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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Local Chow: Charlie's Pizza House in Yankton

I've been meaning to give props to Charlie's Pizza House in Yankton for some time. Located at the intersection of Highway 52 and Summit St. on the west side of Yankton, Charlie's had caught my attention several times, as it sits just up the street from the Star-Lite Inn, where I almost always stay when I'm in Yankton for speech tournaments. Alas, debate and interp schedules usually have me hustling too fast for a sit-down meal, so a visit to Charlie's kept ending up on my "next time" list.

What finally got me in Charlie's door? Good local marketing. Last March, while I was judging the South Dakota State Debate Tournament, I chatted with Yankton debater Olivia Hopewell. She was helping run the tab table. As I was checking out for supper, she recommended I go to Charlie's Pizza. She also recommended I tell the lady behind the counter she looks like Marilyn Monroe. (The lady behind the counter is her aunt.)

Now Olivia is paid to wait tables, not advertise. But her talking up the joint convinced to me finally to take the extra time to go see how I liked Charlie's Pizza House. Chambers of Commerce, take note: the best marketing comes not from splashy ad campaigns designed by expensive out-of-town consultants, but from locals who give a dang about where they work.

Thanks to Olivia's marketing, I found a Pizza House with good local casual class. The interior is a little dark, but the walls are bedecked with an exuberant array of old signs and movie posters, good 50s–60s cool. The kitchen is right at the front by the counter, where you can see the cooks working pizza wonders. (And Olivia's aunt, who was indeed at that counter when I walked in for my March visit, bears an arguable resemblance to what Marilyn have grown to be had the movie star given up Hollywood and come to Yankton to spin pizzas.)

Having the kitchen at the front makes it easier to thank the folks who make your dinner. If my two visits—the March solo trip and our family outing last week while camping—are accurate indications, you will want to thank them. Charlie's makes good pizza. And it's unique pizza. The menu includes several specialty pizzas, all named for movie stars. On my first outing, I had the John Wayne: beef, ham, green olive, mushroom, barbecue sauce, and (the kicker!) crab. This combo makes even green olives taste good (and I am not an olive fan). Last week, my wife and I split a Bette Davis: chicken, alfredo sauce, tomato, and onion, with a strong dose of garlic salt. More yum! And the medium, with a salad and two slices of cheesy bread, was plenty to split among my wife and me and our happily distracted three-year-old.

Other highlights from the menu:
  • Sauerkraut makes not one but two appearances on the menu, on the Hawaiian Elvis and the Festus. I admire the chef's courage.
  • The Clint Eastwood is a chicken pizza. (Don't let Eastwood find out!)
Of course, we're talking pizza here. I've never met a pizza I didn't like, whether it's cheap heart-attack cheese pizza from Casey's c-store, wiener pizza in Russia, or that frozen Red Baron pizza that had a pencil in it that Mom wouldn't let me finish when I was 10.

Charlie's warrants return visits not just for good chow, but good atmosphere and good service. They're not a franchise, so Charlie's can be its own place. There are no uniforms. Olivia was waiting tables during last week's visit in a t-shirt and running pants, yet she was as poised and professional as any waitress I've encountered in our fair state. (But of course she's poised: she's a debater!) She didn't push us to order more or try to hurry us out, and she never came across as officious; she just did her job as if she were enjoying it.

Charlie's has a sizable bar area, about the same size as the dining area. Sometimes that might turn me away, especially with our three-year-old in tow. But Charlie's makes the combination of family food and bar work. They also display a sign declaring "We are proud to be 'Smoke Free'"—yes, complete with unnecessary quote marks. So while some bar and restaurant owners whine that a smoking ban would put them out of business, Charlie's Pizza House banishes smokes to the parking lot or elsewhere in Yankton and seems to be doing just fine.

Charlie's also has a game room crowded with video games (I played some mutant-alien-green slime shoot-em-up; my wife played Ms. Pac-Man) and, glory of glories, a foos-ball table. On our visit last week, I heard a grown man shout, "I haven't... played this... for years!" (His exuberant outburst contained some punchy Anglo-Saxon modifiers.) A few minutes later, over passionate spinning and thwacking, we heard the same man exult to his working-man buddy, "Oh, you got stung!" I can't help enjoying the sight and sound of two grown men enjoying silly, harmless fun between pizza and beer.

Charlie's benefits from a great location. They surely pick up lots of traffic from the Mount Marty campus and the hospital (and I assume they don't send traffic to the hospital). They are also the first eatery all the campers on Lewis and Clark Lake hit when they come back into town. Charlie's is a perfect fit with camping: instead of staying and eating at cookie-cutter franchises, you pitch your tent along the river, bike to town, and eat somewhere unique, somewhere that helps anchor your unique memory of the place rather than blending in with every other Pizza Hut or Burger King you've rushed through.

So if you're in Yankton for camping, debate, or Riverboat Days, or if you're just passing through on a glorious non-Interstate trip, swing by the west side of town for supper at Charlie's Pizza House.

And don't forget to tell Olivia's aunt she reminds you of Marilyn Monroe.


  1. As a Yankton native, I'll agree that Charlie's Pizza House is pretty amazing. Thanks for this post!

  2. It's pretty sweet to read that you're a fellow foos-enthusiast, you'll have to join Messrs. Weber, Kane, and I in a game come Brookings' way.

  3. The beef on their pizza is also local--from Gundy's Beef out of Mission Hill. And you've really gotta try the saurkraut pizza next time you're there. And yes, play more Area 51!


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