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Charley's Steak House

CharleysThings go wrong at restaurants. Mistakes are made. What matters is how the mistakes are handled. A tactful, immediate and professional response can almost always turn a negative situation around. I’m always impressed when that happens. At Charley’s Steak House on International Drive recently, I was impressed with how the mistake that was made handling the mistake was handled.

As surprising as it may seem, I had never been to this Charley’s. The one on Orange Blossom Trail, yes, numerous times, but not the one on I-Drive. (The one on Highway 192 in Kissimmee, which the company lists as being in Celebration, will likely go unattended for a while longer.) So I took the opportunity of the restaurant’s participation in Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month program to give it a try.

Things did not go well.

We were a party of three, about 20 minutes late for our reservation so made to wait in the lobby for a time. That’s not unreasonable; as I said, we were late. But we didn’t stray from that area, and there was maybe one other party waiting, so it really wasn’t necessary for the young woman at the host stand to repeatedly yell out the name on our reservation -- I was standing right in front of her.

We were seated and handed the comically oversized menus. It’s difficult for two people sitting on the same side of the booth to have their menus open simultaneously. We were not offered the Magical Dining Month menu but requested one. It were just as comically small, almost as if to suggest that ordering from it would be an emasculating move. Two of us decided to order from that menu.

But it would take a while to get to the point of ordering. Requested glasses of water were delayed. Then we had to ask for a wine list. Then wait for the server to come back to take the drink order. Then another long wait for the glasses of wine to arrive.

Somewhere in there, the waiter caught on that two of us were ordering from the Magical Dining menu, and even when we said the third member of our party would order off the regular menu, he did not bother to go through the presentation of the cuts of meat. (That’s something I didn’t miss, but I know my guest would have appreciated it.)

Unlike most, if not all, the other Magical Dining restaurants, Charley’s does not offer choices for its three-courses for $30 deal. The starter is the house salad, the entree is a filet with half a Florida lobster and dessert consists of a trio of creme brulee, Key lime pie and berries. It’s actually a pretty good value. The salad was fairly meager, but it was the same as the house salad served to our nonparticipating member.

I ordered my steak medium-rare; my friend requested medium. They both arrived identical -- rare. To be honest, I was perfectly happy with mine, but my friend couldn’t handle the underdoneness of the steak. When I called the waiter over to tell him the steak was not cooked properly, he leapt into action.

That’s when things really went wrong.

The waiter asked my friend if he would like to enjoy the lobster while the steak was being recooked, which I thought was a nice gesture. My friend wouldn’t have had to sit there with nothing to eat and the remaining two of us, not wishing to be rude, wouldn’t have had to sit with our food in front of us waiting for the steak to return.

The waiter stepped away from the table and returned with a small bread plate. He reached over and said, “Would you mind putting it on this plate?”

“Really? Seriously?” I blurted out. Apparently that startled the waiter because he just reached down and lifted the dinner plate and left the scene.

So there my friend sat with no food in front of him while the remaining two of us, not wishing to be rude, sat and waited.

When all dishes were finally assembled, the consensus was that the steaks were good. Mine had an irritating line of sinew that confounded even the large serrated knife, but everything around it was sufficiently tender and tasty, an especially pleasant flavor and aroma provided by the oak grilling. The lobster was spongy and not very enjoyable. Dessert was hit and miss -- the creme brulee, despite a soggy topping, and the berries were a hit; the cloying and granular Key lime pie a miss.

What turned things around was the follow-up. First, someone I will identify as an assistant manager (although she did not identify herself as such) came by the table after the steak was recooked and offered her apology. She asked how everything else was and I recounted the long waits and delays and, especially, that the waiter expected the guest to lift the lobster from the dinner plate onto a too-small side plate. She apologized again and said she would talk to the server.

Then, at the end of the meal, someone I will call the general manager (although she did not identify herself as such) came by to offer her apologies as well.

And in between, the server himself stopped by and said he was sorry if he offended my friend, a charming gesture. He also said that he wasn’t asking the guest to lift the lobster tail onto the bread dish but rather the steak. I, too, apologized for my reaction and explained that either one was inappropriate. The correct thing to do was remove the dinner plate from the table, take it to the kitchen and have the lobster replated to take back to the table during the recook.

So misunderstandings, miscues and mistakes on both parts. But, as I said in the beginning, the initial mishandling was followed up nicely.

Even better, I don’t think anyone there had identified me, something I admit is becoming rarer than my steak. To see an unfortunate situation handled properly at any restaurant is satisfying. To see it at a restaurant in the center of Tourist World is even more so. And especially at a restaurant that repeatedly shows up on those “10 Best” lists found in the onboard magazines of various airlines.

You can question the validity of those lists, but when customer service is so apparently a key element, I have to think maybe Charley’s deserves some of that reputation.

Charley’s Steak House is at 8255 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily.  This link will take you to the Talk of the Town website for other location information. The phone number is 407-363-0228.

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