During the 50 years he ran an expansive restaurant empire unlike any other in Boston, Charlie Sarkis strode through life as if it were one of his dozens of dining rooms. His eyes noticed everything: the cut of a steak, the quality of service, the bottom line.
Mr. Sarkis, who was 78 when he died Sunday in Florida of complications from brain cancer, at one point presided over an abundant list of more than 30 dining destinations that included his flagship Abe & Louie’s, along with Atlantic Fish Company, J.C. Hillary’s Ltd., Charley’s Eating and Drinking Saloon, and the Papa Razzi and Joe’s American Bar & Grill chains.
Complex and unafraid to be combative while fighting to protect the 3,400 jobs at his establishments, Mr. Sarkis was just as well known for owning the Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere and a harness racing track in Foxborough — gambling pursuits that even admirers found unusual in a man who made no secret of his wish to distance himself from the criminal reputation of his father, one of Boston’s best-known bookies.
Though Mr. Sarkis chose very public ways to make his fortune, he was famously private. Yet when he opened up in an interview in 2005, it was to discuss the very personal challenges he had faced recovering from his first brain surgery in 1995 and his efforts to steer others with brain tumors to top-notch doctors. “I’m not as tough as you think, you know,” he told the Globe. “Can I be a pain? All that and more. But I learned we don’t control what we think we control. And you have to pass something on.”
He cut an elegant figure in his dark tailored suits, silk ties, and crisp shirts, but he never ducked a fight to protect his life’s work, whether in a courtroom, a regulatory hearing, or the pages of newspapers where his quotes could slice as sharply as a carving knife.
At times his commanding presence said most of what he needed to say, as was the case when he presided at Abe & Louie’s on Boylston Street. With its dark wood, brass rails, and heavy cutlery, the steakhouse was a cut above the rest in the Back Bay Restaurant Group Mr. Sarkis headed, and it became one of the city’s most successful restaurants, attracting top Boston sports stars or a visiting Warren Buffett to its elegant private dining room. As with his other restaurants, Mr. Sarkis kept a table for himself offering a view of the kitchen, the front door, and the bar. When the need arose, he pounded on the table to emphasize a point.
If a deferential waiter asked whether his meal passed muster, Mr. Sarkis would gesture to a nearby patron. “He would say, ‘Don’t ask me, ask him. I have to be here. He doesn’t have to come back,’ ” recalled his wife, Jolene. “Charlie wanted everybody treated the same way. He wanted everyone to come and have a great meal.”
Mr. Sarkis “had the real ability to affect people with his presence, and his presence lived beyond his physical presence. I think that was one of the unspoken secrets of his success,” said Ann Marie Escobar, chief operating officer of Legal Sea Foods.
“He was so consistent and so focused that people who worked with him wanted to be as perfect-seeking,” said Escobar, who worked for Mr. Sarkis for 30 years and was executive vice president of operations for Back Bay Restaurant Group. “His true life passion was this business and the hospitality part of this business. He knew in his soul how to do it right.”
At many of his other restaurants, including Charley’s on Newbury Street, Mr. Sarkis nurtured an appealing formula: attentive service, generous drinks, and good meals that avoided the pretentiousness of what he dismissed as “cheffy restaurants” with their complicated fare.
His gambling ventures were less simple. He waged and lost a legal battle with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in the late 1990s over property adjacent to the team’s Foxborough stadium, which Mr. Sarkis operated first as a thoroughbred track and then for harness racing — all of which he was forced to let go when a judge ruled against his claims in a lease dispute.
With Wonderland, which he ran through his Westwood Group, Mr. Sarkis persevered through the ups and downs of the economy and through legislative fights over various gambling bills. The track closed in 2010, nearly two years after a state referendum banned greyhound racing.
All those battles seemed tame next to the upheaval in 1990, when 40 people, including his father and Wonderland’s general manager, were indicted on charges of running an illegal gaming operation. Though Mr. Sarkis was not charged, he again found himself in the shadow of his father, Abraham, whom prosecutors called the mastermind behind the scheme to illegally arrange bets at off-track premises. Abraham Sarkis, who had been convicted in an unrelated bookmaking case years earlier, died in 1991, before the charges against him in the Wonderland arrest were resolved.
Though Mr. Sarkis made no secret that he loved his father, he said in a 1994 interview that he had decided early in life to keep his distance from Abe’s unsavory career. “I wanted to be as far away from that life as I could get,” he said then. “I just knew it wasn’t right and I couldn’t live that way. I didn’t have the nervous system to do it.”
The older of two siblings, Charles F. Sarkis grew up in Milton, the only son of Abraham Sarkis and the former Dorothy Rooney. His sister, Dorothy Morkis, became a successful rider and competitor in equestrian competitions.
Mr. Sarkis graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in business and received a master’s in business from Boston College.
While living in Washington, D.C., and studying at Georgetown, he watched gentrification change the neighborhood around campus. “That’s where he got the restaurant bug,” his wife said. “He was going out to eat most nights and he thought, ‘This is what the Back Bay should be like.’ ”
In 1964, Mr. Sarkis bought Boraschi’s restaurant in Boston. He went on to open Charley’s on Newbury Street in 1970 and proceeded to expand his empire into a string of East Coast restaurants.
Mr. Sarkis married Nancy Hennessey in 1960, and they had six children. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1998. She died in 2012.
In 1999, Mr. Sarkis married Jolene Sykes, who has served as publisher and president of Fortune magazine. In recent years they lived in Palm Beach, Fla.
In 2011 and 2012, Mr. Sarkis sold the bulk of his restaurants to the Tavistock Group and Newport Harbor Corp., his wife said. Two final restaurants, in New Jersey, are scheduled to close at the end of this month.
Because of how certain provisions in the Tavistock deal affected three of his children, who worked for the Back Bay Restaurant Group, family acrimony became public around the time of the sale and was detailed in the Globe. “I am selling my business due to my age, my serious health issues, and my business and personal financial situation,” Mr. Sarkis wrote at the time in an e-mail to the Globe.
“I care very much about the business I built, and even more about my children,” he added, “and I will continue — privately — to do the best I can for both.”
Over the years, Mr. Sarkis “was most proud of the people he employed and how many he employed,” his wife said. “He really felt he was a contributor to Boston and to Massachusetts because he hired and trained so many people.”
Services will be announced for Mr. Sarkis, who in addition to his sister, of Dover, and his wife leaves three daughters, Nancy Corcoran of Walpole, Amy of Westwood, and Sarah of Honolulu; three sons, Charles Jr. of Canton, Paul of Los Angeles, and Patrick of Boston; his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage, Katherine Henry of Dallas; five grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.
“He was so fun and so funny,” his wife said. “He was just so full of life and exuberance. He was always pursuing the best of everything, so it was always a fun ride with him.”
Mr. Sarkis kept working for some 16 years after his first bout with brain cancer, in 1995, even though it affected his ability to recognize faces. “It’s my little secret,” he confided in 2005. The recurring illness was humbling. He said that a couple of days before undergoing surgery again, he walked into a healing service at a Holliston chapel. “I looked around and said: ‘Everyone is here for hope. Why do I think I’m any better than anyone else?’ And I stayed. It was one of those life-altering moments.”
He added: “Sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Then I say, ‘You’re the luckiest guy in the world.’”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.