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Restaurant Tours: a place to go before the show

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Nothing used to go together like dinner and a show. All that has changed since the big theater chains sliced and diced the cinema palaces into multiplexes, jacked up the prices, and wedged audiences into movies like lettuce in a crisper. That good old Saturday-night cheap treat has turned into an expensive stress test involving finding a movie and restaurant close enough to each other that you can swing by, pick up tickets before dinner, and get back soon enough to find two seats not up front in the whiplash section. (Sure, you can call Loews's new Tele Ticket line to reserve tickets in advance, but you still have to wait in line to pick them up.)

Nowadays the food-movie connection is more important than ever because movies have gotten so bad. Take graphic, boring sex--most of us don't have to leave the house for that. I have a feeling a lot of people are just there for the popcorn--or Raisinets, which don't taste the same with the lights on. At least they're honest calories, unlike the unbuttered popcorn my dieting friends insist tastes pretty good. Of course it does. Unless you see the magic word "air," it's been popped in coconut oil.

The theater at Webster Place, although popular for its free parking, is restaurant impaired. Charlie's Ale House, however, just a couple of blocks away, fits all my criteria for a before-the-movie place. Besides being geographically desirable, it should be like a one-night stand: attractive, easy, and not requiring a serious commitment, financial or otherwise.

Charlie's is on the site of what was formerly the Bar Association, which evidently only worked for people with a kid in law school. About three years ago, the place was taken over by the Carlucci Hospitality Group, which also runs Carlucci's and the new Vinny's on Sheffield. Unlike their other restaurants, Charlie's doesn't specialize in Italian food. What it does offer is better-than-mom's pot roast in a rich brown gravy (the secret ingredient is Guinness stout) with lumpy mashed potatoes and corn on the cob ($9.50); a grilled-chicken club sandwich with bacon, tomato, spinach, and Swiss cheese on toasted black bread with mustard sauce ($7.50)--also served with the same wonderful mashed potatoes; and the Ale House Salad (small $3.25/large $6.50), a decent Caesar (my search for the perfect one continues) with egg, tomato, and black olives.

There's even good food that's good for you: a great roasted-vegetable hero sandwich with creamy melted goat cheese on lightly grilled French bread, served with crisp coleslaw ($6.95); and a fresh fish of the day ($11.95)--on one occasion the best fish we'd ever tasted, a thick, juicy piece of char-grilled halibut with a delicate orange cream sauce, accompanied by brown rice tossed with vegetable chunks. (I love the way restaurants are responding to the public's interest in healthier foods by char-grilling the fish, serving it rare, and highballing the price so we can pretend it's steak. When I was a kid they got fish down us by hiding it in cholesterol-laden mayonnaise--gourmets used Miracle Whip--or saturating it with melted butter.)

If eating healthy makes you feel emotionally deprived, you can counteract its effects by ordering an appetizer such as the deliciously rich four-cheese spinach dip accompanied by toasted black bread ($5.95), or spicy buffalo chicken wings with blue-cheese dip and celery and carrot stalks (single $4.95/double $8.95).

The best of the desserts is a sweet, chunky, warm apple cobbler topped with cinnamon or vanilla ice cream ($5.25/$3.95 plain). A less successful double-fudge devil's food cake ($3.95) had icing that tasted like Jell-O pudding, but probably will still raise your endorphin level. There's also homemade ice cream ($2.75).

Charlie's Ale House is a neighborhood hangout with a large bar, dark wood paneling, and leather booths--the perfect atmosphere for cold winter evenings. The TV screens are for sports fans, so stay out of the place during playoffs unless Animal House was your favorite movie. In the summertime you can eat outside on a large side patio set back from the street, quite unlike the sidewalk cafes on Rush, Clark, and the other gasoline alleys around town where you can't tell if you're high from the beer or the fossil-fuel fumes.

Charlie's Ale House, 1224 W. Webster, is open for dinner from 5 to 11 Monday through Thursday, 5 to midnight Friday, 4 to midnight Saturday, and 4 to 10 Sunday. Lunch is served starting at noon on Saturday, and there's a Sunday brunch from 11 to 3. The bar is open Sunday through Friday to 2 AM, Saturday to 3 AM. For more information, call 871-1440.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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