“Do you still peel potatoes in the backroom?”
“Customers still can’t use the bathroom?”
“Still make the pork tenderloin?”
The fry cook, a slim but muscular man in his 50s wearing a Minnesota Vikings hat, briskly flipped a burger oozing with juicy grease and scuffled hash browns around the griddle.
“Yep. We did change the pancake mix though—it’s a little lighter and sweeter now.”
Steve and Colleen went back and forth while Steve eats his Workman—eggs over easy, hash browns, bacon and rye—like an old college alum coming back to campus and comparing notes with a current student about his favorite traditions.
Colleen is a waitress at Northeast Minneapolis’ Ideal Diner. She’s been working here for the past 30 years in various capacities. She used to be the “Sunday girl,” helping to clean and prepare for the coming week, but she’s been full time for the past five years. Steve worked here as a cook, making Workmans during the nightshift exactly like the one he now eats—about 35 years ago.
One wouldn’t have guessed it by looking around the diner and overhearing these conversations, but some things have actually changed in the past 35 years. “There used to be a pinball machine here,” Steve says, pointing to the barely pinball machine-sized space between the stools at the counter and the wall. “And we had a smoking and non-smoking sides of the diner!”, Colleen added. Ideal is about 35 feet long. A “No Smoking” sign now hangs on the wall of the erstwhile smoking side.
For a building plucked from the pages of the encyclopedia entry on classic 1950s diners, the walls and counters are mostly bereft of the vintage Coca Cola bottles, Elvis posters, and other memorabilia dating from the Eisenhower administration you might expect. A few bobbleheads of cartoon animals nod back and forth approvingly on shelves next to slices of lemon merengue pie (the cookies and cream has already sold out); an old rotary payphone still sits affixed to the wall in the corner; various awards from publications honoring the nation’s premier diners and dives are scattered across Ideal’s cozy confines. The crisp crimson and yellow tiles on the walls and ceiling pop against the bright sheen of the napkin dispensers and counter base, chrome like a vintage Airstream camper.
Ideal has its fair share of regulars who can undoubtedly order “the usual,” but the 14 stools in front of the counter overlooking the kitchen are the true mainstays here. Ideal has shirts and mugs boasting of their consistency: “14 Stools. 1 Counter. No Bathroom. Since 1949.” When Steve cooked here, workers from the nearby Northrup-King Building and other factories who did three shifts would pile in throughout the day. Those workers could watch Steve make their Workmans just as I watched the fry cook working today expertly assemble hash browns, sautéed vegetables, eggs, pancakes and burgers. “There used to be this customer who’d always give me tips on cooking eggs.” Steve cleared his throat, pretending to be the customer by adding gravel to his voice. “’Al can cook ‘em way better than that!’”
“Al was the other cook,” he clarified.
Later, a middle-aged man and his lanky son walked into Ideal. “Is Kim around?” he asked, looking for Ideal’s owner. Colleen told him she wouldn’t be back in until 4:30; they briefly chatted before he thanked her and left. Several years ago, the visitor was a delivery truck driver who had stopped to unload loaves of bread at the diner. While he was finishing his task, someone stole his truck parked on Central Avenue. Eventually, the thief abandoned it near downtown and the rightful owner reclaimed it later.
After Colleen finished telling the story, an older man at the other side of the counter yelled across the diner, “you know how they found it?” They followed the trail of breadcrumbs!!”, he said, slapping his knee and laughing at a joke he’s probably told dozens of times over the years. Colleen groaned and rolled her eyes. “Eh, she’s got sour grapes!”, the man next to him replied. “More like sourdough!”, quipped his friend.
As the companies inhabiting the factories fled for the suburbs, artists, brewers, and entrepreneurs have replaced blue-collar workers as Ideal’s regulars. And yet, Ideal’s place in the community—and its menu—have never wavered. During the closure of Central Avenue for road construction in 2014, Caron Kipfer, co-founder of SportsEngine, a major employer in the neighborhood, heavily encouraged his employees to stop by Ideal to make sure it maintained robust business.
There’s something humbling and special about stepping into Ideal, as if you’re paying homage to a different era in Northeast’s history. Amidst all the changes in the neighborhood, Ideal is an icon of stability—a reminder of what Northeast has been and always will be at its core. As a piece of stationary above the griddle reads, “where regular people feel special & special people feel regular.”