With a snout-on view of an infamous roof-mounted oinker, a hog stolen not once but twice in the late 50s, I entered into one of this city’s best kept breakfast and lunch secrets: Cheap Charlie’s. The diner hails back to 1955 when Charlie and Vi Clark bought out the then 14 stool, track-side Ideal Café to continue an unforgettable legacy.
Husband and wife owners David and Janna Tran, who’ve owned the business for the last 20 years, excitedly take turns explaining the legend of Cheap Charlie’s oinker. David says the pig was installed on the café’s roof by two unnamed construction workers who nabbed it from a Wisconsin Farm around 1958. That same year, the pig was re-stolen right off of Cheap Charlie’s roof. An area policeman found it driving around town in the back of a pickup truck and returned it to its not-so-rightful owners.
Janna says the pig represents a giant piggy bank to show how much money Cheap Charlie’s patrons save. She emphatically explains that her customers get free coffee and unlimited refills with the purchase of a meal. Since customers can get a platter-sized pancake for a paltry $3.55, a few visits to Charlie’s adds up to big savings.
Visitors to Charlie’s are frequently greeted by Janna’s sister Anne Week (who has an uncanny memory for names) holding down a lunch counter that still has 14 chairs and stools, though the joint now has other tables and booths and has expanded into an upstairs room that, according to David, was once the Clark’s living room.
The first two people I met at Charlie’s were regulars Treni Thamez and Kenneth Henningsgard. Thamez says he first became a regular when he had a short term lack of housing and frequented Charlie’s because it opened at 6 a.m. Henningsgard has been holding the counter up at Charlie’s on almost a daily basis for the last 25 years: a fixture there longer than the current owners.
Thamez recommends Charlie’s patty melt, while Henningsgard’s first pick is the everything omelet. Henningsgard, a bearded and tattooed retired bus driver, looks a little like Santa Claus, and he’s offered his services there as a surrogate Santa for free pictures for several Christmases.
The booths at Charlie’s sport signs that request “Two or more people per table,” and the ambiance of a bygone era seeps out of every well-loved pore of the greasy spoon.
Chris Kostelec and Maria Cameron stopped in partially because of Kostelec’s desire for a midday breakfast option: “I just needed breakfast. At this point in the day there aren’t many options.”
Cameron reminisces about visits to Charlie’s with her father as a special treat when she was a child: “It was his treat if we did something good in school. It wasn’t Chuck E. Cheese’s for us!”
While the dinning at Charlie’s wouldn’t be called fine dining by anyone, it has won numerous awards, such as Rochester Magazine’s Best Breakfast award in 2016. There’s no doubt that the dining here is more than fine, it’s an institution.