Thursday, June 20, 2024

Charlie’s Kitchen in Cambridge’s Harvard Square seen Nov. 25, 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The venerable Charlie’s Kitchen is changing hands in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, and the incoming management team will be a pair who recently remade another area classic: R.F. O’Sullivan & Son, on the Beacon Street line dividing Cambridge and Somerville, which recently became The Cornerstone.

Whereas that burger joint has become a gastro-pub with Japanese and Hawaiian touches, Charlie’s Kitchen will keep its name and stay familiar even after a potential sale process over the next couple of years, co-owner Paul Overgaag told the License Commission on Thursday.

“That’s part of the reason why I was happy to find these two young men,” Overgaag said of David Toraji Oshima and Derek Luangrath. “They loved Charlie’s Kitchen when they were young and have good memories of it and want to keep it as Charlie’s Kitchen.”

It just needs to be updated, he said, “and older people like me are just not capable of connecting with that.”

In this change of officers and directors and manager, as well as a transfer of stock, the Overgaags retain 98 percent ownership, with the other 2 percent being gifted in equal amounts to Oshima and Luangrath, commission chair Nicole Murati Ferrer said. The expectation is that they will buy the business in the future if all goes well. For now, Oshima and Luangrath have come on as operators only, Overgaag said.

The Overgaags have been looking for buyers for the past two years hoping Charlie’s Kitchen will go on rather than “just shutting it down and selling the real estate,” Overgaag said. Talks with Oshima and Luangrath began in January.

Charlie’s Kitchen opened in the 1950s at 10 Eliot St. – prime, two-story Harvard Square real estate for a customer base of students and tourists – and looks like it hasn’t changed much, with its linoleum-tiled floors, spinning bar stools and red-upholstered booths. Paul and brother Jaap Overgaag took it over in 1996 and expanded its food and beer menus, Overgaag said, and now in addition to cheeseburgers there are  lobster rolls and somewhat elevated grilled cheese sandwiches (made with Iggy’s bread and including lobster and avocado versions) as well as dual bars and entertainment such as karaoke, trivia and, once, live music. It once shared a kitchen with the upscale Red House restaurant around the corner at 98 Winthrop St., which also remains in the Overgaag family, run by daughter Molly and her husband, Ryan Lindbergh. The kitchens are now separate.

“After 28 years, the interest from the Overgaag brothers to run Charlie’s Kitchen got less and less. We couldn’t keep up with the new times, to new ways things are being done,” Overgaag said, referring to innovations in social media and cooking that could be important even at a diner with an old-school feel. Thirty years ago, the burger landscape in Harvard Square was largely Charlie’s and Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage on Massachusetts Avenue. The Tasty Burger and Shake Shack chains have added to the sense that Charlie’s needs to compete, he said.

Overgaag said he’d been fortunate to meet “these two young gentleman” when they’d just opened The Cornerstone. Before opening The Cornerstone, Oshima worked at the lines-around-the-block Japanese noodle destinations Yume Ga Arukara and Yume Wo Katare in Cambridge – and before that was an acquaintance of Paul Overgaag’s son.

“They’re familiar with the restaurant industry and very hard working,” Overgaag said. “And I’m trying to put them in a position where they can operate a successful restaurant and pay the landlord – which is me – a street rent that would be satisfactory from an operating point of view.”