Photo by Jack GouldThe other Saturday, a buddy and I got out of a movie near midnight. Wandering down the ghost town that was the Balboa Peninsula in search of food, we stopped at Shorehouse Café, renowned for late night dining. But we did no dining at Shorehouse, as the staff had shut down the kitchen an hour earlier.

Hungrier, we drove back up the Peninsula. "If we don't find something quick, we might just have to settle for the drive-through window at Jack in the Box," I said, resigned to satisfying my hunger with a sandwich that quite possibly included the word "spicy" in its name.

"Why don't we just head to Charlie's Chili?" my buddy inquired. "It's gotta still be open."

He was right—Charlie's would be serving food till 1 a.m. at least. But I hesitated.

It had been months since I'd last sat in one of its booths beneath walls covered in ancient nautical signs and models. It was a cold, drizzly, wintry night. Another friend and I had been there, partaking of the Wednesday night all-you-can-eat chili special. While downing successive bowls of steaming chili drowned in diced onions and cheese, a waitress we knew was telling us about the T.S. Eliot book she was reading. Other than that, the place was empty.

Then the woman came in. Alone, middle-aged and frumpy, she walked quickly over to the booth next to ours and sat down.

"This is filthy," she announced, standing over the booth. "Can I get a rag over here to clean up this mess?"

My friend and I looked at each other, saying nothing. Our food was fine—the salad was crisp, the garlic toast was tangy, the chili was thick and sumptuous—but we were both losing our appetites. We'd both heard stories of late-night crowds and angry loners wandering among the bars and restaurants of the Newport Pier looking for trouble.

The waitress, momentarily stunned at the instant abuse, assured the woman she would bus the table immediately. "Just give me a rag," the woman replied, then dropped the issue as the waitress cleaned the already-clean table.

"Is the service always this bad?" she asked loudly. "Where's your supervisor? You know, I think I'm just going to go."

"You know, I think that's a good idea," said the obviously relieved waitress, who then handed the woman her check, which by that time must have totaled maybe two bucks.

Grabbing the check, the woman turned and walked out into the drizzly night, wandering off across the parking lot. The three of us watched her go.

"Damn it," said the waitress. "She took the check. Now I've got to call the manager and explain to him why one of my checks is missing. They're all numbered, you know."

Her manager thought it was pretty funny. So did I, but I never did finish that second bowl of chili.

That was a long time ago. The weather was warm now. Summer was here. I swallowed my apprehensions, and my buddy and I went to Charlie's.

The place was the same, but there were people eating. Quietly.

My buddy and I took a couple of menus and sat down. He immediately relaxed and ordered the monster chili-cheese omelet. I kept things cool, ordering that night's special: the California chicken sandwich, loaded with a grilled chicken breast, bacon and avocado.

The service was fine. The food was delicious. The other patrons kept to themselves, choosing either to talk amongst themselves or watch Married With Children on the restaurant's two TVs. No word of Eliot. No late-night wandering lonelies.

Still, I couldn't help thinking that some night in the future, that woman would be back, maybe with two bucks, the check she never paid, and her medication.

Charlie's Chili, located at 102 McFadden Place, Newport Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m.-2 a.m. (949) 675-7991. Beer and wine. Lunch or dinner for two, $16, food only. All major credit cards accepted.


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