Urban rhythms and the case of the missing all-night diner

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
St. Paul’s Mickey’s Diner at night, circa 1980.

“Downtown doesn’t have any places like that any more … . No 24-hour restaurants, no cheap cafés.”

Some months ago, I was a fly on the wall for a conversation about gritty old 1980s Minneapolis. The legendary founder of First Avenue, Steve McCellan, was telling stories about Hennepin Avenue in the early days of the club, where he booked music acts and spent all his time.

“Everyone used to hang out in the Best Steak House, which was open 24 hours a day. The guy at the Best Steak House used to give me an extra potato and an extra toast because I’d eat there so much. ‘Potato, potato, toast … ’ ” McClellan mimed excitedly. “It was like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ kind of skit. It always worked that way.”

These days, precious few all-night diners of the old school remain in the Twin Cities’ core. St. Paul’s two Mickey’s locations, particularly the prefab 1937 downtown dining car, are the exceptions that prove the rule. And just over each city’s borders, in the quirky burbs of Little Canada and Hilltop, there are the two Flameburger locations, old-school diners open all night. But apart from that, there are only the chains: two Perkins locations and the Lake Street Denny’s.

It’s odd because the all-night diner plays a special role in American cities. Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” shows a glowing diner in New York City where a cook serves up coffee to three quiet customers. Diner scenes are rampant in old movies, often sheltering couples on the run, or offering a hangout for the young and old alike. More than anything, all-night diners were places for people with nowhere else to go, or for groups of people who didn’t want the night to end. But where are the all-night diners in Minneapolis?

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper, 1942.
“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, 1942.

 

Rhythms of the city

Maybe one answer is that every city, Minneapolis and St. Paul included, has its own unique rhythms. The French sociologist Henri Lefebvre was famous for describing the rhythms of Paris, finding deep meaning in the patterns of everyday life. Looking down at a busy street corner from his balcony, Lefebvre once wrote about the rhythms of a stoplight:

The people produce completely different noises when the cars stop: feet and words. From right to left and back again. And on the pavements along the perpendicular street. At the green light, steps and words stop. A second of silence and then it’s the rush, the starting up of tens of cars, the rhythms of the old bangers speeding up as quickly as possible.

Just like the Parisian stoplight, every corner of our city is ripe with rhythm. There are the natural syncopations: the rhythm of walking, the rhythm of meals and digestion, the rhythm of heartbeats, or early morning birds. Far larger still drift the orbits of our days and years, with all their seasons and contrast. And within these natural rhythms, our more human patterns circulate: the lunch hour, the rush hour, the happy hour, the bleating car alarm, or the tinkle of a twilight wind chime.

And each city’s rhythm is unique, like an urban fingerprint. I like to joke that, if New York City is the city that never sleeps, St. Paul is the city that goes to bed early. Here in the Twin Cities, outside of a few weekend hotspots, our city rhythms seem decidedly diurnal. Restaurants shut up by 9 or 10 p.m., and it was a big deal when “bar close” shifted from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. back in 2003. Yet in some other cities around the world, like Madrid or Miami, 2 a.m. is still considered dinnertime. Clearly our cities enjoy getting their beauty rest.

Northern Spark: The all-night art adventure

Yet as the shifting times illustrate, city rhythms are not set in stone. Earlier this month, Minneapolis hosted its 4th Annual Northern Spark Festival, an all-night art celebration modeled on a similar festival in Montreal. Despite the near-constant rain, this year was a success. Thousands of people wandered the city in the middle of the night, exploring art and culture underneath bridges, in parks, and around our many museums.

“It’s one night; it’s not that bad,” was Sarah Peters’ answer when I asked her why Northern Spark took place in the middle of the night. Peters has organized the festival for the last two years, and argues that staying up all night is one of the main reasons the festival offers such adventure.

Photo by Bill Lindeke

 

“Dawn is a really important time of the festival,” Peters explained. “From about 10 p.m. until dawn, the night is indistinguishable. But dawn is the moment when you realize you’ve been on a journey. You’ve made it into the next day. In the morning, there’s a shift, and a different sense of time. It feels almost limitless. The timelessness is a special thing.”

Two years ago, I stayed up all night for Northern Spark and watched the sunrise from the top of the Foshay Tower. It was an adventure to be sure, but there was a cost. I’m not as young as I used to be, and for the next few days my head filled with cobwebs. But to have an all-night adventure once in a while, as Peters argues, is to feel “the magic in the night, a way of making a familiar place new.”

Return of the all-night diners?

One of the main challenges of an all-night restaurant is finding the right place for it. For neighbors, the chief complaint is noise. Particularly in the summertime, loud voices and raucous cars conflict with open windows and sound slumber.

For example, St. Paul residents Kristine and Mark Vesley have spent the last few months documenting the late-night activity at the Taco Bell next to their house. As the dozens of nuisance videos show, the Vesleys struggle with chain’s late night hours (where the drive-thru is open until 5 a.m. on Saturdays), and have repeatedly complained to the city and the fast-food company.

But when I asked Kristine Vesley about all-night diners, I was surprised by her positivity. “Late-night restaurants are good!” Vesley told me. “Lots of places start out claiming they will have late hours, and you can count the weeks until they scale back.  We had high hopes that the Frogtown Daily Diner would be at least open till midnight. … But Taco Bell?  Puh. Not a restaurant. Truly a bad taste in the mouth.”

As the Vesleys’ experience shows, places for all-night food should be chosen carefully. Being around a restaurant in the darkest hours of the night is not for everyone. For example, Kim Bartmann, the Minneapolis restaurateur behind Café Barbette and the Bryant Lake Bowl, recently opened a new diner in South Minneapolis. It’s called, simply enough, Tiny Diner.

But the new diner is not open 24 hours; instead it’s what Bartmann calls “a reimagined diner, a place where you just want to go and eat, and are not looking for some Disneyland experience.” According to Bartmann, if you’re running a restaurant, “being open all night is usually not all that worth it.” She reminisced about late-night Minneapolis spots like Little T’s or Professor Munchies. But Bartmann said that, in general, “the Twin Cities don’t have the culture for it. People are winding down by 10 p.m.”

Given their density and commotion, the missing all-night diners of downtown Minneapolis remain mysterious to me. Perhaps as apartment towers continue to rise, the rhythms of Minneapolis and St. Paul will evolve. Thirty years ago, downtown Minneapolis knew how to stay up all night. Maybe in the future, we will again find ourselves nursing potatoes and toast at 4:30 in the morning.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Evan Roberts on 06/24/2014 - 10:30 am.

    Even downtown the standard authorized hours of a coffee shop in Minneapolis (for example) are 6:00am – 1:00am (Sun-Thu) and 2:00am Fri/Sat. The city imposes extra hurdles on businesses that want to open later, making them do a separate license application, and paying $142/year for the privilege. Not a huge amount of money to be sure, but one more barrier to just deciding to open a little later.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 06/24/2014 - 11:21 am.

      Couldn’t get a clear picture of the regulatory hurdles

      Evan, I called around in the folks at the City of Saint Paul and even the State Health Department to try and find out details about the extra hoops or permits needed for a late-night or all-night restaurant. I didn’t get a clear answer! It seems complicated…

      Thanks for sharing what you know.

  2. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 06/24/2014 - 11:07 am.

    Late night and equipped for working please

    I have been thinking a lot about this kind of setting. I love working in public and I like to work late at night. I thrive on the energy of the environment, so it would be great if more people were out late with me. A standard coffee shop is not always what I am looking for. I would love to have more places where I can get a meal and savor it while I work on my laptop or my knitting project. I do not want to go to a normal sit down restaurant and haul out my work, I feel like it takes away from the experience of others and it is not the intention of the establishments.

  3. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 06/24/2014 - 12:50 pm.

    I have always advocated for late night businesses near my neighborhood, though they seem to slow fade away. I think having late night restaurants and other businesses creates a safer atmosphere for neighborhoods- more people out = more eyes on the streets. Also, more businesses open = more of a reason for residents to be out and about, keeping a watch on things. People’s behaviors are different when they think they’re being watched. Perhaps if there were more late night options around Snelling Taco Bell, those behaviors would be somewhat muted. Many in the city do not seem to share my belief on this.

    I don’t think the hurdles are city regulations as much as neighborhood groups who oppose changing their neighborhoods into anything that is not residential. It seems anathema to living in a city.

    I live near the Green Line and so I hope that despite the amounts of housing being built right now that University Avenue will remain primarily a mix of housing and business with many late night options.

  4. Submitted by Richard Parker on 06/24/2014 - 03:00 pm.

    Sikths chizbuggers, please.

    Thirty years ago, or a little more, I was in a crew of reporters who fanned out to try all-night diners for a Tribune (or Star Tribune) food story. I was paired up with M. Howard Gelfand and we were assigned to the new White Castle in Hopkins. We had some scrumptious sliders but garnered no Pulitzer.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 06/24/2014 - 03:34 pm.

      aah the Hopkins White Castle

      Definitely my fourth favorite White Castle.

      I am gonna try and track that story down.

  5. Submitted by jason myron on 06/24/2014 - 05:04 pm.

    One of the only things I miss

    about living in the Milwaukee area…a plethora of late night eateries to choose from.

  6. Submitted by Claude Ashe on 06/24/2014 - 05:28 pm.

    Late nite is for the Internet

    “It’s odd because the all-night diner plays a special role in American cities”

    Correction: They *used* to.

    Two possible reasons for the decline (that are conspicuously absent in this story) are our current online society and the generations of young people being brought up to be terrified of anything outside of their home or their electronics.

    The last time I visited friends in England I was appalled by the tidal wave of neighborhood pubs that were closing down. When I asked why, I was told that people preferred to stay at home with the Internet.

    I would love it if late night diners staged a comeback. But I don’t think it will happen in the short term. I work with young people who literally don’t seem to know how to sit across a table from someone and converse. Their social rhythms may— or may not ever— include the diner.

  7. Submitted by Pat Fleetham on 06/25/2014 - 08:15 am.

    old diners in Mpls

    I remember Plantation Pancakes on 5th & Hennepin, Embers on Hennepin & 26th,
    The Duet, aka Sir Winstons on Hennepin and Lagoon. There was Mr. Q’s in S.L.P., The Flame Cafe on Franklin, there was a ‘joint’ (Hills Cafe?) on about 8th Street right by the Leamington, there was a corner joint on Lyn-Lake where Its Greek to Me is, another late night joint across the street from the Flame Bar on 14th & Hennepin.

    We would go to these memorable establishments cause we were fueled with alcohol and not ready for our homeward bound journey. We had to mind our “Ps & Qs” to be certain we did not get roped into, or cause, an encounter with the various and sometimes rough characters that also patronized these places.

    Does anyone recall any other memorable ‘joints’ ?

    The article cites the internet as possible fault, I would say equal to that would be the arrival of air conditioning and heating in the homes. Previous to modern day HVAC people would seek out the cool air in the summer and the warmth provided in the winters.

    And lets not forget the coffee. It was all you could drink, for what, a quarter in my days, or it might have been less as I was young and didn’t drink coffee.
    Not anything fancy, just a cup of strong black ‘joe.’

  8. Submitted by Hudson Leighton on 06/25/2014 - 05:08 pm.

    Let us not forget McDs

    Let us not forget the Micky D’s with a 24 hour drive through, don’t even have to get out of the car.

  9. Submitted by Stephen McClellan on 06/25/2014 - 08:03 pm.

    Small correction to my quote about Best Steak House on Henn.

    Everything I said about the Best Steak House on Hennepin is correct EXCEPT that it was never open 24 hours. The places I mentioned back then that were open 25 hours were THE HUNGRY EYE on 10th Street downtown, PLANTATION PANCAKES on 5th and Hennepin downtown, JONS which is now the back part of the present day NYE’s on East Hennepin, and a few other’s downtown that I’m forgetting the names……………

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