On a recent sunny, midday afternoon, I walked into my favorite restaurant in Long Beach – Chuck’s Coffee Shop, located at 4120 East Ocean Blvd. The diner, which has been around since 1964, has undergone some slight cosmetic changes as of late. I notice the fresh coat of paint and the beach trinkets hanging on the wall as I sit down at one of the booths that has been recovered in an ocean blue material. The beach theme makes sense, since the eatery overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
There are a few customers, probably regulars, sitting at the counter, enjoying a midday’s cup of coffee, reading the newspaper, one of them is eating a burger. I order a burger too – Chuck’s Coffee Shop makes the best burgers in town, in my opinion – juicy, attractive on the plate and complimented by really tasty fries. It’s an all-around throwback to the classic American diner.
After ordering, I hand the menu to the waitress. The menu has been re-done and newly laminated. But it contains all the same deliscious dishes that have been there for years, including the breakfast made famous by Chuck himself: “The Weasel.” The Weasel is one of Chuck’s “power up breakfasts,” a concoction of two scrambled eggs, with Chuck’s delicious homemade chili on top, cheese, onions, potatoes and toast.
The busboy, Rickie, who I’ve known for years, greets me with that sunny countenance of his, and lays out my table-setting. It’s almost closing time – Chuck’s closes at 2:30 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Rickie proceeds to the kitchen, which I can see from my booth. He starts grilling my hamburger and preparing my fries in the deep fryer. Then he brings out my burger with a smile.
There’s an acronym that is filled to aplomb by all the workers at Chuck’s Coffee Shop – SAW: Smile And Wave. In order to understand how truly one-of-a-kind this diner is in both cuisine and friendly atmosphere, you would have to know Chuck’s Coffee Shop’s longtime owner, Chuck Tinkler. After all, Chuck is a man after this town’s own heart.
Chuck’s Coffee Shop’s longtime owner, Chuck Tinkler.
Chuck passed away earlier this year, but thanks to his children, son Wayne Tinkler and daughter Laurie Surface, who have taken over the business, the diner is still open and still “locally world-famous” to its customers.
“He’s the one who made the restaurant what it is,” says Laurie about her father. “He really was a people person and I think that’s why people keep coming back; he could connect to anybody.”
Laurie still has pictures of her dad, connecting with his customers and being a people person, from the very beginning of the restaurant’s inception.
“I have pictures of him behind the grill – he’s wearing his glasses from the 1960s, which are now back in style, those big plastic frames. He also wouldn’t mind busing tables. He was truly happiest at his restaurant,” she says.
As I eat my hamburger, I think back to the many times my family and I would talk to Chuck. He had the best, jovial laugh a restaurant owner could have. He would always wear his straw hat, flip flops and a t-shirt branded “Chuck’s Coffee Shop.”
Chuck always asked how my family and I were doing, always with that same sunny countenance shared by his servers; and he loved telling stories. Since his passing, Laurie tells me that she has been getting many emails from longtime customers about her father, recounting some of those same stories, which encapsulate Chuck’s “larger than life” spirit.
“My dad was at the Belmont Shore Christmas Parade one year,” Laurie says. “And the mayor was going to ride in an old Corvette that belonged to my dad’s friend. But when it came time for the Corvette to start rolling down the parade, the mayor wasn’t there to sit in it; so my dad jumped in.”
Chuck became the “unofficial mayor of Long Beach” in the Christmas parade that year, smiling and waving at everyone. All his friends in the parade crowd, Laurie tells, were hooting and hollering, laughing as they yelled back at him in jest, “Hey, Chuck, you’re not the mayor!” But on he went anyway, smiling and waving (SAW).
Chuck was deeply rooted in Long Beach. He graduated from Wilson High School in 1958. Even back then as a high schooler, you could catch Chuck skipping to a tune as he wore his perfectly broken-in blue jeans (back before Wilson had uniforms). Chuck had come to Long Beach from his native Montreal, Canada, as a preteen, with his father, a machinist looking for work out west.
“He fit right in,” Laurie says of her father, who settled in Naples with his family. “My grandmother always had the motto to ‘work for yourself,’ and my dad was very much like my grandmother in that way.”
After graduating from Wilson, Chuck got his industrial electricity certificate from Long Beach City College. Chuck was multifaceted, but one of his favorite exploits was fishing and boating. When he wasn’t working at the restaurant, he was in Catalina – that was his place to go.
“We spent all our summers going back and forth to Catalina,” Laurie recalls. “His staff at the restaurant was so good that he was able to go to Catalina and leave the restaurant there running, and this was even before cell phones and computers, so we’d stay a week or so there.”
Chuck also loved walking down to the Farmer’s Market at the Marina on Sunday.
“There’s a French merchant down there who sells granola and because my dad spoke French too, he would go down there and he would talk to him in French and buy some granola,” remembers Laurie. “My dad was a diabetic – granola isn’t the best thing for diabetics – but he always bought a big bucket of granola anyway. That was his routine. He’d also get some tamales and go out on his boat and just hang there. That was a huge part of his life. Even if he didn’t go out on the boat, he would hang out at the dock, he would have a beer on the boat, a tamale on the boat and everybody on the gangway new him; people from six gangways over new him, because he was just as social there as he was at the restaurant.”
I think about that when I finish my hamburger – just how much Chuck liked people – it was a treasure getting to say hello to him and getting to know a little bit about him each time I would come to the diner throughout the years.
I finish every last bit of my meal, as usual, and Rickie, the busboy, returns to clear my plate. He pats me on my back as if to say, “Well done in finishing that big burger!”
“My dad never believed he had employees, he always just believed they were extensions of his family,” Laurie says. “People have come to work with us who were having a hard time, between jobs, and whether he needed the help or not, my dad found a place for them, gave them a kickstart, and treated them really well.”
As I pay and leave, I smile and wave back to Rickie, and Daniel, another busboy I’ve made friends with since frequenting Chuck’s Diner all these years. Though some of the features inside have changed, many of the things that make Chuck’s Coffee Shop so great remain the same – the great burgers, the iconic counter where Chuck loved to perch and talk to his customers, the curved booth at the back where I’ve sat with my family many times to enjoy a nice breakfast, and most of all, the friendliness and warmth of the place.