them) named “Cookie” and “Duke the Pickpocket.” I simply let the recorder run and let Arthur reminisce as he sipped on a mug full of milky coffee.
Why have you decided to close Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe?
I’ve been working here since I was 12. That’s 61 years I’ve been in the same place. I figured at 73, I’m in good health, I feel good, why not go out on a high note. I don’t want to be carried out in an ambulance. I never said, “I don’t want to go to work.” I loved the cooking and meeting all the people. It’s been a real good ride. I’ve met so many different people, from the President, to famous actors and musicians, but the best ones have been our regular customers. Some of them have been coming in for here 40 or 50 years.
What kind of jobs did you start off doing when you were younger?
I began as a dishwasher. We didn’t have a dishwashing machine, so I had to hand-wash every plate and every pan. Not only that, but my father used to make his own soap. My father started here when he was 17 and he never bought soap for 35 years. He’d get lye and mix it with water and it would get so hot that it would take 24 hours to cool down. He would put it right underneath the table in the back. If you were to every spill any on your leg, it would be gone.
But you loved working with food?
I love cooking. I’ve read about it my whole life. When I was seven years old, my friend in Belmont got a chemistry set. He had one of those alcohol burners that was like a Bunsen burner, but without the gas. I put a tin cover on one of those and tried to fry an egg on it. I remember it stuck to the pan and my dad was so mad.
Family has always been an integral component of your restaurant. Did everyone agree with shutting it down?
Yeah, we’re all in our 70s and we’re very fortunate that we’re all still alive. You would think at this stage we’d lose somebody, if not everybody. This is like our home. Every day I wake up at three in the morning and work until three in the afternoon. It’s hard work! When I wake up in the morning, all I’m thinking is, “when do I get to go back to bed?” We’re very busy, so that’s not the reason why we’re closing. Now on Saturdays we’ll close at 1 p.m. because we just can’t do it anymore.
How did your staff take the news?
It’s sad, but at the same time I’m excited to finally have some time off. I’ve never had more than two weeks off, well, ever.
You seem like one of those people that’s going to get restless after a while.
Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll be working for one of these other chefs down here. But I’ve had hobbies I’ve never really had the chance to pursue. Like hunting, I want the chance to shoot something, anything.
Can you tell us a little bit about the extraordinary history of the restaurant?
There are so many stories within these walls. You never had to go to the movies or anything like that because there were so many characters. It was a very rough area for a long time. You’d never come down to the South End unless you were looking for trouble. We were open 24 hours a day, seven day a week for 36 years, Christmas dinner, you name it, we never closed. The busiest time was from one to three in the morning. We [served] mostly black entertainers like Duke Ellington and Sammy Davis Jr. This was all the way up until the ‘60s. Most hotels and restaurants would not serve black people. It was a very prejudiced town. I’d say 99 percent of our customers were black. Because we served the black community, a lot of white people wouldn’t come in. In the ‘70s, one of our regular customers had a sister come into town and she wouldn’t step into the place because we served black people. That’s not that long ago.
What made your family buck that trend and avoid the racism that plagued the South End?
Well, we never got robbed or had any trouble. Whenever there were the riots in Roxbury—that was sometime in the ‘60s—we were on the front page of USA Today. Half of the restaurant [dining room] would be gangsters and the other half would be police. Everyone who was fighting each other in the streets would take a timeout and come in to eat, then walk right back outside and resume beating on each other. That was when I was much younger, but we were never afraid. We only got robbed once, and that was by a dishwasher who grabbed the cash drawer and ran out the back door. He came back about a month later because he loved the beef stew we served on Saturdays. Of course, they arrested him as soon as he stepped in.
Did you know the original owner, Charlie Poulos?
Charlie was crazy about animals. Those little tabs on the wood panels that lines the restaurant, those used to hold birdcages. We had ten birdcages with two birds chirping away in each of them. We also had aquariums on the counter and on Thanksgiving we had a turkey in the window walking back and forth. Charlie didn’t think he could fly, but at one point he took off and was flying around the customers’ heads. It looked like Rodan, one of those Japanese monsters. It flew into the back and knocked all the plates down. The cook finally grabbed him and we never saw it again?
Did he actually cook the turkey?
Oh, I’m sure of it.
Was that also in the ‘60s?
Yes, and one day someone stole some of the fish in the aquarium. A week later he brought them back in a cup. My father said, “where were they?” The guy says, “I’m sorry, I can’t take care of them.” My father asks him again, “where did you have them?” And the guy says, “in the bathtub.” It was just wild. There were just so many characters. There was this fine looking man, dressed like he was in Gentlemen’s Quarterly, who was a professional pickpocket. His name was “Duke The Pickpocket.” Every once in a while the cops would call us up and ask if Duke was in the restaurant. We’d call out, “is Duke the Pickpocket here?” and everyone would immediately check their wallets.
Do you have a favorite memory?
Recently, when President Obama came in, that was very exciting. He’s got so much energy. He ran up to the door from the car and my wife told him we loved him. He said, “I need a hug.” He stayed for about 45 minutes and talked to everybody. Someone gave him their cell phone and asked him to call their son at school. And he did it! He called the kid and said, “this is President Obama.” The kid didn’t believe him. But it’s really hard to pick one thing. There have been so many different characters over the years. There was a guy named Arthur “Cookie” Cooke. He was like the mayor of Columbus Avenue. He was our doorman. He was in his 80s and he had all these deals going on. Somebody called him up and said they were coming into Boston and wanted to buy a restaurant. He goes, “oh, I’ve got a restaurant for you. It’s $3,000.” The guy goes to the bank and takes out the money and comes in a sits at the first table in the restaurant. Cookie’s got all these papers which the guy signs. Cookie takes the money and says, “alright, now we’re going to celebrate.” He keeps pouring the guy more and more booze. The next day the guy wakes up and calls him to say they he can’t find his money or the papers he signed. Cookie says, “not my problem.” He had “sold” Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe while were still open.
I have to ask, what’s your favorite meal here?
Oh, I would say the turkey hash. Yeah, the turkey hash.