Being a Gibson guy, I zero in on Anna’s Gibson, one of 35 offerings on the extensive cocktail list at Charley Prime Foods, the steak-centric restaurant that Jackie Greenbaum and co-owners Gordon Banks and executive chef Adam Harvey opened at Rio Lakefront in May. Usually a simple quaff of gin, dry vermouth and a cocktail onion, this Gibson is otherworldly, enhanced with subtle additions of citrus and thyme and garnished with charred homemade pickled onion. Before being filled, the martini glass is washed with onion brine, an added detail that earns a tip of the hat to the drink’s creator, Anna Wonson; she’s the general manager of Little Coco’s, a D.C. Italian restaurant that Greenbaum and Banks own, along with D.C. steakhouse Bar Charley; Mexican joint El Chucho, also in D.C.; and Silver Spring’s Quarry House Tavern, one of the DMV’s most heralded dive bars.
Charley Prime Foods isn’t Greenbaum’s first restaurant foray into Montgomery County; much-beloved Jackie’s Restaurant and Sidebar closed in 2016 after an 11-year run in Silver Spring. A search in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia for a second location of El Chucho that started five years ago got interrupted by the pandemic. When their broker found out the Tara Thai space in Rio (next to the AMC theater) was available, Harvey encouraged the deal. He grew up in Montgomery County, graduated from Richard Montgomery High School and lives in Olney with his wife and two children. “Rio was near and dear to my heart,” he says. “We come here a lot, to the playground, the movies. My wife loves it. I always said it would be a great location.” Greenbaum and Banks got on board and made Harvey, who started working with Greenbaum as the chef at Jackie’s in 2014 and now oversees all the company’s restaurants, a partner at Charley Prime.
Greenbaum says that other Mexican restaurants had exclusive rights at Rio, so she opted for a beefed-up version of Bar Charley with some Little Coco’s thrown in. The menu is a mix of gastropub items, pastas and steaks, among them steak frites made with four different Angus cuts (bavette, hanger, ribeye and strip); wagyu (culotte and Japanese A5); and USDA Prime Angus (filet mignon, New York strip, tomahawk ribeye) from Illinois-based Linz Heritage Angus.
Also beefed up is this project’s size. Greenbaum’s other venues are intimate, whereas Charley Prime covers 7,700 square feet, seating 90 inside and 100 on a vast lakeside patio, half of which is covered by a 12-foot-high pergola outfitted with a louvered roof, retractable mesh screens and heaters to make the space usable year-round. Inside, the decor, designed by D.C.-based Edit Lab at Streetsense, is pure whimsy, with black-and-white checkerboard floors, green tufted leatherette booths, pink-and-black floral wallpaper and elaborate pink plaster ceiling medallions around pendant lights on a black ceiling. Many of Greenbaum’s paintings—she’s a talented artist—adorn the walls, but the scene-stealer is an enormous black wood cutout of Greenbaum’s schnauzer Lucy, created by the restaurateur’s friend, artist Trevor Young.
Greenbaum considers Charley Prime as much a drinking destination as a dining one. “There is really no place to go this far out in the county for great imaginative cocktails,” she maintains. “We could have the patio open until 2 a.m. There are no neighbors to worry about.” Twelve of the impressive list’s 35 cocktails are on tap, allowing for speed of service. The list runs the gamut from classics to tikis to clever concoctions, such as a Quack-Quack-Erac (a duck-fat-washed riff on a Sazerac) and a Puttin’ on the Spritz jazzed up with grapefruit-infused Aperol.
Of the starters, the “faux” gras, a whipped mushroom pate enriched with cream, butter, eggs and Madeira and port wines is a winner, the amalgam smooth, airy, rich and bursting with umami. The long roasting time of its portobello, cremini and shiitake mushrooms heightens the fungi’s flavor. Good shareable items for the table are gooey fontina cheese fritters and cheese bread, rectangles of grilled country bread topped with gremolata (a puree of parsley, lemon zest, olive oil and chili flakes), melted mozzarella, Parmesan and Pecorino cheese and a scoop of whipped ricotta cheese. A caveat, though: An issue I have with certain dishes at Charley Prime is lack of restraint. The fritters are served on top of a surfeit of basil aioli (they should serve it on the side) and there’s too much gremolata on the garlic bread. The same issue pops up with excellent fried green tomatoes, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, but struggling to breathe under a weighted blanket of pimento cheese.
When restraint is exercised, I’m happy. My favorite starter is a simple wedge-style salad, fluffy leaves of butter lettuce interspersed with chunky lardons (bacon), cherry tomatoes, candied walnuts and chives, the lot enrobed in a creamy, dreamy, tangy gorgonzola buttermilk dressing. An Anna’s Gibson cocktail, this salad and a Linz Prime New York strip steak paired with a tasty vintage—say, another Anna’s Gibson—is my perfect meal at Charley Prime, especially when completed with their enormous hot fudge sundae for two made with homemade vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice creams and surrounded by an Instagram-ready panoply of confections to satisfy any urges left over from our childhoods: gummy bears, Twix, Reese’s cups, Oreos, M&M’s, marshmallows, etc. (Here’s a good place to not exercise restraint: More hot fudge, please!)
I enjoy the French dip of thinly sliced roasted lamb, Swiss cheese and kicky harissa aioli on a crusty semolina bun at Charley’s and some of the pastas, which are made in house, especially a squid ink fettuccine with large Hawaiian prawns and lump crabmeat, the noodles swathed in a lemony shrimp butter emulsion and topped with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs infused with garlicky ’nduja sausage. But the steak’s the thing at Charley Prime, whether it’s a bavette or hanger steak frites, the former in a rosemary and black pepper marinade, the latter in a balsamic and cherry marinade and both slightly charred and crusty on the outside and tender and medium rare on the inside. You’re given a steak knife for the Linz Prime New York strip, but it’s hardly necessary because the meat is so divinely silken. When Harvey discovered the Linz brand, he was hooked. “I love wagyu and A5, but I’m an all-American, grain-finished, marbled Midwestern beef kind of guy. It’s sumptuous and tender with a mixture of chew and tenderness and great beef flavor.”
The triple chocolate tart with Oreo crust is another satisfying dessert for this chocoholic at Charley Prime, but I’d be just as content to take my dessert in liquid form—say, a Piña Colada the Way It Should Be or a Tattoine Dream of pineapple, coconut milk, rum, passionfruit and blue Curaçao—as I languish on the patio and watch pink flamingo paddleboats pass by.
Charley Prime Foods has all the makings of a hit—great cocktails, wonderful steaks, reasonably priced pub food, an exciting atmosphere and a beautiful view. With some tweaking on certain dishes and a continued effort to train an eager but inexperienced staff, this Gaithersburg behemoth is primed for takeoff.
9811 Washingtonian Blvd. L9 (Rio Lakefront), Gaithersburg; 240-477-7925; charleyprimefoods.com
Favorite dishes: “Faux” gras mushroom pate; squid ink fettuccine; wedge-style salad; hanger steak frites; hot fudge sundae
Prices: Appetizers: $12 to $17; Entrees: $18 to $36; Sample steak prices: $25 (8-ounce bavette steak frites), $45 (15-ounce ribeye steak frites), $65 (12-ounce USDA Prime New York strip), $95 (5-ounce Japanese A5 wagyu); Desserts: $12, or $18 for the hot fudge sundae for two
Libations: Beverage director Paul Haffert collaborated on Charley Prime Foods’ cocktail list with co-owner Gordon Banks. It boasts 35 offerings—12 hand-batched and on tap—divided into: Mules (spirits + house-made ginger beer); Old Fashioneds (spirits + bitters + sugar); Charley on Vacation (tiki-style); The Classics (including a Cosmopolitan and daiquiri); “Beyond Definition” (such as a Holy Shishito, made with tequila, agave, lime and yuzu juices and a blistered shishito pepper); and Easy Drinking (the Charley Palmer is a blend of peach tea, Calvados, lemon juice and honey.) There are 15 wines by the glass ($10 to $22) and 52 by the bottle ($35 to $175), plus four reserve reds to indulge steak lovers looking for high-end quaffs, such as Shafer Hillside Select 2018 ($525) and Ornellaia Bolgheri le Serre Nuove 2020 ($150).
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.