Remembering Charly’s

My favourite neighbourhood Chinese eatery will be operating under new ownership as of  July 1, 2010. The current owners have retired. I don’t know if the new owners will keep the name, Charly Chan’s Rice House. I don’t even know if they will continue to run it as a Szechuan restaurant. They should. It has been part of the neighbourhood for so long-twenty-seven years-that Charly’s has become an institution.

When Charly’s first opened, in 1983, Kensington was just starting to reinvent itself as a trendy neighbourhood synonymous with modern, middle-class style and comfort. The old Kensington, otherwise known as Hillhurst, had been a pastiche of wartime bungalows, vanilla-flavoured walk-up apartments, corner groceries, coin laundries, and appliance stores. Black and Decker City. The new Kensington was dotted with architect-designed homes that looked like miniature grain elevators. Instead of appliance stores, it offered the shopper everything from custom tanning to mountain bikes. Silk lingerie, beauty salons, and linguine with clam sauce. Patio tables with Cinzano umbrellas, interlocking red-brick sidewalks, and  the Plaza Theatre art cinema. Post-modern commercial architecture in the sun-baked California style.

The new stores and restaurants, many of them now long gone, proclaimed to the world that Kensington was no longer a sleepy, working-class inner-city neighbourhood populated by students and hippies. It was now a place where you could shop for Stilton cheese, gnocchi, pesto and French bread, buy the New York Times, and listen to Bob Erlendson’s jazz piano during Sunday brunch. It was a place where you could take in a foreign film, drink expresso, buy a novel, and savour the salty taste of  the patented deli-fries at the Kensington Delicafe. If I had written this piece back then, the Deli owner  would have given me a couple of dining coupons as “payola.”

Charly Chan’s offered such Szechuan favourites as fried shredded beef, salt-and-pepper seafood, and Mongolian chicken. Its only competition in the neighbourhood, the venerable Lido Café, offered a more traditional selection of “Chinese and western cuisine,” including chow mein, chop suey, and fried-egg sandwiches. The Lido opened at 8:00 AM every day except on Sunday, when it opened at 1:00 PM “People are supposed to go to church,” explained the waitress. She put an “out of order” sign on the counter jukebox to stop customers from complaining they received only one play instead of two for fifty cents.

Long before Starbucks and Second Cup moved into the neighbourhood, the owner of The Roasterie was serving café au lait to his customers in cereal bowls. He had researched the market and discovered that Canadians love their coffee. “We’re number twelve in the world after the Europeans,” he said. A sign on his wall said, “Even when it’s hot, you can have a coffee and still be cool.”

Canadians, it seems, also loved to collect things. At Toys from the Attic Collectables, you could find a treasure trove of vintage Coca Cola memorabilia, Victorian vanity cases with sterling silver accoutrements, and classic Elvis albums in the original shrink-plastic wrappers. A collectable, explained owner Brian Lehman, was defined as anything worth keeping and up to forty-nine years old. Older items, aged fifty to ninety-nine years, were classified as heirlooms. Items more than one hundred years old were classified as antiques. Who knew?

At Blue Vinny Foods, the weekend chef could never resist a joke. “I’ll let you have it for free if you eat it with your hands,” he told a ten-year-old girl who ordered Eggs Benedict for breakfast. She giggled and declined the offer.

Walt Healy sold motorcycles and snowmobiles at his Kensington store until he was into his late seventies. He rode his bike every day, year round. Did it get cold in winter? “Not when you dress for it.” How about traction on the icy streets? “With a sidecar, no problem.” Walt died with his boots on, at age eighty-three, after attending a dinner for vintage bike enthusiasts. His friends said afterwards that the dinner was probably the best send-off party he could have asked for.

The Snoboard Shop urged its customers to “live original, die original.” The customers needed no further prompting. Skate-boarding youngsters competed with pedestrians for sidewalk space. Neighbourhood cars sported bumper stickers that said, “I Share the Road With Cyclists.” You don’t see such bumper stickers any more. Now the cars are festooned with silly little Flames’ flags, even when the team fails to make the playoffs.

Sandpiper Books promised its patrons that if they visited the store in the afternoon, they would often get to meet a “famous Alberta author.” On a sign in the window, they could read a fortune-cookie quote from Bartlett’s. “Every child is an artist,” said a quote from Picasso. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Artists were often seen around the neighbourhood. They came down the hill from the Alberta College of Art to pick up supplies at the R.A. Barnes store, and showed their works in the Kensington galleries. If they couldn’t afford the gallery rental, they would show their works on the sidewalk. As long as the weather stayed nice, you could always expect to see a one-person exhibition on Tenth Street or Kensington Road.

The Kensington Deli featured live music every night. It could be a folk artist, singer-songwriter, or a jazz performer like violinist Karl Roth, who would tell his audience, “We would like to play for you the Canadian version of the well-known Duke Ellington tune, Take the Train, Eh!” On a summer night, the Deli was the best place to relax with a nightcap after a filling plate of sizzling chicken and Szechuan noodles at Charly’s. The sweet sound of Roth’s violin would follow me as I headed home along Kensington Road. The moon would be in the first quarter, and the sky would be cloudless. It was always a beautiful night in the neighbourhood.

2 Responses to Remembering Charly’s

  1. Rather disconcerting to find that a place you still consider to be “new”, others consider to be a longstanding neighbourhood institution. I remember going to Charlie Chan’s with my ex when it was still new and trendy - the sort of place that she insisted upon being seen in. Great clouds of vapourized MSG blew across your table, as I recall, even if you were sitting outside. The periscoping effect of memory, I guess. It’s still faintly surprising to see that the DeliCafe is no longer there. But Chicken on the Way still soldiers on, a real time-traveller from the 1950s.

    There is a lot more that you could have said about the old Kensington. Maybe some other time.

  2. I went by Charly Chan’s today to pick up some take out for supper tonight. I live in Edmonton. My first dinner at Charly Chan’s was in the fall of 1984 - I was a new student at SAIT. Since then, I’ve been there with every boyfriend (and both husbands - LOL), my parents, my best friends……it was “the” place to eat! I moved from Calgary in 1989. Every time I was in Calgary since then, I went to Charly Chans for dinner. If a friend was going to be in Calgary, I would give them some money and my order. They’d pick up some take out and bring it back to Edmonton for me. Or I’d pick it up and bring it home - as was my intention today. It had been over two years since I was in Calgary - that time I picked up and brought it back to Edmonton for my family…….So sad to see it gone. Charly Chans has been a part of my life - so many memories and good times….I have the memories but I sure do wish I had the food! :-) Thanks for your write up!

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