Who else could we begin our Classics Week Power Hour with than the restaurant with the killer potato salad, that set the standard for service and inspired our very own food awards? Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale was located at 7th Street and 4th Avenue South in downtown Minneapolis. The restaurant served us for 49 years until the doors closed permanently in July of 1982.
The restaurant was originally to be run by not one, but two Charlies. Charles Saunders had partnered with Charles "the Finn" Herlin, an influential bartender. Herlin created "the President" cocktail (a mix of orange, lemon, gin and finished with a dash of grenadine.) Sadly, Herlin passed away soon after the restaurant opened. Saunders would continue to be the head of the cafe until his death.
The oak paneled dining room hosted generations with a sophisticated-in-its-day menu that included a potato salad so wondrous that the recipe continues to be highly sought after and is now served at the awards that honors the restaurant. During its heyday, the potato salad was served free at happy hour, which may contribute to the fond memories in addition to the mix of potatoes, hard boiled eggs, snappy green onions and creamy dressing.
For celebrities visiting the Twin Cities, a meal inside Charlie's was a must: Bob Hope, Jack Dempsey, President Richard Nixon all dined inside. However, the celebrity that was perhaps most celebrated at Charlie's was the noted local newspaper columnist and radio personality, Cedric Adams. Adams was memorialized inside Charlie's with his own sandwich named after him. (Sliced young capon was sauced with creamy mushrooms was served on toasted bread.)
Charlie passed away from a heart attack in 1962 and his wife Louise took over running the restaurant. Louise was a formidable lady who was a former speed skater, avid golfer and had the distinction of being one of the first women to become a partner in a law firm inside the Twin Cities. She ran Charlie's until the end serving as she said, "Beer, bourbon and beef."
As the dining and downtown landscape changed in the 1980's, Louise Saunders made the difficult decision to close the restaurant. She turned down the developers offer to re-open the restaurant inside the glass high rise that rose upon the address. She reportedly preferred people remember Charlie's the way it was.
Somewhere, noted local restaurateur John Rimarcik (who owns several historic Minneapolis restaurants including the Monte Carlo) has the bar from Charlie's. The naked nymph who stood outside the restaurant (and before that the Foshay tower) now dances in a private home.