By Robert Beck
I was walking up 72nd on my way to the studio when the Charles Pan-Fried Chicken restaurant caught my eye. Those small-scale businesses squished into narrow spaces fascinate me. How do they make that work? Charles was closed, and I put my hands beside my face and looked in the glass front door. I saw a narrow take-out counter with a kitchen in the back, and Stephanie coming towards me with a smile on her face. She unlocked and opened the door.
“Welcome to Charles Pan-Fried Chicken! How can I serve you?”
I’d never been in a Charles and hadn’t expected to make a painting pitch at that moment, but Stephanie had that big smile, and there would be no better time. I told her about my Rag articles and how I would like to paint in the store, and she said it sounded like a great idea. She gave me Chef Quie’s card (He’s the COO of the four-location business) and said I could call him any time. I hadn’t been at my studio for more than ten minutes when he called me. Chef Quie liked the idea too.
I came back a couple of days later, two hours before opening. First, I went to the back and considered the view from the kitchen end, but I would have to set up in a narrow lane with stainless workstations and stocked shelves on each side. Stephanie asked if I wanted her to move anything. I was thinking: move it to where? And the staff was right in the middle of prep for opening. Yet I could hear in her voice that she would make it happen. Chef Quie had said, today was my day, and I could be anywhere I wanted. They would work around me. Welcome to Charles Pan-Fried Chicken! How can I serve you?
I prefer to avoid traffic patterns, so I located my easel at the front window, which was out of the customers’ direct path but still in a busy space. Sometimes, I had to move when people came inside or left with their bags of food. When the door stuck, I would stop painting and give it a shove for them. Most customers ordered their meals to go, but a couple of well-dressed women ate their chicken on stools right beside my easel. We chatted and laughed. The place smelled great. I could hear Stephanie welcoming people over the noise of everyone enjoying themselves. There were tables out front, and some passers-by watched me work through the window.
It was Tuesday, Catfish Day at Charles. Experience has taught me that the catfish in a soul-food restaurant is sublime, but I knew my wife was making fish for dinner, so I got the chicken for lunch. With black-eyed peas and cornbread. Yum. There’s no secret to why everyone has smiles on their faces in that place. Welcome to Charles Pan-Fried Chicken.
* * *
See more of Robert Beck’s work and his UWS studio by visiting www.robertbeck.net And let Robert know if you have a connection to an archetypal UWS place or event that would make a good West Side Canvas subject. Thank you!
You can subscribe to WSR’s free email newsletter here.