I've passed by Thai Lotus many times without going in. I've been to Charlie Brown's dozens of times without ever cracking a menu. But when I did, I was just as surprised as when I finally stepped inside Thai Lotus.
There are many reasons to go to Charlie Brown's. For starters, the place has a lot of history — seventy-odd years of it, in a town where most places can't manage seven. It stocks both kinds of whiskey: Irish and Irish enough. The inside bar feels like an archetypal neighborhood bar room — the kind of joint where many great things almost happened, where, back in the day, memories were laminated onto the walls by a heavy veneer of nicotine and splashed happy-hour beers. And the patio — big, heated in winter and sealed off from the outside world when necessary — is one of the very few places left in this town where you can have a cigarette with your beers and still feel like you're actually inside with the rest of the civilized animals. There are even rumors that Charlie Brown's does time as a piano bar, although I've never been there at the appropriate hour.
But food was never on my list of reasons to drop by Charlie Brown's. For years I've drunk there, held meetings there, conducted interviews there, drunk there — and it never occurred to me to eat. But one day last week, a weird conjunction of two and a half hours to kill, interesting news on the TV and a sudden, fierce hunger all came together in the form of me, sprawled out on the patio with two beers, an ashtray and a breakfast burrito while on the big screen in front of me, the United States economy melted down.
The burrito was not just good, but great — a ham and egg and cheese and avocado monstrosity, wrapped in a limp tortilla, soaked down with tasty, pork-shot green chile and served with a side of crisp homefries that had also been drenched in verde and inaccurately scattered shredded cheese product. Over the course of three beers, I cleaned the plate (something I just don't do that much these days), learned more than I ever wanted to know about debt restructuring and the lies on which our economy lives, and watched a little live theater: three guys from down South, sitting together drinking Bud longnecks and smoking Marlboros, who were suddenly accosted by a fourth friend chasing down a debt. It was like the first couple of pages of a Dennis Lehane short story — lots of shouting and short, embarrassed silences, ending with curses, threats and off-screen violence.
It was awesome, and it made me wonder what will happen the next time I wander into Charlie Brown's feeling a bit peckish, looking for pizza, cheeseburgers or lobster tails (all available) and a little after-work action in the neighborhood.