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