Restaurant row on Orlando’s International Drive is a feast for the eyes, if not always the belly. From Chili’s to Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster to Olive Garden, all manner of mediocre dining is fully represented here. But there are also gems among the bright-colored awnings.
One such sign beckoned to me on a recent trip to Orlando—Charley’s Steak House. The awning—bedecked in images of flames—boasted of Martinis, steaks and cigars, temptation enough to get me to turn my rental car around and pull into the lot.
I walked into the main entrance, and there behind the maitre ‘d station was a grill man flipping an array of steaks on an oversized circular grill. The aroma of searing meat called to my nose like a siren on the rocks. I asked about the word “cigars” outside—this Charley’s not only sells cigars, but has a place for the aficionado to smoke one while they dine.
I took a seat in that smoking area, a well-covered outdoor patio, which my bartender explained had been recently renovated. There are about 10 tables, a few couches with a small coffee table in front of a flat screen TV tuned to the NBA playoffs, and a small bar that could seat half a dozen.
The bar had proper cigar ashtrays. The cigar selection is more than adequate, with several strength profiles and top-tier names. I saw boxes of Arturo Fuente, Rocky Patel, Avo, Ashton and Davidoff cigars, but I had brought my own. I took a seat at the bar and took out my cigar case.
The menu at Charley’s is a mix of meat and fish. My eye was drawn to the red meat—on the bone strip steaks, bone in filet mignon, double cut veal chops, huge pork chops, and a “master cut” porterhouse weighing 50 ounces.
Like the Morton’s group of steakhouses, Charley’s does the meat parade, where a waiter brings out a tray of raw steaks to show off the cuts. It’s a practice I find tiring and unnecessary. (And I always wonder what happens to the steaks that ride that tray all night.) I skipped the show and ordered the smaller 24 ounce porterhouse.
Charley’s has a good wine list (it holds a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, our sister publication) but I was in the mood for a cocktail. The bartender poured me a Beefeater Martini, not too dry, with a bleu cheese stuffed olive. He also brought me a side salad, which comes gratis with each steak, a rarity in upscale steak houses. It was tasty enough, with briny olives and onions in a zesty dressing, heavy on the vinegar. There was also a basket of hot rolls.
A new server came out, moments after I had finished the salad, with my steak, a glorious beast fresh from the grill. I thanked him profusely. “I love my job,” he said with a smile. It’s hard to imagine anyone frowning when steaks of this caliber arrive at the table.
The steaks at Charley’s are grain fed from the Midwest, a mix of choice and prime meats. The steaks are wet-aged, then cooked over that fire pit, which has a mix of mesquite, orangewood and oak. The aging and the grilling over such hot temperatures make the meat taste strongly of the grill, and the wet-aging gave it a salty and quite beefy flavor. It was a delicious steak. And it was big, but it didn’t take me too long to polish it off.
After my last bite, I reached for my cigar, a La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Belicoso, our No. 2 cigar of the year. I lit it on fire, blew out a puff of smoke, and ordered a Cognac to accompany the cigar. There were other diners around, none of them smoking, but no one complained.
This isn’t the only Charley’s Steak House, which is part of the Talk of the Town Restaurant Group. There’s another in Orlando, one in Kissimmee and one in Tampa. You should expect the same level of steak from each place, and each one sells cigars, but the Charley’s on International Drive is the only one that has a spot for smoking and dining, something that has become all too rare in today’s world.
Charley’s Steak House
8255 International Drive
Orlando, Florida 32819
Sunday - Thursday: 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Friday - Saturday: 5:00 pm to 11:00 p.m.