Charlie’s Bar & Restaurant has certainly seen its share of growth since its founding 75 years ago — including the entire business relocating across the street in 1956 — but what has changed very little over the decades is its status as a revered Somers Point institution.
Charlie’s tends to make people feel as comfortable walking through its doors after a hard day’s work as they would into their own living room. Much of its staff includes, or has included, hospitality-industry employees who worked nowhere else their entire professional lives.
“It’s a family atmosphere,” says Jim Thomas, whose great grandparents, Charles and Helen Thomas, established the business in 1944. “If somebody has a problem we all try to help out to fix it, whether it’s a health issue, a family crisis, whatever. We’re here for each other. We don’t turn a blind eye to anything, really.”
The Somers Point mainstay has been likened to a popular 1980s sitcom set in a Boston bar, whose theme song and catchphrase was “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”
“When the door pops open it’s almost just like ‘Cheers’, except that we’ve been here a long time before ‘Cheers’,” Jim Thomas says. “As soon as the door opens, everybody tends to turn their head to see who’s coming in. And more often than not, you’ll know their name.
“It’s a laid-back place here,” he adds. “There’s no drama.”
Jim, 40, and brother Jeff, 42, would be hard pressed to recall any part of their lives thus far when they were not involved in the family business, starting as kids bussing tables, washing dishes or doing whatever they were asked to help. The brothers represent the fourth generation of family ownership, and are carrying on a legacy left behind by their father, Jack, of respect and admiration in the local community.
Jack Thomas, who died suddenly in August 2017 at age 65, had a reputation for assisting anyone in need. He hosted dozens of fundraisers for various worthy causes at Charlie’s over the years, such as the one coming up May 2 to benefit the Atlantic Center for Independent Living, and an annual golf tournament that benefits the Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation each fall.
Jack Thomas always tried to keep that humanitarian side of himself low-key, says Jim, which was not always easy, and flat-out impossible in some cases. In 1995, when the high school for which Somers Point is a sending district, Mainland Regional, came up shy in its own fundraising efforts to light its football stadium, Jack Thomas stepped in and footed the entire bill himself.
“I remember hearing my school teachers talking about some of the things he’d do, or classmates would find out before I did somehow and let me know,” Jim Thomas says. “He’d never tell us about those things. I’d hear someone say ‘Wow, did you hear what your dad did?’ and I’d be like ‘Huh?’
“He kept it to himself, and would have preferred it stayed that way. He just did it because he liked helping people.”
As Charlie’s clientele goes, Pete Thompson may be a latecomer compared to those that Thomas refers to as “lifers,” but he certainly has become one of its most staunch supporters since transplanting himself to South Jersey from Southeastern Pennsylvania. Thompson worked for the NBC-TV affiliate in Linwood as its sports director from 2004 until the station went dark in 2014, but found himself laid off for a stretch starting in 2009, which caused him great consternation.
“I’m 38 years old at the time, laid off from TV-40, and wondering ‘Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?,’” Thompson recalls. “My friend Mike Gill let me sit in on some radio shows just to keep my name out there, and Jack would later sponsor an Eagles pre-game show I did from 10 in the morning to noon at Charlie’s (on 97.3 ESPN radio).
“Now, do you think he spent the money to sponsor that show because he needed to advertise?” Thompson says. “No. He did it because he wanted to help me out. And that’s just one example of the kind gestures Jack would extend to people. Who knows how many others there were that we never even heard of.”
Fellowship and camaraderie are not the only traits that allowed Charlie’s to perpetuate its “At the Shore since ‘44” motto. Good food at reasonable prices, a beverage selection featuring 18 draft and 24 bottled beers, and an array of wines and cocktail specials certainly help too. And whatever secrets are harbored for spicing up those otherworldly wings and boneless chicken tenders makes Charlie’s renowned, along with its signature she-crab soup and jumbo lump crab cakes, well beyond the confines of South Jersey.
The Wes’ Favorite sandwich — sliced filet mignon with melted provolone, lettuce and tomato on a garlic Kaiser roll — not only heads up a long list of menu favorites, it serves as a tribute to 40-year bartender Wes Moore, who predeceased Jack Thomas by six months in 2017 and was equally beloved. Moore, as well as Lisa Mell, Ray Smith and Stan Lukasiewicz, are among the employees at Charlie’s who worked under Jack Thomas for 20 years or more.
Thompson took the local legendary-bar tour before settling on Charlie’s as his personal favorite.
“When I started at TV-40 in 2004, I remember very distinctly that the first bar I ever went to … was not Charlie’s,” Thompson says. “It was was Maloney’s (of Margate, which closed in 2005 after nearly 50 years), and then Maynard’s (still run by the Troiano family in Margate since 1966). The third was Charlie’s, and I instantly fell in love with what I call the holy trinity — Charlie’s, Gregory’s and the Anchorage. The other two will always hold a place near and dear to my heart, but Charlie’s just felt like ‘Cheers’ to me, and always will.”
One for all, all for one
The holy trinity Thompson refers to — which for years has also been jokingly called Somers Point’s “Beermuda Triangle” — tends to treat their relationship as less of a competition and more of a cooperative.
“When the Anchorage had their fire (in 2006), both Charlie’s and Gregory’s rallied together and said, ‘Whatever you guys need to stay open, come over and take it’,” Thompson says. “All three of those places understand the concept of ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’
“That doesn’t happen without Jack Thomas and his sons. It doesn’t happen without Walt and Greg Gregory (brothers and owners of Gregory’s), and it doesn’t happen without Donny and Jim Mahoney (brothers and owners of the Anchorage). There’s a core in the fact that all those Somers Point bars are like family in how they’re glued together.”
Sports fans feel right at home
Charlie’s was a sports bar long before that term entered the mainstream vernacular. It still attracts a crowd that loves athletic competition from both a fan and participant perspective. Chickie’s & Pete’s may be the most popular sports-bar chain east of the Mississippi, if not the entire country, but Charlie’s pre-dates the founding of that venerable Philly-based institution by 33 years.
In 1988 Charlie’s started a fishing club and annual tournament in memory of the founder, an avid fisherman. For years Jim Thomas has coordinated what he calls the “Bar Olympics” every Thursday night from January through the end of April. Several four-person teams compete at Charlie’s bar in pool, darts and shuffleboard. The round-robin format is capped by a season-ending banquet.
“I had a few buddies from college who used to come in for Sunday night football, and we started playing pool and shuffleboard,” Jim Thomas says. “One of them suggested putting up a dart board, and we incorporated that into what became the Bar Olympics. Each year we usually get between 12 to 16 teams of four people, and we see a lot of different people from year to year.”
Friends gather from near and far
Originally from South Philly, Amy Loughead discovered Charlie’s shortly after her family purchased a home in Ocean City.
“Ocean City, being a dry town, we went over the bridge to Somers Point and were just driving around looking for a place to have a beer or something, and stumbled upon Charlie’s,” she says. “We saw people at the bar drinking these tall, pint-sized fruity looking drinks, which we found out were whiskey sours. I watched the bartender squeeze fresh orange juice into the drink, and that sold me. Fresh-squeezed juice? OK, I’ll have that, and believe me, they’ll blow the top of your head off, they’re so tasty and amazing.
“I usually get the wings, which I love, and my mom loves this cold seafood medley that they serve over ice. The place just has a really good vibe. We’ll try other places once in a while, but if consensus opinion rules, we almost always end up at Charlie’s.”
Al Loughead, Amy’s father, got his first taste of Charlie’s through a fellow member of the Philadelphia Fire Department, where he served from 1974 through 2006.
“Years ago, when I was still on the fire department, a guy I worked with said that whenever he’s at the shore he stops at a place called Charlie’s,” Al Loughead says. “Occasionally he’d bring this bucket of wings back from there for the rest of us to enjoy at the firehouse, and Charlie’s remained on my mind ever since.
“Then, when we got our place in Ocean City, it became one of my destinations. I’ve always liked the place. It’s informal, it’s friendly, and it just makes you feel at home.”
The third brother
“The best story I have about the Thomas brothers goes back to 2008, when the Phillies were in the World Series,” Thompson says. “They’re all longtime Phillies fans through their dad, and they were at one of the games at Citizens Bank Park. I was in the press box and went down (before first pitch) to find where they’re sitting. I figure I’ll take a nice father-son picture of Jack, Jeff and Jimmy at the World Series, and when I do I show it to them and tell them I think it looks great. Then Jeff says ‘Yeah, except you cut out my brother.’
“J.R. Thomas is the only brother who somehow managed to enter the real world and not work at Charlie’s, and he’s sitting right there with the others,” Thompson adds. “God bless him, they still laugh about that story. He was literally sitting right there, but at the time I didn’t know he was a brother. I was like ‘I don’t know who that dude is.’
“I sort of speak wistfully of Charlie’s now, because there was a period in my life, from 2004 to 2014, when I was there two or three times a week,” says Thompson. “The food, the fun times, the friendly atmosphere — that’s all great — but it’s really the family, which extends to the staff in many cases, that makes Charlie’s special. I bawled my eyes out when Jack died. I cried when Wes Moore died. And that happened in the same year.
“I just loved everything about Charlie’s from the first time I went there. I still do.”