Why: Charlies Bistro offers a refined dining experience in which everything from entrées to service is delivered with polish and ease. The menu is populated with retro-comfort food choices for lunch and dinner and selections are made from scratch.
Atmosphere: The restaurant is on the ground floor of an office building. Although it is not a stand-alone establishment, it has a private, exclusive vibe about it. The space has a decidedly masculine décor of crisp edges and toned-down colors that is very relaxing. Seating consists of tables and chairs set along the perimeter of the L-shaped space, a few bistro sets along the sidewalk out front, and patio dining atop attractive brickwork in the rear of the restaurant.
A large-screen television and a cozy fireplace are incorporated into the bar area, which is to the left of the entry, and there are barstools at the bar's counter, in addition to tables and chairs.
What I tried: I decided on a barbecue pork slider and a smoked salmon and cucumber slider with sweet potato fries and a cup of tomato florentine with bacon soup. My dining companion had the vegetable paella with seafood. For dessert, we tried the watermelon sorbet.
The soup was absolutely dreamy and gone too fast. I could have enjoyed another cup with the pre-dinner bread and butter, and I would have been satisfied. The soup was topped with a little bit of spinach and a few homemade croutons and a generous amount of bacon was incorporated into the soup. The flavor was sweet and salty with a tiny bit of tangy that punctuated each spoonful.
The sliders were equally impressive. Assembled on brioche, both had distinct qualities. The barbecue pork slider consisted of tender pulled pork, roasted onions, cheddar cheese and a tangy fennel slaw. It had a complex flavor that was somewhat spicy and very appetizing. The smoked salmon slider is made with house-smoked salmon topped with thin-sliced, pickled cucumber to create a delicious and wholesome combination. The sweet potato fries that accompanied the sliders were cut into wedges and sprinkled with herbs. They possessed an appealing roasted character instead of deep-fried and heavy with grease — each one was like a mini baked sweet potato.
My dining companion enjoyed his paella entrée that was topped with a fillet of grilled salmon. It had a fairly even amount of vegetables and fresh seafood mixed with the saffron-seasoned brown rice. A liberal portion of whole almonds were included as well — these somewhat detracted from the other ingredients, but they were easy enough to push to the side.
The watermelon sorbet was refreshing. My dining companion and I were split on opinion — he liked the consistency and refreshing character of it, whereas I concluded it was a bit too pulpy as compared to my preferred choice of a citrus-based sorbet.
Menu highlights beyond what I tried: Wild rice and corn fritters are on the small plates menu, as are frog legs. Myrtle's turkey salad sandwich, made with mayonnaise, dates, bacon, olives, walnuts, cheddar cheese, pickles, lettuce, peanut butter, and wheat bread, sounded intriguing, as did the Chicken & Slickers, a combination of chicken, egg noodles, bacon, Brussels sprouts, sherry, herbs, and butter. If not for my dinner-hour visit, I would have ordered the Monte Cristo sandwich. When I asked the waiter if they make it "right," by deep frying the egg-dipped complete sandwich, he responded with, "Is there any other way?" Music to my ears!
Other observations: Charlies is one of those places that just doesn't seem have to try hard to impress. The recipe they follow to create excellent food and service in a comfortable, sophisticated environment is consistent with a successful establishment. Without researching, I can't remember what restaurant occupied the space before Charlies, which is an odd occurrence for me. I can only surmise it is because Charlies has made such an impression as to erase the memory of another.
Most Fridays, a variety of live music that ranges from swing jazz to light rock is booked in the bar. Check the website for details. Specials are also offered throughout the week and detailed on the website as well.
Cost: Menu items on the bar menu start at $2 and top out at $9. Small plates (including soup) cost $3 to $9. Sliders, sandwiches, and burgers range from $4 to $12. Salads are $7 to $14. Entrees are $13 to $21.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Happy hour is 3 to 6 p.m. and after 9 p.m.
Where: 1220 Main St., Vancouver.
Health score: Charlies Bistro received a score of 5 on July 22. Zero is a perfect score, and Clark County Public Health closes restaurants that score 100 or higher. For information, call 360-397-8428.