Charley's Wildfire Grille

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Charleys interiorCharley’s Wildfire Grille, a rebranding of the original Charley’s Steak House on Orange Blossom Trail, opened to the public last night. It is Talk of the Town Restaurant Group’s attempt to revitalize what was once its flagship location. Charley’s Wildfire Grille offers similar fare -- steaks, chops and seafood, cooked over the company’s signature wood-fired grill -- but at a lower price point than the more upscale original Charley’s.

This is the only Charley’s Steak House that is being rebranded. The others -- on International Drive in Orlando and on U.S. Highway 192 in Kissimmee (the website refers to that location as Celebration) as well as the Charley’s in Tampa -- will continue with the same name and menu.

So why change the one on South OBT? Senior operating partner Seth Miller was surprisingly frank when I asked him that: “We weren’t making any money here.”

No need to get into a discussion about the stretch of Orange Blossom Trail that Charley’s Steak House called home for 35 years -- the road’s reputation precedes it, whether that reputation is deserved or not. Regardless, TOTT Restaurant Group decided it was no longer a place to support a steakhouse with an average check of $55 to $60 per person.

Charley’s Wildfire Grille’s price point is lower; in fact, about half as much. Average check is expected to be $25 to $30 per person. The difference, Miller says, will be reflected in portion size rather than in reduced quality.

I attended one of the restaurant’s “dress rehearsal” dinners earlier in the week. Invited guests were offered limited choices from the menu. But because I was seated with several others, I was able to taste a variety.

Whether it’s meant to be blatant or subtle -- or entirely unintentional -- there seems to be a nostalgic theme to some aspects of the food. Dinners come with a salad that is tossed tableside and portioned onto chilled metal plates. A garnish for a chicken entree featured a pineapple ring with a maraschino cherry; very retro. Even the offer of a chilled shrimp cocktail appetizer seems a throwback to a few decades ago (perhaps 35 years ago when Charley’s first opened?).

The shrimp cocktail was my sole option for an appetizer, and when I protested mildly to the waiter that it wouldn’t demonstrate Charleys Shrimpmuch about the kitchen’s creativity, he said that they were really good shrimp and that the cocktail sauce was “amazing.” Well, how could I pass that up? I’d never had a cocktail sauce that was amazing. Still haven’t, as it turns out. There wasn’t a thing that was distinctive about the sauce. The shrimp, however, were nicely done and were impressively large. I mean, I didn’t have to use two hands, but they were pretty big.

I also tasted the deep-fried mushrooms (circa ‘70s?), which are called Cajun-fried on the menu, but I didn’t detect anything Cajunlike about them. And escargot Bourgone, snails served out of the shell in garlic butter, multiple slugs snuggled together in the separate compartments of the escargot dish. Tender-firm and not too garlicky.

There were also potato skins, which bring us to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s; deep-fried skins topped with cheese and bacon, chopped green onions and sour cream. Deep-fried gator, too, which was much too tough, even for gator.

The tableside salad was fresh and featured crisp romaine lettuce and grated parmesan with a simple vinaigrette dressing.

Charleys steakMy entree was the 38-ounce bone-in Kansas City strip, which is meant to be shared. But because my dining companion wanted the flame-broiled chicken instead, I had it all to myself. As with the old Charley’s, Wildfire Grille cooks its steaks over a 1,100 degree fire fueled with citrus and oak wood. The meat takes on a smoky element, both in the taste and the aroma. The steak, which was cooked to a beautiful medium-rare red, was sliced and fanned out on the plate. The meat was deliciously tender, save for an unfortunate tooth-stopping vein. The presentation was quite odd. The bone was positioned upright on the plate and had a distinctly phallic appearance that aroused titters from my table mates. 

My friend’s chicken was also good, marinated in butter (beware, dieters) and buttery tender. I thought a lobster tail that accompanied one of my companion’s filet mignon was a bit mushy, and another person who had the filet complained that it was mushy, something that should not have happened with meat that is dry-aged 32 to 48 days.

Desserts move back to modern times with smaller portions. Although not served in shot glasses, a la Seasons 52, thank God, the desserts here are in smaller, flared dishes. Most that I sampled were decidedly sweet, including, unfortunately, the Key lime pie. The blueberry was a table favorite.

Charleys picturesThe restaurant has been renovated (somewhat: a large tear in the fabric of a nearby booth did not look recent). Tables are covered with white butcher paper onto which a server stamps “you’ve made a good U.S.D.A. choice.” The space has been opened up a bit and is overall not as dark as the clubby steakhouse atmosphere of old. There are splashes of color from large paintings on one wall, and planters that line a ledge have glowing “rocks” in them.

The planters are in a space where large wine racks used to be. They were removed not only to open the space up but also because they just aren’t needed anymore. The 200-bottle wine list has been whittled down to a favorite 20. Cocktails are given careful attention with fresh-squeezed juices one of the better touches. I had the Grapefruit Stimulation (foreshadowing for the steak presentation?) with grapefruit juice, agave nectar and Maker’s Mark bourbon. I’m not a fan of bourbon, generally, but I liked this cocktail very much.

As I mentioned, this was a pre-opening night to help work out kinks, so any of my quibbles will likely be fixed (maybe even the torn fabric). 

Given the circumstances of a still-shaky economy and a neighborhood that doesn’t seem to have an interest for a high-end restaurant, Talk of the Town’s decision to rebrand is a smart one. It’s best to move on; you can’t live in the past. But you can garnish your plate that way.

Charley’s Wildfire Grille is at 6107 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. Entrees range from $15.95 to $29.95, with a good selection under $20. (The 38-ounce strip for two is $49.95.) Here is a link to the Talk of the Town website, where the Wildfire Grill pages are still under development. The phone number is 407-851-7130.

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