9566 Murray Drive, La Mesa
Sequestered on the eastern end of La Mesa on a recent Wednesday evening, I headed over to the Charcoal House (9566 Murray Drive) with my girlfriend and a buddy visiting from Colombia to dive into the combination bar/steakhouse’s infamous karaoke night.
Over the years, the Charcoal House has earned the (mostly) endearing moniker “The Wrinkle Room,” thanks to its regular congregation of eccentric cougars and geriatric karaoke kings.
But as we approached the bar’s remodeled patio, a hulking doorman assured me, in a tone that would be hard to mistake for anything but defensive, that “this isn’t the Wrinkle Room anymore.”
Taking a seat in one of the maybe 15 outdoor cabanas, we began to see what he meant.
A crowd of 20-and-30-somethings lounged around puffing on hookahs and — though the servers assured me that the steakhouse in the back is still a major attraction — it was evident that the namesake charcoal that was once dedicated to charring New York strips and ribeyes had been rebranded to suit younger crowds who prefer blowing open-air smoke rings to the now-vacant steakhouse and karaoke hall.
These days, the scene and selection is not unlike what you’re likely to find at any of East County’s numerous hookah dens – bubbling bowls of fruit-flavored tobacco and molasses for $15, a selection of foofy martinis at 11 bucks each, a light Mediterranean menu ranging from around $6 to $14, and — on this visit — a three dollar special shot that involved a few ounces of pomegranate juice and a conservative splash of vodka.
This review may be coming off as condescending, and maybe it is.
Truth be told, it’s always disappointing to see a weird gem of a bar rebrand itself into generic, homogenized obscurity.
My own prejudices aside, there was no shortage of customers eager to buy what the place was selling.
At the end of the day, it’s just another chapter in the Charcoal House’s saga – one which includes three structure fires, a 2011 change of ownership, and now, an al fresco hookah hangout.