Eating History: Mickey’s Dining Car

Weather: Snow on the grass, Raining and 36°F (2°C)

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Service with a snarl? Not when John’s cooking.

Cold rain was falling from a black velvet sky, as Scarlet and I set out on our morning commute. We got an early start today, because I wanted to finally try breakfast at Mickey’s Dining Car, in downtown Saint Paul, when they were least likely to be crowded. Besides, it was high time that I did a morning Rush Hour Ramble.

For this review, I found out that I’d better forget lunch or dinner. I’ve ridden by Mickey’s at those times, and they are always packed. It’s hard to review a place when you can’t strike up a conversation with the staff, or take photos without bumping into somebody. But I figured I might just stand a chance if we showed up at five a.m. on a Monday morning.

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This is how Mickey’s Dining Car looked at zero-dark-thirty this morning.

Built by the Jerry O’Mahony company out of New Jersey, dining car #1067 was trucked to it’s present location at the corner of 7th and St. Peter Streets in 1937. They have been open 24 hours a day, 365 days most years, for almost seven decades.

Everything about Mickey’s reeks of authenticity. From the Art Deco, stainless-steel and enamel exterior to the wise-cracking staff, walking through the door of this depression-era diner is like stepping into a time machine, set to nineteen fifty-something.

The first time I stopped at Mickey’s was in the Spring of ought-five. I had just set out on another “Backroads Diary” roadtrip, and decided to try the coffee, since they didn’t seem too busy at the time.

7th Street wasn’t busy either, so I set up my camera on it’s little tripod, right on the three-foot-wide concrete island in the intersection.

While I was composing the shot you see below, bent over and looking down at the viewfinder, I saw the ramming bumper of a police cruiser pull into my peripheral vision to the right. I ignored him until after I had taken the shot and, just as I was beginning to stand up, he peeled away, leaving rubber for about fifty yards. Nice cop. He was probably a regular at Mickey’s, come to think of it.

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… and this is how Mickey’s looked in daylight, circa Spring 2005.

Featured in many movies, the latest of which was “A Prairie Home Companion”, Mickey’s Dining Car is a must-be-seen-at for all celebrities visiting Saint Paul. A list on the back of their menu is a veritable “Who’s who?” of contemporary American culture. It’s as if this were an interactive museum exhibit of the Classic American Diner, once plentiful out on Route 66; now all but extinct.

But don’t come just to stand around and gawk, or you might raise the ire of the notorious Mary, Queen of All Hash Slingers Everywhere. (This is a title I have just bestowed. She doesn’t know it yet. I’ll be sure to tell you how she reacts when she finds out…)

Much has been made of the whole “service with a snarl” thing, but that’s because some of the staff at Mickey’s have actually been around since the place was just another diner.

Back then, open all hours to cater to the fast crowd, their survival depended on filling `em up and getting `em out. Day-dreamers and coffee-sippers were harried until they either ordered something, or scooted out the door with their tails between their legs.

In 1983, Mickey’s Dining Car was granted National Register of Historic Places status. I’m not sure what that meant to the day-to-day operations of the place, but it couldn’t have hurt.

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Mary, Queen of All Hash Slingers Everywhere! (Photo by John)

Anyway, that trip back in 2005 was when I met Mary and John, the cook pictured at the top of the page. Mary has a piquant vocabulary and a very frank manner of speaking. John seemed more mild-mannered than he appears in his portrait. I was hesitant to ask Mary to pose for me, so John took my camera and made the shot himself. Central casting couldn’t pick a better pair to run a Classic American Diner than these two.

By contrast, this morning I was served breakfast by what I should call the Modern Crew.

Lashaw was my waitress, and the cook on duty was Eric, from Kansas City. These are nice, polite kids (I call anyone under thirty “kid” these days), who told me of their ambitions beyond slinging hash at Mickey’s Dining Car.

What I gathered from eaves-dropping on the banter between her and the regulars, Lashaw seems intent on trying on as many boyfriends as it takes to find Mr. Right. Eric is studying at a School of The Arts to be a jazz musician. Neither one, it seems, is content with the noble cause of keeping Mickey’s going long into the future. But I guess kids have higher expectations these days.

So, how was the food, already?

After I spent some time with the menu, I decided on the Chili Cheese Omelet, with raisin toast on the side. I know… most of my readers who commented voted for bacon and eggs, but how can you possibly rate a restaurant on something that is so hard to do badly?

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Mickey’s Chili-Cheese Omelet, a greasy-spoon classic!

Lashaw whipped me up a pan full of fluffy eggs, into which she tossed a slice of Monterey Jack cheese-food, fresh out of it’s plastic wrapper. (Yes, they cook this stuff right in front of you, over a roaring gas burner. It sure was warm in there…) When that had melted, she put it in a shallow bowl, and ladled a big scoop of chili over the top. That was the most unusual presentation I’ve ever seen for an omelet.

But it worked. I got exactly what I had come for: an authentic American greasy spoon breakfast. The chili was very mild, compared to what I make for myself, or what I seek out at other eateries. But the typical American palate of the middle Twentieth Century wasn’t quite as jaded as it is today. They keep a huge bottle of Tabasco handy, so you can season to taste. Then it’s your fault if you have to go running for the Alka Seltzer!

My stomach remained calm all day.

12 Responses to “Eating History: Mickey’s Dining Car”

  1. DaveT Says:

    Excellent choice of Breakfast! I love a good chili cheese omelet. So how was the coffee?

    Dave T.

  2. Bill Sommers Says:

    Nice choice!! Oh man, you just took me back 20 years to a now defunct joint called Haguewoods that served a chili-cheddar omelet, and I always had raisin toast! A perfect greasy-spoon classic.
    Great post.
    Have fun,
    Bill

  3. MatL Says:

    Great write up and an intersting choice for breakfast.

    I wouldn’t worry about Mickey’s becoming extinct. While today’s Eric’s and Lashaw’s may move on, there are always other ‘kids’ ready to work at Mickey’s to pay the bills until they are ready to make their fame and fortune.

    I loved that you were able to work in the pics of John, Mary, and the daytime shot into this write up. Thanks for a wonderful glimpse into a classic greasy spoon that is a holdover from an era that seemed to have more substance to it – even if it was before my time.

    Mat

  4. jim Says:

    yuck!!!!
    later,
    jim

  5. Gary Charpentier Says:

    DaveT: The coffee? As with everything else at Mickey’s, it was classic American greasy spoon.

    Bill: I’m betting this resonates with a lot of folks our age. The mega-franchise movement only took over during the 1980s. My childhood was filled with stops at places like this.

    MatL: …and thank you for such a nice comment. It was my pleasure. You’re probably right about Mickey’s survival. That big building that practically engulfs the place had it’s design changed when they finally realized they wouldn’t be able to force Mickey’s to move.

    You’re perception that life had more “substance” to it way back then is certainly valid. People didn’t have any “virtual reality” to retreat into, unless you count movie theaters. You didn’t see everyone walking around with headphones over their ears. Folks engaged their environment, including each other, in a more natural way.

    I miss those days, because I was never able to experience them as an adult.

    jim: Coming from the guy who orders coke with his bacon and eggs, it’s kind of hard to take that as a serious epicurean critique.

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  6. AZ Lucky Says:

    That looked light a righteous breakfast. Of course, I can’t imagine being able to TASTE anything at 5:30 in the morning.

    Lady Luck and I went to a greasy spoon/truck stop in Arcata, California that a friend had told us had the best biscuits and gravy he’d ever had. They might have been, too. I sure couldn’t tell, because it was 3:30 in the morning (an early start to an 18 hour drive), and I could barely even notice that my coffee was hot.

    Since we’re talking about awesome greasy spoons, have you been to the St. Clair Broiler in St. Paul? If not, perhaps you should scoot on over one day.

    I said since moving to Phoenix that I’d only live in Minnesota again if we lived on Grand Ave (or Summit. I’d be ok with Summit.) in St. Paul, and a big part of that is the close proximity to great, “real” restaurants. The restaurants and Willy’s American Guitars.

  7. Gary Charpentier Says:

    AZ Lucky: I have indeed been to the St. Clair Broiler. Not in a few years, mind you, but I remember it was wonderful back then. Maybe I’ll do that for the blog someday soon.

    Grand Avenue is changing fast. They are trying hard to hold back the tide of big-box commercialism, but money talks… I couldn’t afford to live there.

    Still, it is one of the nicest areas in the Twin Cities.

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  8. Steve Williams Says:

    These places must be assimilated! They are an affront to the mega franchises and present a real threat to the total mind-numbing domination of the big box strategy.

    Despite the pressure of the franchises I am amazed how many little establishments manage to stay in business in rural areas here. The market surveys probably rule out the profit margin necessary for a Denny’s but I see a lot of places who must be in it for love.

    And there are a class of eating establishments that must be the answer to the lack of diner cars—-shacks. I see these little restaurants, no windows, barely a sign other than “breakfast” or “lunch” outside. I have not mustered the courage to enter one yet. I picture breakfast Deliverance inside. Too many big pickup trucks outside for me to leave the Vespa with.

    Kim and I stopped at one in upstate New York a few years back on our way to the Adirondacks. It was lunch time and only a few guys there in a rather dark, barlike restaurant. Mr. Limpet was playing on TV. I got up to go to the bathroom and when I came back I could tell Kim looked kind of freaked out. She whispered to me that we had to go right now.

    In the car she told me the two old guys sitting behind us (they looked like two old farmers in their sixties) said in a level she could hear that they could go in the bathroom and kill me and then take her home.

    No wonder I usually carry my lunch with me and only eat in places that I know! Man, is that the adventure spirit or what?

    I should get over this and start seeing more of the world than the landscape and try and embrace my fellow man too don’t you think?

    Gary, you have an adventurous appetite. I can’t imagine a chili omlette. And I love chili and love omlettes. But I can’t get my brain around the two together.

    I’m always feeling like a big wuzzy after reading your posts.

    steve

  9. irondad Says:

    Chili cheese omelet? Feel for your cubicle mates!

  10. Gary Charpentier Says:

    Steve: Great story, that “Deliverance Lunch-Stop”. Depending on where you are, some of those “shacks” serve up respectable grub. Especially out in Farm Country. But out in PA, you have some of that old hillbilly tradition going on, so I suppose it’s a good thing to exercise caution. Check six!

    Irondad: Roses, baby. Pure roses…

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  11. Buster Brown Says:

    Steve, you got a taste of what I call “hearing banjo music”. There are a few places in Wisconsin where I have heard it. From WI 95, turn SE on Alligator Slide Rd., then left on Pretzel Pass Rd. You might hear it back in there. Or over east of Elmwood, down in the coulee of Cady Creek. I rode down in there just days after finishing Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone”. Heard the banjos playing, and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But it’s not often that you actually meet people who make you hear the music.

  12. Gary Charpentier Says:

    Buster: Speaking of hearing banjos, tonight I had a guy in an old Ford pickup pull out of a construction site, right in front of me. I was able to get Scarlet stopped short of hitting him, but he stopped too, and just stared at me. As I looked into that angry face, into those dark, beady eyes, I saw profound, aggressive ignorance.

    I heard the banjos too, Buster, even here in the city.

    Ride well,
    =gc=