So how would you describe Garfield to somebody who has never been to this little ‘burg before?
Sal Benanti: A blue-collar town. A changing town. In the last 20 years the school population has gone from 2,300 to 6,000. So we have a lot of new young families here. More diversified than it was, not what it used to be. There were two nationalities in town: the Italians, and the Polish. The Polish are still coming in. The Italians stopped coming…very few Italians coming back to this town. It’s Polish. Macedonia has a very big influence. In the high school I think there is something like 27 languages spoken.
Give us a quick history of Charlie Blood’s.
SB: My father took it over in 1939. My grandfather loaned him the money to do it. He bought it off a relative who destroyed all of the alcohol that was in the place the night before my father took it over.
SB: Yes. He left bills with the beer companies. But told my father don’t worry about it, they’ll give you time to pay it. The day he took over they demanded the money. He had to borrow more money from my grandfather.
When did you start working here? I’m sure your years with your father here overlapped quite a bit.
SB: I probably started in 1961. I went to college first, in 1959-60. And then I started putting in the hours and making some changes as far as food items. It’s become a meeting place for coaches, athletic directors, officials, and also politicians. The bar keeps the sports people and the dining room for families. And we picked up musicians along the way.
You’re related to some pretty famous musicians yourself who come from right here in Garfield. Why don’t you tell us about that?
SB: Eddie and David Bugatti. David was with Joey Dee And The Starlighters. Joey Dee’s a very dear friend of ours. And Eddie, of course, with The Rascals. From the music field we have those two. Plus Joey Dee and this guy named Dennis Diken, who’s like a relative. And from the sports field we have Perry Williams from the Giants, Curtis McGriff from…
They came from the town, or they come to the bar?
SB: No, just come to the bar. We do a lot of New York Giants from the Super Bowl eras. From Carl Banks through Mark Ingram. We have a nice affiliation with the players. And Perry Williams uses this as his second home. His mail is delivered here, his phone calls come here.
When your father opened the bar he was pretty much a local celebrity, having been the lightweight champion of New Jersey. I would imagine that that could be a double-edged sword, in that people would probably come in to see him, but was there another side to that coin where people would come in and think, “I could take that guy?”
SB: He had a few incidents here. There were times where he’d come over the bar and remove people. He had a thing about him where when he’d come in, in the afternoon, anybody sitting at the bar that he liked, he would punch in the arm. And if he didn’t punch you, that meant he didn’t like you and you weren’t welcome here. People waited to get punched. It was weird. But, any trouble he had, he handled himself. Very, very tough.
Your father’s ownership of the bar was after Prohibition, so I don’t get to ask you any bootlegging or speakeasy questions, but this was a largely Italian-American community, and organized crime did sort of like to keep an eye on alcohol purchases.
SB: I asked my father that. I said, “Dad, you ever get any gangster in here?” He mentioned a few names of big-time gangsters that came in here. I said, “Weren’t you afraid when the came in?” And his answer was, “Absolutely not. You showed respect; you got respect back. In fact, the main man wanted to make what’s now the dining room into a phone bank. And I told him, ‘No.’” I said, “Weren’t you afraid he was going to wipe you out or do you in, or whatever?” And he said, “Absolutely not. He was my friend. He respected me as an individual, and I told him I didn’t want to get involved.”
Explain to us the fascination with John Wayne and cowboys and taxidermy.
SB: The first thing about the John Wayne significance is that he and I look a lot alike.
It’s all in the height!
SB: I’ve been told that numerous times. It’s more of a Montana ranch/bunkhouse kind of atmosphere. Montana is where most of this stuff comes from. I went to college in Montana. Spent four years of my life having the best time in my life and brought some things home with me. My roommate was a rancher and he donated some of the stuff. And the customers have donated some of the stuff. A lot of the things you see up there have been donated by my friends in the music field, and customers would come in and say, “This was in my grandmother’s attic. If you put it up, I’ll give it to you.” And that’s why we have some washboards and things that were hand-me-downs.
You grew up upstairs, and you told me there was a boxing ring in the basement?
SB: Yes. My father had punching bags down there. He had punching bags all through the house. All through his life he used to punch bags and jump rope. He was a tremendous rope jumper. And he could do tricks with the rope. He used to teach the kids how to do it.
How would you describe your clientele? Have people been coming here for years?
SB: Repeat business. We don’t advertise. It’s either word of mouth, or people have been coming for 20-25 years. We’ve seen the second and third generations of families that originally started here. Good people. Everybody’s friendly, thank God, nobody’s got problems.
So basically everyone comes in, knows everybody else by name.
SB: Yes. The bartenders know them, the waitresses know them, they stop in the kitchen and say hello while Vic and I are working.
Because this is for an article for people who drink, do you have a specialty liquor drink that people associate with Charlie Blood’s? Did your father have a certain drink? Do you have a certain drink?
SB: My father drank Lord Calvert. It’s a rye whiskey. Now it’s Canadian Lord Calvert. A few of my friends have gotten into it and they even have special glasses for it.
Dennis Diken: I like it with club soda.
SB: Me, I don’t drink, so I can’t tell you what drink I like. I drink water. But whatever drink you get is going to be made right and taste excellent.
Dennis, what would you like to say about the place?
DD: If you were to ask me why should people come to Charlie Blood’s, Sal gave you a good answer, but I would just like to add it’s so rare to find such a family-run restaurant/bar anymore. This is such a unique dining experience and a unique place to hang. And it’s just heartwarming to come to a place like this…and it’s very New Jersey, too.
In a Montana kind of way.
DD: Yeah. Places like this are so rare nowadays. I’m so grateful that I found this place. A friend from Garfield said, “Of course, you know Charlie Blood’s.” And I was like, “No, Charlie Blood’s, what an intriguing name.” She described the place to me—the cowboy motif, and the country and western trappings that were here, and the steaks were great—so the very next day we were there. And we entered through the front and we were expecting to see the room that we’re now sitting in, and what we saw were a few tables at the bar, and we saw this gent—a rather short, portly guy…
Did he look like John Wayne? Did you immediately say, “Wow, that guy looks just like the Duke?”
DD: He caught us looking around like we didn’t know where to go. And said, “Are you here for dinner?” We said yes and he led us through the bar, through the kitchen, into this dining room, and the immortal words were expressed to us. We walked through the kitchen past Sal, and we said, “This is our first time here.” And his answer to us was, “Well, won’t be your last.” March 3, 2007, was the first time, and it was one of the best meals I ever had. And Sal came back afterwards and sat with us and talked with us. We felt we found a new home away from home that night.
Sal, what would you like to tell people about Charlie Blood’s? Why should people come and get off Route 46, Route 80, Route 17, Route 21, all of these roads that circumnavigate Garfield? Why should they take that Midland Avenue exit and head down the peninsula to Charlie Blood’s?
SB: It’s a comfortable, friendly place with good value food, great steaks, fresh Angus burgers, portions large enough for you to have two meals. And prices that are affordable. You’re not paying for glitz and glamour.
Yeah, but what about the ambiance?
SB: We throw that in for free. We should charge a museum tax.
Charlie Blood’s is located at 147 Frederick Street in Garfield, NJ. For more information, go to charliebloods.com.