Some places seem destined to hit the ground running. They have a perfect location, a built-in neighborhood crowd, a stylish, yet friendly design, and a block of positive opening reviews. Charlie’s of Bay Head is one of those places. It had all the right ingredients in place, and has been serving nearly full houses almost every night.
The building has a bunch of stairs at the entry. It also has an unusual and convenient elevator that opens at street level. There are two floors for dining. The first dining level has a long bar with an adjacent lounge with a fireplace, which leads into the main dining room, done in steely gray and white wood. The waterfront views are enticing, but the busy open kitchen pretty much dominates your attention. There is a deck overlooking Twilight Lake for outdoor dining. Above, there is a second floor with a more French country-type feel. It was in active use when we were there, and it looks like a nice spot to host small parties. Charlie’s has a lengthy wine list, a robust beer list, and well-made cocktails. I enjoyed a Mint Julep in honor of the Kentucky Derby and was quite impressed with the authentic taste.
The server brought us a basket of fresh bread and we started our meal, after a welcoming visit from the manager – always a nice touch.
For our appetizers, we were intrigued by the U-8 Gulf Shrimp Cocktail, served with atomic cocktail sauce. These were three huge shrimp, one for each of us, and they were juicy and tender. The atomic sauce had a kick, but was well within the enjoyable limits. We also had the Jumbo Crab Deviled Eggs, served with a chipotle aioli dipping sauce. There wasn’t the big crab flavor we were expecting, but the sauce makes all the difference in elevating the dish. Our third choice was the Beefsteak Tomato Caprese. The creamy burrata was one of the best we’ve had in a while. It was soft but not runny; it comes with roasted peppers, fresh basil, evoo, and a balsamic reduction. A very nice dish that will only get better as the tomatoes ripen this season.
Now, here’s where Charlie’s menu gets interesting. On one hand there are entrees, served with the steakhouse style of add-ons sides. On the other hand, they offer soups and flatbreads (which we didn’t try) and a big variety of burgers, and even a lobster roll. Both are served in the main dining room, though the more casual choices would go nicely with a cocktail.
Since the burgers are a popular pick, diner one ordered one, and was very pleased with the freshness and preparation. They come with side of shoestring fries that were nice and crispy. Diner two had the Grilled Salmon Filet, served with Dijon mustard, orange supremes, citrus vinaigrette, arugula, and quinoa. He, too, was pleased with his selection, and admired the plating of the dish, as well. I picked the Herb Marinated Grilled Double-Cut Australian Lamb Chops that come with a peasant-inspired white bean tomato rosemary ragu, and a roasted garlic demi-glaze. The two thick chops were perfectly cooked, with a well-charred tip on the frenched bone, while still staying a succulent medium. Lamb is a tricky dish and they do it well.
Next, it was time for dessert and we chose two. The first was the playful Homemade Mini Doughnuts. They come with three little squeeze bottles of raspberry, chocolate Nutella, and salted caramel sauces that you can squirt on or into your donut. The little bottle made me think of sand art, but I never made art on the boardwalk the tasted as good as these. Really fun and just sweet enough. Next, we chose the recommended Bread Pudding, served warm with salted caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Their version of bread pudding is a not as custardy as most. It has a strong French toast flavor and the house-made ice cream pulled it all together. We really enjoyed it.
The coffee was very good and comes in a nice large cup, plenty to have with desserts. I visited the ladies’ room and was more than impressed. It is just as stylish as the interior, impeccably clean, and very pretty.
In general, we were all very pleased with our experience and plan to return. Personally, I thought the chef might be a little less restrained. We could taste every ingredient, but I think he’s got a bit more up his sleeve. His plating is lovely and his style is laid-back. I also expect that parking might be an issue in the busy summer months. I would also strongly suggest reservations, as Charlie’s is always busy.
The cost: Moderate to high
What we liked: The great views, friendly and well-informed staff, the wine list, the bar/lounge area, the fabulous bathrooms, the elevator service right to street level, and the desserts.
What could be better: Maybe a few more choices on the menu, and maybe a bit more boldness from the chef.
We give it 5 J’s.
Charlie’s of Bay Head is located at 72 Bridge Avenue in Bay Head. They’re open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m. and Sunday from 3:00 to 10 p.m. They’re open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Call (732) 295-1110. Visit www.charliesofbayhead.com.