The Legacy of Charlie's Malay & Chinese Café Dublin
Malaysian food pioneer, after-hours hotspot, and a place where Dubliners from all walks of life congregated. Mei Chin delves into the history of one of Dublin's landmark and cherished restaurant chains, Charlie's.
Terry Wai came to Dublin 35 years ago with his wife Shirley from Ipoh, Malaysia with their one-year old son Simon and 2000 pounds in his pocket. “There were literally no Malaysians here,” Simon recalls.
Terry started as a KP at restaurateur Charlie Cheung’s much beloved Kingsland on Dame Street (now the Berlin Bar) and, with Cheung’s encouragement, rose to be head chef. When Terry opened Charlie’s 1 in 1997, next to the Olympia Theatre (currently Beshoff’s), he named it after the man who had been his mentor.
Soon, Charlie’s ascended to being the spot where festivities carried on after all the other venues had closed. “We were the only place in city centre that would be open aside from the chippers,” recalls Simon, who was working at his family’s restaurant since he was a boy. “The music used to be really loud. We’d have to be on the microphone (to call out orders).” He chuckles, “One of the funniest things was when order number 69 came up, you’d have to shout it on the mike and everyone would shout back, ‘Yeah!’”
"But we cannot forget the role that Charlie's has played in Dublin as a great leveller."
Moreover, everyone came to Charlie’s – punters from pubs, kids from nightclubs, and also the crowd from the gay nightclub the George, and later the Dragon and Pantibar across the Liffey. Reminisces one friend, “Charlie’s was where the party carried on. All the drag queens were there. It was where we felt welcome.”
There have been Charlies 1-5; plus the Wai family has also run Swai, a Malyasian restaurant on the Quays, and Kingcharlies, which Terry took over when Kingsland closed. Charlie’s future is now in the hands of the Wai children, Simon and Rebecca, who must confront current times. Even pre-Covid, they were facing a younger generation who was less interested in going to a club than going to the gym, or immigrating to Australia.
Personally, I love Charlie’s Malaysian and Cantonese offerings. (Over the years, Charlie’s has had a lot of Filipino regulars, longing for Southeast Asian flavours.) I have been a fan of their Hainan chicken, their char-siu and their dry-fried beef chow fun. Plus, they have the most glamorous looking spice bag in town.
But we cannot forget the role that Charlie’s has played in Dublin as a great leveller. When it opened in 1997, it was a time where the city was awash with a refreshing new wave of immigrant and queer culture. This was modern Dublin in its infancy, and Charlie’s was at its nexus. No matter your colour, your sexual preference, or your gender, there was a space for you in the Charlie’s queue. This is a legacy that will continue to flourish.