A Writer with Austrian Roots Visits Charley in Harrison

The highs and lows of a Viennese bistro that's bringing life to a quiet block.

Exterior of Charley in Harrison
Charley is owned by Kurt Gutenbrunner. Photo by Eric Levin

Charley is the kind of café any neighborhood would welcome.

The atmosphere at this Harrison bistro is elegant, without pretense. The staff is thoughtful and gracious. The vibe is hip, modeled after a Viennese kaffeehaus. It’s a fine place to raise a stein of beer to Oktoberfest, celebrated in Munich, Germany, from September 17 to October 3. 

At Charley, you’ll settle into cozy banquettes with just the right amount of space between tables: Far enough away from others that you could have an intimate conversation, but not too far away to people-watch, the primary sport of any worthwhile café. 

There’s a small bar where it seems likely everyone would know your name after a few visits, as well as a large outdoor deck for nice weather. On the latter, you can watch the world go by as you consider which of the creative cocktails to try. Or perhaps a chilled Austrian Gewürztraminer wine, a nice balance of fruit and spice. (If you are not familiar with the wines of Austria, you are in for a treat.)

Charley’s smoked salmon bites on house-made potato chips with sour cream and chives. Photo courtesy of Marissa Rothkopf Bates

Part of the Harrison Urby residential/commercial development—which has partially transformed an area of active warehouses near the PATH train into sleek-looking dwellings—Charley is the oasis in a neighborhood with, as of yet, little else to offer. People who live in the adjacent building have direct access to the café from their apartment lobby.

Charley has been on my radar since it was announced that the owner was Kurt Gutenbrunner, founder-chef of some of my sentimental favorite restaurants in New York, including Wallsé in the West Village. Gutenbrunner’s New York menus showcase Austrian food at its finest, with dishes such as delicate pancakes filled with smoked trout, green apple and horseradish cream; and the harmonious Salzburger nockerl—mounds of cloud-like meringue baked with fruit and served with custard. 

Austrian cuisine is frequently overlooked or lumped together with German food like a giant plate of boiled potatoes. Both cultures share a penchant for sausages—natürlich!—but Austria picked up many flavors and techniques thanks to the reach of the vast Hapsburg empire that spanned many centuries.

I am biased, however. My father and his parents emigrated from Vienna in 1939, lucky enough to escape the Nazis. When I grew up, Wienerschnitzel and cucumber salad were our celebration foods. When I was 8, my cousin, Walter, showed up at our house in Summit late one night. He was on his way back to Cleveland after a visit to Vienna. I came downstairs to find my cousin pulling a box of pastries from the rumpled pile of clothes in his suitcase. He’d stopped at a favorite konditorei upon leaving Vienna. My beautiful, wonderful, thoughtful parents woke me to eat chocolate-rich Pariser Spitz and Ischler cookies. 

No surprise, family trips to Austria focused around food, museums, eating, hiking the Alps and more eating. Schlag runs in my veins (just ask my cardiologist).   

So I was nothing short of ecstatic when Charley opened. The wiener schnitzel was piping hot in a rippled cloak of crunchy bread crumbs. It delivered on looks, but had little flavor. Lack of flavor was a problem with many of the dishes we sampled. A “spicy gazpacho” was not spicy. Crabcakes were grey, mushy and lukewarm (although the accompanying salad was bright, crisp and delicious). The signature flammkuchen (similar to a thin pizza) was topped with meaty pieces of bacon, caramelized onions and sour cream, but the cracker-like crust rivaled matzoh for flavor.   

And then there was the Sachertorte, the flagship dessert of Vienna: delicate chocolate cake layered with apricot jam and glazed in dark chocolate. It’s eaten with whipped cream—not just because everything in Vienna is eaten with whipped cream, but because the cake needs the cream to moisten it. At Charley, slices of the cake are displayed, like museum pieces, in a case near the bar. It is there, I’m sorry to say, that the torte dries out while waiting for someone to order it. I have never turned away a slice of Sachertorte in my life, but on both occasions—it pains me to say it—I found it inedible. Not even the whipped cream could save it.

But I need to hop down off my Lipizzaner of a high horse to talk about the dishes that delivered. These included a creamy, cheesy spätzle topped with a scattering of chives. Thick, crunchy house-made potato chips, topped with sour cream and smoked salmon, paired beautifully with a glass of frosé. There are also other menu items that go well with the café’s daily happy hour offerings, like sticky wings or a grilled schnitzel sandwich on a pretzel bun with herb aioli.   

The tweaks Charley needs are reasonably simple. More attention to flavor, and don’t slice the Sachertorte until it’s ordered. In the meantime, I’m willing to put my own schlag-filled baggage aside and enjoy the place. Bring me a cocktail, some sticky wings, a salad and spätzle, and I’ll be grateful that a kaffeehaus is not only closer than ever before, but bringing life to a quiet block in Harrison. 

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