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Central California Life Magazine

A not so classic but wonderful martini at Jack & Charlie’s

Apr 22, 2015 02:02PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

A not so classic but wonderful martini at Jack & Charlie’s

Story and photos by Judith House Menezes

There is no hesitation when I ask the manager at Jack & Charlie’s in Visalia what the house drink is. No doubt about it, William Sa said.

It’s the Strawberry Basil Martini.

The cocktail is simple: vodka infused with strawberries and basil – a delightful combination. First come the strawberry notes followed by a clean basil finish. Tasty.

It is served in a martini glass with a rim of sugar and a strawberry garnish. The infusion is what makes this cocktail, a suitable drink year round, so flavorful. And you can see this happening behind the bar, where big glass jars of vodka and other spirits slowly infuse with different ingredients.

Jack & Charlie’s is part of the David Vartanian-owned trio of restaurants in Visalia. The other establishments are The Vintage Press on Willis Street and The Depot, which is located on Oak Street across from Jack & Charlie’s.

The restaurant is easy to spot with its authentic bright red British phone booth out front. You step down to get into the restaurant, which sets the tone and is in the basement of the old Tulare County courthouse and jail. No worries, you won’t feel like you are in custody; there are plenty of windows. The restaurant is where the cells used to be until the 1940s. Think sheriff’s office/jail set up in the old Andy Griffith TV show, Sa said.

Jack & Charlie’s, open for nine years, has a relaxed, comfortable speakeasy ambience with dark paneling, dark wood tables, booths and a bar near the entrance. Old classic movies, such as Charlie Chaplin features and the Three Stooges, silently play on the TV in one corner. The feel is nice but not ostentatious. The food is fresh and features many local ingredients. The restaurant was recently a finalist for the Visalia Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year award.

There are two stories about the name of the restaurant/bar, Sa said. The first is that it was named after two Vartanian uncles. The second story, which Sa gives more credence to, is that it is named after the owners of the 21 Club in New York City.

At this writing, the Strawberry Basil Martini is not on the menu, but Sa said people ask for and the restaurant serves it.

“Everybody knows we have it,” he said.

The vodka martini is also known as a Vodkatini or Kangaroo Cocktail. While no one seems to know where the name Kangaroo Cocktail comes from, what is certain is that the vodka martini started showing up in bars around the 1950s.

James Bond famously prefers vodka martinis “shaken not stirred” (which makes it frosty). Then there is a fruity vodka version called the I Dream of Jeannie Martini after the 1960s TV show. The drink became popular after Jeannie, with her magic, made a vodka martini gush from a rock in the desert for a thirsty Captain Tony Nelson.

Some purists still say that a vodka martini is not a true martini, which is made with gin. 

Jack & Charlie’s Strawberry Basil Martini not a real martini?

Say what you will. The drink is good.

Jack & Charlie’s is located at 204 E. Oak Ave. in downtown Visalia. The phone number is (559) 738-5752. For more information and to make reservations go to


     Judith House Menezes is a professor of journalism and adviser to the student newspaper at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.