By Sam Ficaro, Cronkite News
At the intersection of Camelback Road and 75th Street sits a sports museum disguised as a restaurant.
Opened in 1981, Don & Charlie’s emerged as a place known for its ribs, steaks and what covers the walls and ceiling.
Around every corner is a piece of memorabilia. A walk through the wooden double doors reveals hundreds of baseballs signed by the legends of the game.
On the other side of the entryway are photos of the owner, Don Carson, with various celebrities and sports figures who have eaten there. In the dining room and bar area, jerseys hang from the roof.
It’s an Arizona staple that attracted countless celebrities but after almost 40 years, Don & Charlie’s served its final meal Wednesday night. Carson recently agreed to sell the property so a hotel could be built.
“It’s been an amazing place, and this is a really sad night for me,” Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said.
Mr. Carson believed it was time to move on.
“One of the biggest reasons I’m doing it is because I haven’t seen my grandkids in San Francisco since Thanksgiving,” Mr. Carson said. “I think it’s time for me to step back.”
Over the waning weeks of its announced closing, people have come in droves, filling up the restaurant nightly. The restaurant was forced to turn away walk-ins because of the amount of reservations.
All the attention Mr. Carson has received has been unsettling for him.
“I didn’t do this for appreciation. I did it because I love my craft,” Mr. Carson said. “That’s making me a little sad for the last six weeks as I’ve been getting letters and calls and cards.
“It’s a humbling thing. It’s nice because you’re never standing in a stadium and hitting a home run and people are going crazy. You’re just here trying to satisfy people and make them happy.”
Every inch of wall space in Don & Charlie’s is taken up by a sports memento.
From baseballs, gloves and bats to footballs, helmets, and flags to signed magazine covers, the place is so rich in history it lures sports fans from all over the country.
How did Mr. Carson accumulate all the memorabilia? Not by buying any of it.
“I don’t think stuff is good without a story,” Mr. Carson said. “We’ve all been to airport bars and we’ve all been to bars around the country and I can walk in and look around and I can see that they went and bought a bunch of stuff.”
One night, Mr. Carson was sitting at the bar having a drink when NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice noticed he was absent from the photos on the wall.
Rice approached Mr. Carson and pointed out he had nothing of him. After explaining to Mr. Rice that he doesn’t buy anything, the 20-year NFL veteran left and came back with a 12-by-18 photo of himself and a Sharpie and signed it.
“He (Rice) said, ‘Now you got something.’ Now, I’ll put it up and it’s been up in the bar for about 25 years, so that’s a story,” Mr. Carson said. “I think that makes it more interesting.”
Mr. Carson explained why it was special to gather the memorabilia through gifts rather than through buying it.
“It’s not like everybody has it. Everybody doesn’t have that Sports Weekly that’s probably 20 years old with Barry Bonds and Willie Mays and sometimes a person is hard to get a signature,” Mr. Carson said. “Derek Jeter is over there and sometimes I wait five, 10 years to get something signed and that’s a story.”
When he first opened the restaurant, he never imagined having as much stuff on the walls as he has now.
“I was in those days still taking it day-by-day,” Mr. Carson said. “I absolutely wasn’t thinking we would be the next big thing, and I don’t think we’re necessarily a great, big thing now. We’re just grinders. We grind and try to make people happy.”
What is he going to do with all the memorabilia?
“I’m going to put in storage,” Mr. Carson said. “I’m going to send it up to the space station.”
When Don & Charlie’s first opened in the early 1980s, it was competing with another restaurant, the Pink Pony.
The Pink Pony was walking steps from Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, and it attracted the baseball community.
Carson called the Pink Pony the “mecca of spring training restaurants” and he had to figure out a way to attract the same clientele to Don & Charlie’s.
“My goal was to have people come here once and go to the Pink Pony 10 times, and our goal was to meet people, talk to them and try to give them a chance. “
Mr. Carson recalled the night when longtime baseball writer Roger Angell, former National League president Chub Feeney and former manager Bill Rigney came to eat at Don & Charlie’s.
“They came to dinner with their wives and that night, I knew we were going to make it,” Mr. Carson said emotionally. “I knew we were going to be accepted by the world of baseball and it happened.”
Mr. Carson described what won them over and the impact it had on Don & Charlie’s.
“I think they were happy with the food, they thought it was good, and they were happy that they got their space. They were happy that it had a friendly environment,” Mr. Carson said. “In those days, we didn’t have anything on the walls, we didn’t have any pictures, we didn’t have anything. I knew that they were in the upper circle of baseball. They were icons in the field, and I knew one trip would begin another.”
Selig said the restaurant resonated with the baseball community.
“Just walk around and look at the history and the people that came in. Wherever I go in baseball, people would say, ‘I’ll see you at Don & Charlie’s next year,’ so it became a real baseball place.”
USA Today Sports national baseball writer Bob Nightengale ate at Don & Charlie’s for the final two nights and was sad to hear it was closing.
“It’s just such an institution and you felt better if Don is happy, then I’m happy but when I’m with my friend Dave Reynolds it’s like we wanted to be here on the last night,”Mr. Nightengale said. “We just wanted to be a part of the last night here out of respect for Don. Almost like a eulogy.”
It will feel strange next spring training without it being open, he said.
“It’s almost like where do we go. People back in the day used to go to the Pink Pony. Then it was Don & Charlie’s and now I don’t know where people will go,” Mr. Nightengale said. “It’s like a wide-open canvas like where do we go from here? It’s a great question, nobody knows where to go.”
Recently retired Arizona Fall League president Steve Cobb said Mr. Carson has been wonderful to the league, inviting teams and players for a meal at Don & Charlie’s every year.
“Sitting here having dinner tonight (Wednesday night), it’s hard to believe that this establishment will not be here in the near future,” Mr. Cobb said. “Wonderful, wonderful memories, many with baseball players and executives so it’s certainly part of the fabric of this community and it’s going to be missed.”
Mr. Cobb said Mr. Carson would offer Fall League players meals when they didn’t have any money and he believes Mr. Carson established himself in the baseball community by building a strong client base over the years.
Mr. Cobb values his relationship with Mr. Carson, always coming through in the clutch.
“I found out that the secret ingredient in my wife’s five-bean chili is actually the barbecue sauce that’s served here, so I’ve come here in desperation two or three times after hours begging for the sauce and Don’s always delivered.”
Selig ordered the same steak every time at Don & Charlie’s and one time, it just appeared on the menu that it was going to be named after him.
“Don finally decided he would name it after me, so that was great and that’s why I’m taking it home.”
Selig is sad to see it go.
“When I came back to Arizona from Milwaukee, I came back 24 hours earlier just so I can be here tonight.”
Family is everything for Mr. Carson and that extends to his employees.
“Family can encompass a lot of different areas, but I believe everybody that works here is part of it. We’re a huge family,” Mr. Carson said. “We certainly have lives outside this restaurant, but I’m a firm believer in family and making it as nice as it can be in a working relationship.”
The family bond of Mr. Carson, the employees and the restaurant is what made this an emotional final week of service.
From the hostess to the waitresses to the customers, everyone formed a bond with the restaurant.
Selig has been coming to Don & Charlie’s for nearly four decades, forming a special connection.
“It’s part of our family. Obviously, there’s a great baseball connection but it became a connection for us as a family,” Mr. Selig said. “The fact that we spent the whole night worrying about where we are going to start going, because we were here a couple times a week. Don is like family. It’s a very sad night for me and I don’t mind telling you that.”
Throughout Wednesday night, Mr. Carson walked around the restaurant and greeted customers, taking pictures with dozens of guests as they bid their final farewell. Employees were taking their last pictures in the restaurant together.
Christine Brown has been working at Don & Charlie’s for 19 years and the immense sadness felt by the customers and employees will be not seeing everybody every day.
“A lot of the kitchen staff has been here for a very, very long time and you see everybody every day and it’s just like a big family,” Ms. Brown said. “It’s going to be hard not seeing all the guys in the back, not seeing Don every day, just everybody. It’s going to be sad.”
Ms. Brown said she made sure not to wear any makeup Wednesday night expecting a lot of tears and hugs.
Krissie Bannon came on as a waitress for the final six months of service, but she’s never loved a job before like this one, due in large part to the atmosphere
“We have servers who have been here for 30 years, 25 years but I’ve only been here for six months, but I truly feel like a family.”
After months of speculation of the restaurant’s future, Ms. Bannon described the meeting in which Carson formally told the staff that it was closing, giving everyone one final task.
“It was very important to him that everyone had a place to go so he told everyone, take some thought,” Ms. Bannon said. “Think of some place fabulous and come up with two to three choices and he’ll personally make the call, if we needed to, to make sure we got the job.”
Don & Charlie’s has left an indelible mark on the Arizona sports community and the employees that worked there.
Mr. Carson’s final message to his staff was simple.
“The message is that we had fun. They are a part of history. I don’t think everybody gets to be a part of history. What I mean about the part of history is that it’s not confirmed by me. It’s confirmed by the print coverage we’ve had.”
Mr. Carson always made sure to say that his staff works “with him” rather than “for him” and that message has been received by the entire staff.
Ms. Bannon described what it was like to be a part of the restaurant’s storied legacy.
“I’m really proud of it. I’ve been around restaurants abut I’ve never been in this type of environment and because I’m a momma, the stories I hear, people having their first birthday here, their 18th anniversary,” Ms. Bannon said. “I feel blessed because there’s nothing like this. It’s fabulous.”
Mr. Selig’s close relationship with Mr. Carson has transcended past the restaurant.
“He’s a very special guy who took this restaurant and built it up beautifully. Amazing story.”
Mr. Carson wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reopening the restaurant in some new fashion, but for right now, he’s focused on spending time with family and friends.
Mr. Carson still can’t believe the reception and appreciation he’s received.
“I am totally overwhelmed with the response to what I’m doing. I never expected this much attention, ever in my life,” Mr. Carson said. “I think people had fun here and they liked what we did, but I never thought we would garner this attention from all over the country. I really didn’t. It’s pretty heavy stuff really.”