Take a right where the Jennings Freeway deadends and it won't be long until you spot Charlie's Dog House Diner (2102 Brookpark Rd., 216-661-4873), which marks the border between Cleveland and Parma. The kitschy roadside attraction has been in the exact same spot since 1952, when it began life as the Dog House, part of a national chain of shops that offered walk-up service to customers who ordered hot dogs and hamburgers through a window.
Bobbi Malek has owned the establishment for the past 10 years, expanding the menu to include breakfast and lunch. These days you can walk right in and grab a seat atop a red-topped stool at the L-shaped counter. Built by Valentine Manufacturing in Kansas, these pre-fabricated diners were no more than a few hundred square feet, yet still large enough for folks to start their own business venture during the Great Depression. After an early fire, the building was remodeled and a second trailer-size space was added to accommodate dine-in customers.
Diner aficionados travel from near and far to take photos of the building, which features a doghouse-like façade that has been impeccably maintained since the early days. Two painted hound dogs look out in either direction from the front door, just beneath a classic Coca-Cola sign and marquee that reads "Charlie's Restaurant."
"Whoever Charlie was — second or third owner — bought it and changed it," Malek says. "I think I'm the fourth."
The diner is a family affair, with Malek's daughter helping out as needed. Prior to owning Charlie's, she worked for 15 years in the Chevy plant's cafeteria.
"I bought it sight unseen," she adds. "I've lived in Parma and Cleveland on and off my whole life. My son found it and he called and asked me if I would be interested. I told him, 'Do what you have to do.'"
These days, the clientele still is solidly working class, the burgers still sizzle on the flat top and, though heavily remodeled throughout the decades, the space still is bedecked with numerous retro adornments. Children's artwork is taped to the white brick walls, illustrating just how many generations truly adore Charlie's Dog House Diner. The operation still runs much like it would have back in the 1950s, with Malek on the grill and one of her employees tending the counter. You can still get full for less than $10.
Neon lights promising Chicago-style Vienna hot dogs and Charlie's original waffles attract the early morning crowd before work. Every day of the week, Malek is there cooking from 6:30 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. The eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos are well loved. A list of skillets and omelets, pancakes, burgers, sandwiches and, of course, those famous hot dogs are also on the menu; however most people here are regulars and just ask for "the usual."
Big Jim comes to Charlie's so often that they've dedicated a seat to him, as denoted by a silver plaque affixed to the counter where he resides daily between 6 and 7:30 a.m. He lives nearby, a common distinction among the crowd, pretty much all of whom the owner knows by name.