The first time I ate at the Charcoal, getting on to 15 years ago, we arrived very late to find a large table of ballerinas there.
Rows of skinny girls, hair pulled back into impossibly tight buns, were attacking their steaks with a ferocity I had not witnessed before nor since. Not a single one was dillydallying with the fish or the stroganoff, all had large steaks and the requisite jacket potato. Their side serves of vegetables were attracting scant attention.
A moment's thought and it all made sense, they had come straight from performing at the Canberra Theatre, and were famished. It seemed the booking was a standing arrangement, with the restaurant keeping the grill alight late to nourish perhaps the capital's most deserving customers.
It is a scene I will never forget, and every time I enter the city's old-time steakhouse, I hope to see them again, eating with the relish of the recently exercised and constantly dieting.
They left me in no doubt that a meal at the Charcoal is a serious matter, for which you must prime your appetite.
Many Canberrans will have eaten at the Charcoal, opened in 1962, and been welcomed at the door by David Ramage, who took over 20 years ago.
Immune to the vicissitudes of fashion, with a straw-clad ceiling, maroon, padded chairs, scenic place mats, and woven cane lightshades, it's an enjoyable trip back in time. The menu tells a similar tale. From avocado vinaigrette, to prawn cocktail, carpet-bag steak, and mousse or crepes to finish, this is no fashionably ironic nod to the past, it is the real thing.
We start with deep-fried camembert ($18.70), housemade pate ($18.70) and seafood crepe ($20.90). The pate comes in classic style, in a little pot, with triangles of crustless hot toast, and curls of butter in case it wasn't rich enough by itself. Smooth and pink and really rather good, it suffers from a slight lack of salt, which we rectify with a shake of the stuff.
The camembert is finely crumbed, and served hot and whole, with crackers and redcurrant jelly. Slice through the middle and a river of cheese rushes out, leaving you scrambling to scoop before it is too late. This dish is pleasant, but nothing to write home about. Both dishes offer more than enough for two. The crepe is crammed full of moderate quality seafood, in white sauce with a hint of mustard, a decent dish. There is nothing refined about these dishes, they are hearty, cooked in 1960s and '70s style.
Red wine is clearly the best choice, and is the predictable preference. The almost entirely Australian list has a good selection, with some light reds, but mostly the more solid variety, at not-bad mark-ups.
Our waitress is calm, efficient and kind, and the customers tonight, from couples, to single men and a family are dealt with seamlessly.
Steak is found all over restaurant menus these days but seldom is it cooked with the skill you find here - although you won't get extensive information about the provenance of your meat. My pepper steak ($37.40) is a lovely cut of eye fillet, cooked exactly medium rare as ordered. A creamy, well-flavoured pepper sauce sets the steak off rather than obliterating it. The sauce and juices from the meat are more than enough to bring the dish together, with a simple jacket potato and mixed vegetables. The assumption is that the meat, and a single sauce, will do the job, and it is clearly the star of the show. Remember these dishes come from an era in which the accompaniments really were a side show - in some cases to be eaten because you had to, rather that wanted to. That said, Charcoal does not fall into the trap of piling too many ingredients on the plate, with too many sauces and flavours.
While many might think that ordering fish here is heresy, a whole lemon sole ($27.50) is another matter - almost. Crisped nicely on both sides, and served in all its oval-shaped splendour, it is tender and well-flavoured, and accompanied by a jacket potato and an old-style salad with French dressing.
As you approach dessert, starters seem a mistake, but there's no going back. Chocolate mousse ($13.20) is served in a martini glass, and is clearly made with good quality, intensely flavoured chocolate, with an optional splash of creme de menthe. Creme caramel ($12.90) is silky textured and bathed in the regulation caramel, but slightly light on flavour, pleasant nonetheless.
Dinner at the Charcoal is no budget experience, but the quality of the steaks justify the price tag and are cheaper than many. Coffee (plunger only) comes with chocolates, there is no audible background music and acoustics are good, giving an intimate feel.
Dinner here is, as the ballerinas taught me, a serious matter. It is also a pleasant step back in time, to the days when sauce was sauce, not jus or reduction, and food was settled on the plate, not teetering in stacks.
Address: 61 London Circuit, city
Phone: 6248 8015
Website: No website, booking by phone only
Owner: David Ramage
Chef: Tim Burden
Hours: Lunch Monday to Friday, noon-2.30pm, dinner Monday to Saturday, 6pm-10pm
Licensed: Fully licensed, no BYO
Vegetarian: Can do a pasta or salad on request
To pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, JCB and Eftpos
Wheelchair access: To the restaurant up a small step, but no access to the toilets
Food: 2/4 stars
Wine list: 2/4 stars
Style: 2/4 stars
Value for money: 2/4 stars
Service: 2/4 stars
Summary: Go to the Charcoal for a '70s-style steak, beautifully cooked, and bottle of solid red, and you'll not be disappointed.
11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.
Catriona Jackson is director of communications and external liaison at the ANU and a food writer.