The Charcoal Oven on Golf Road in Skokie, IL (see map) is one of those places that I've passed a number of times, wondered what it would be like, but have never stopped in. It looks like an old time supper club like you'd find out in the middle of nowhere in the rural Midwest. I happened to be staying just down the street from the restaurant a couple months ago and decided to give the place a try for dinner one evening.
I walked into the restaurant as two men were walking out. It was early - around 6:45 p.m. - and I was the only one in the place, save for a lone man sitting at the bar talking to the bartender. It turned out the bartender was the owner - Rich Franco - whose wife, Maria, is the daughter of the previous owner, Phill Georgouses.
Maria Franco came out and asked if I wanted to sit at the bar or in the dining room. Considering there wasn't anyone in the dining room - and it was getting into the meat of the dinner hour - I thought two things. 1) It would be kind of cool sitting in the dining room all by myself. And 2) Why am I the only one in here? I began to regret my decision.
I sat in an old style three-sided booth with a white linen tablecloth over the table. Maria handed me a menu and I immediately asked her if this place was an old style supper club that, at one time, was out in the country. She said, "Oh, most definitely!"
She told me the story of how the original business was built in 1928 - called The Oasis. It was basically a gin joint out in the country toward the end of Prohibition. When Prohibition ended in 1933, The Oasis flourished as a hot spot for good food and flowing drinks. It later became known as The Little Club and was a favorite hangout for Northwestern University students fleeing Evanston to drink when it was a dry town up to the mid-60's. The Little Club was just outside the Evanston city limits.
Phill Georgouses began to work as a busboy and waiter at The Little Club before World War II. Phil was called to duty during the war, but he came back in 1946 to work at the place. He ended up buying the Oasis in 1948. In the mid-60's, Phill put in a kitchen to serve Greek-styled meals and steaks and changed the name to The Charcoal Oven. Rich and Maria took over the business when Phill retired a few years ago. Many of the Greek-styled recipes that the Georgouses family had are still on the menu and I understand that Phill still checks in from time to time.
The dining room had that old time supper club feel to it. Subdued lighting, tasteful decor, Frank Sinatra playing in the background. It was like walking back into the 50's or 60's. Maria said that the city of Skokie literally grew up around the restaurant. "This was the place to go for an elegant meal," she said. "But now, there's just so many choices in the area. But we weren't going to change one bit."
In addition to their Greek chicken, steaks and chops, The Charcoal Oven has a variety of homemade soups and salads topped with their own in-house dressing. Sonia Carlson has been making the soups and salad dressings at The Charcoal Oven for over 30 years. I sort of like that kind of consistency.
While the menu isn't very deep, it did have a handful of great sounding meals to choose from. Maria said they were famous for their Greek chicken - a marinated chicken breast that is lightly breaded and baked in the oven with lemon, garlic and oregano. She said their butt steak was also a favorite. And they were somewhat famous for their baby back ribs with their own homemade sauce.
They did have a special on a sirloin steak that evening - a 16 oz. cut with a couple sides for $21.95. I signed up for that - rare. The sides were The Charcoal Oven's homemade potato chips and sauteed green beans with onions. I also got a cup of the homemade lentil vegetable soup and a salad with their homemade Danish bleu cheese dressing. Maria said she'd get it right out.
Sure enough, Maria first brought out the cup of soup and a fresh baked bread roll brushed with butter. Both the soup and the bread were very yummy. I'm not big on lentil soup, but this was very good.
After I finished the soup, she brought out the Danish bleu cheese salad. It was OK, rather bland in taste compared to other bleu cheese dressings I've had. But the lettuce was fresh and tasty.
The salad was done for about five minutes and Maria brought out the 16 oz. sirloin, but it certainly looked larger than 16 oz. I cut into it and it was a perfect rare for me. The homemade potato chips were interesting, but good. And the sauteed green beans with the onion slices were absolutely fabulous.
I began to work into the steak and I found that a good portion of the steak was full of gristle. What meat I could cut out of the steak was tender and flavorful, but the large amount of gristle was a downer to the meal. I know it's the luck of the draw when it comes to meat like sirloin whether or not you'll have a lot of gristle. My number came up this time.
Maria came out and saw that I had a lot of gristle in the steak. She immediately volunteered to get another piece of meat for me. I said, "Oh, God, no. Don't worry. I wouldn't have been able to finish this whole steak had it not had ANY gristle in it. This is fine."
She said, "Are you sure?"
I said, "Yep, just the luck of the draw."
She was so nice and throughout the meal I continued to be the only person in the place. Not that it was bad - it was above average, overall. Maria did tell me that the place usually is much more busy on the weekend (it was a Wednesday night when I was in there) and it was a beautiful night out. People were probably hanging at home, doing yard work and cooking out that evening.
About three weeks ago, a friend of mine who works at Music Direct in Chicago had posted on Facebook that he had gone to The Charcoal Oven with his wife. I talked to him after that and told him that I, too, had recently visited the place. He said, "We lived not far from that place from 1968 thru 1977. We'd always pass it on the way to my aunt's house, but we never stopped in. I was always intrigued with the place and so my wife and I decided to go there for dinner."
He told me he had the Greek chicken and he said, "It was WONDERFUL! I was torn between getting the special that night, which was a ribeye steak, and the Greek chicken. She told me to get the Greek chicken. I'm glad I did."
With my recent addition of Abt Electronics as one of my dealers, I'll be spending a lot of time in the Glenview/Skokie area of Chicago, probably staying just down the street from The Charcoal Oven on occasion. I'll need to get back there to try the Greek chicken and I'll probably also try one of their steaks again, as well. I love old supper clubs like The Charcoal Oven and I'll definitely go back.