We like Charlie's

Like many fascinating things about Singapore, I only discovered Charlie's at Changi Village after I moved back from university. As I got rapidly bored with the growing Mall-of-America-nisation of downtown, got tired of the pedestrian selection of beers at the typical watering holes, and could finally steal the car out without too much hassling from the parentals, Charlie's became A Place To Go. Where else required you to all pile into a car and drive for at least forty minutes from the nearest civilised meeting point, whereupon arrival, would fete you with a smorgasbord of beers from around the world while also expecting you to pick up your own orders when the counter staff spotlighted your table with the beam of a flashlight?

Some friends that we've introduced to Charlie's have been like, "So you drive all the way out here --- for expensive beers --- and mediocre Western food? What's the point?" People, that is the point. Charlie's has no pretensions about it. They sell beer, loads and loads of varieties of it, and they sell mediocre-to-average Western food. They're not trying to wow you with fancy tablecloths or happy hour prices or specialty dishes (unless the range of beers counts as a specialty).

What they've got is an unduplicatable location: as far east on our tiny little island as you can go, even further than Changi Airport, without falling into the ocean, and right under the flight paths for planes taking off. And with their beers and grub, they've made the place a little more hospitable for those of us who want to escape the claustrophobic inanity of the city without having to activate our passports.

The distance you go to get to Charlie's isn't just a matter of travelling time, but also a gradual shift in mindzones as the number of vehicles on the road falls away and the frequency of traffic lights declines, leaving longer and longer stretches of unbroken road ahead. Time slows down; the vision clears; the rest of your life belongs in a different universe. At Charlie's, once you're in your seat, with a beer in hand, you feel like you could sit there forever.

Charlie's looks like the kind of place that hasn't changed in fifty years, and parts of it, I'm sure, are as old as when Charlie first set up shop here. (It hasn't been fifty years, but it's been a damn long time by Singapore standards, especially for a place as far-flung as this.)

Little things have changed, though. They used to be closed on weekends, but now they open on Saturdays (except for the first Saturday of the month, I think). The most jarring transformation is that they don't shine a flashlight at your table to signal your to pick up your food from the counter anymore. Oh no, some years ago, we showed up one evening to find shiny new chairs and tables --- their predecessors had their legs deliberately sawn short, so that you felt like you were almost sitting on the floor or at the height of a table in a traditional Japanese restaurant --- and counter staff who actually came out from behind the counter to serve the food to you. They even brought the menus to us! And I was downright mortified when they insisted on carrying the beers to our table. My world was topsy-turvy!

Fortunately, despite the change in table service, most of the staff haven't changed --- specifically, the two women, one older, one younger, who seem to run the show. (Charlie himself makes sporadic appearances, to take an order, clear a table or chill out with a beer.) I'm not so chatty with the older one, but the younger one seems to recognise us whenever we show up and makes sure we have everything we need --- not to mention she's pretty good with the beer recommendations whenever they have new stuff in, which seems to be every time we go there.

For instance, on Thursday night, her recommendation was the very tasty Westmalle from Belgium:

The guys had minds of their own, so (from L to R), G-man had the Greene King IPA, Terz had the (mostly hidden) Kingfisher Strong and BoKo had the Sapporo. Our food was par for the course at Charlie's: heaps of chicken wings with sauce on the side, chilli dogs, burgers, fries and a porterhouse steak for the famished BoKo. Calories and cholesterol galore, that's the way to go.

And then beer, and then kibbitzing, and then some non-alcoholic drinks to slake our post-oily food, post-beer thirst. And then the long drive home (thanks, G-man!), during which the potency of the beer evidenced itself in how quickly I fell asleep once we hit Changi Coast Road.

All evenings should be like this. Everyone should have an anchor like Charlie's.

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At 10/08/2005 12:54 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The West has Colbar — totally inaccessible by public transport (only a bus that comes every 1h), buried deep in an estate with old colonial bungalows, mediocre-average food, brusque service. Totally stuck in the past, but very charming.

At 10/08/2005 5:04 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa ho. Charlie's IS retro man. I never realized that there was such a place that immediately transported you back to the 70s until I chanced upon it uring my days as an investigator. My colleagues and I were at Changi Village to pick up someone for ivestigations when I spotted the place. Couldn't stop for a beer coz we were working and didn't ever manage to go back thereafter coz it's just too darn far away!

At 10/08/2005 11:23 pm , Blogger Tym said...

popagandhi --- I've been to Colbar for lunch, when I used to work in the area. It's a nice respite from corporate environments. But I used to live just across the expressway from Colbar, so I hardly consider it ulu enough to achieve Charlie's level of otherworldliness :)

Chandler --- If you like chilling out, it's totally worth the drive. (Yes, hehe, even the way you drive.)

At 10/10/2005 10:57 am , Blogger Tym said...

I've never been to Charlie's in the daytime. Daytime too hot lah. Chillin' with a beer is definitely more of a nocturnal event.

At 10/10/2005 9:15 pm , Blogger JellyGirl said...

I've heard lots about Charlie, but everytime I go there to try it, it's closed. Baaaah.

For me, my favourite retro hangout is the Sunset Bar & Grill at Seletar Airbase.

At 10/11/2005 5:11 am , Blogger Tym said...

Do you always go on Sundays?

I've been to Sunset Grill and I like it well enough, but it's just a bit leh cheh (relative to Changi Village) without a car --- or a GPS, for that matter! Come to think of it, I'm still not sure of its precise location. But it's possibly an even better getaway than Charlie's because not even the public buses run there!

At 10/11/2005 8:56 am , Blogger Johnny Malkavian said...

Colbar peeps unfriendly to locals, sadly. So be sure to bring your accent with you when you order!

Anyhow, on the topic of retro, why hasn't anyone mentioned Mitre ?

At 10/11/2005 10:06 am , Blogger Tym said...

Er ... my ignorance is showing, nbut what is Mitre?

At 10/12/2005 1:55 am , Blogger kukukucinta said...

i've been to charlie once and waited 50 minutes for my chilli dog to arrive even though it's only 5.30pm for dinner and only half the place was occupied.....

At 10/12/2005 2:10 am , Blogger Tym said...

Really? How bizarre. Must've been a bad day for them. I've never had to wait more than 15-20 minutes for my food, even when they're busy. If anything, the timing seems to have sped up since they started directly serving the food to customers.

At 10/12/2005 3:13 am , Blogger Terz said...

Ah but waiting is the whole point. Chance for old friends to catch up at a place run by old friends.

At 10/13/2005 12:46 am , Blogger Tym said...

I not so bold as to claim that Charlie or the girl I'm chatty with at Charlie's is my old friend :) But yes, some waiting is part of its charm.

Charm. You can't start a government initiative for that.

At 2/11/2007 5:00 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

the food at charlie's is super mediocre. Why pay so much? Plus sloppy service


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