Mickey’s Diner and Al’s Breakfast are St. Paul and Minneapolis’ most iconic grease nooks, respectively, and for good reason. In both cases, while you’re perched on a stool, brushing elbows with your neighbor, the intimate atmosphere adds flavor to your meal that transcends any spice rack.
But as we have all learned this year, the snug ambiance that makes these joints timeless means they’re most vulnerable to a plague. You can be sure that tiny diners will be the last businesses to open back up after a pandemic.
“We figured out the other day, if we followed the COVID rules strictly with our diner, we could get somewhere between 12 and 14 people inside,” said Melissa Mattson, the third-generation manager of Mickey’s. “That isn’t good for anything; it’s worse than losing money.”
The history of Mickey’s Diner is as simple as the menu. In 1939, Bert Mattson parked a 50-foot railroad-style dining car on 9th Street in downtown Saint Paul. It hasn’t moved since, though the city has changed radically around it. Countless downtown buildings were demolished around it, and the massive gray walls of a skyscraper constructed next door. Even the street has been renamed, but all the while they’ve been serving the same O’Brien potatoes.
“We didn’t even know how to close, and we had to figure it out,” said Eric Mattson, Melissa’s father. “We had to learn how to lock the doors, because the doors didn’t have padlocks. I still don’t know how to turn off some of the lights.”
(In all these years, Mickey’s had only ever closed a few times on Christmas Day back in the 1960s. But due to popular demand, it began staying open on Christmas, too.)
A rare urban oasis at 3 a.m.
All-night diners like Mickey’s offer sanctuary for the working class, a rare urban oasis at 3 a.m. No matter what shift you work, or whether you’re alone on a holiday, always know that you can go to Mickey’s, where there will be a short order cook and a mug of coffee waiting behind the counter.
That all changed with the pandemic, and Mickey’s has struggled to find its way. Last summer, they installed a takeout window and served directly to people on St. Peter Street. The sidewalk service ended when the weather turned, and Eric and Melissa are still trying to figure out what to do next.
“I was sitting home the other day feeling sorry for myself, looking at 1940s pictures of Christmas on 7th Street,” admitted 78-year-old Eric, who can remember over half a century of St. Paul stories. “There were crowds of people four-deep shopping, running around down there. Boy those were the good old days.”
A 24-hour diner maintains all the complex rhythms of an urban street, but the business was always predicated on downtown crowds. Without workers at next-door Travelers Insurance, people streaming out of the Xcel Center after a hockey game, or out of the Palace concert, or without groups frequenting the many museums, Eric worries about the future of his downtown business.
Right away, Mickey’s let go of its long-term staff, many of whom fell into vulnerable health categories. Mary Mattson said she was grateful for the federal relief packages, which gave her workers “unemployment plus $600.”
Then, as for a lot of the city’s cultural landmarks, some Mickey’s fans launched a GoFundMe that raised $75,000 for the business, keeping it afloat financial and spiritually.
“We were really saved by the GoFundMe thing and wish it was still going on,” said Eric Mattson. “The thing was wonderful; it brought us over the hump, and, really, the people helped us feel we were worthwhile and appreciated.”
Meanwhile, across town at Al’s …
Mickey’s is downright spacious compared to Al’s Breakfast, the 13-stool breakfast joint in the heart of Dinkytown, next to Minneapolis’ University of Minnesota.
To call Al’s legendary is an understatement. Formed out of an old alleyway in 1950, Al’s is the most intimate dining experience you’ll find this side of Tokyo, 13 stools long and about 25 feet across and so full of atmosphere you almost suffocate. And that’s even before the pandemic.
Going there for “CBH” (corned beef hash) is something of a ritual for southeast Minneapolis old-timers, and ought to be a rite of passage for any self-respecting Gopher student. That’s why Allison Kirwin, who has owned Al’s for the last five years, still gets daily calls to see if they’re open for indoor dining.
(Spoiler: They’re not.)
“I’m always surprised people actually want to come in and sit so close to people,” said Kirwin. “We have to be able to be open at 100 percent for it to make sense. At the very least, we feel like we all needed to be vaccinated as a staff. But we also need to get a lot closer to herd immunity to safely open in our tiny little space. It’ll be quite a while.”
In a regular year, there’s no Twin Cities spot with a more subtle code of conduct. Cash only, a first-come-first-served crowd lines up each morning literally 4 feet behind the patrons chowing down on their stools. During the breakfast rush, the queue typically extends out the wooden door onto the sidewalk of 14th Avenue. One social challenge of eating at Al’s is developing the ability to get comfortable with someone literally breathing down your neck.
Needless to say, all of that becomes impossible in the presence of an airborne virus, and they’ve had to adapt.
“Our general day-to-day takeout is doing OK,” said Allison Kerwin. “Weekends are pretty good; weekdays can vary greatly, and if it weren’t for several of our other things — these staff meals, these donations from people who love us — it would be a much harder trek here for sure.”
Kerwin has adapted to COVID closure with a slow-but-steady takeout service that keeps the door open, though she’s had to lay off staff and cut hours.
That’s where the staff meals come in.
“When the whole pandemic started, we started feeding our staff once a week to be helpful to them, and to have reason for people to check in on a regular basis,” Kerwin said.
As she describes it, the staff meals became Al’s biggest lifeline. Once word got around about the weekly dinners, people in Minneapolis began signing up: $50 for a dinner for two (with leftovers). If you order by Monday, you’ll get your meal by Wednesday afternoon. It’s grown to dozens of weekly themed dinners shipped out of Al’s tiny doors.
(This week’s meal, a fundraiser to support Stop AAPI Hate: Thai Style Shrimp and Cucumber Salad; Curried Rice Cakes with Chiangmai Style Sausage and Garlic and Sesame Pea Greens; Pineapple tart with Coconut Mousse.)
While many Twin Cities restaurants and bars used their COVID closure for overdue remodeling, changing things up is not on the menu at Al’s Breakfast. Everything from the lighting to the signs on the door to the dinosaur toys placed in front on the tape deck are part of its history.
“Anything we improve at Al’s, we have to make it look the same from the customer’s point of view,” explained Alison Kerwin. “We get so much flak if anything changes; if we change out a refrigerator that’s visible, we get endless amounts of crap for it.”
The commitment to tradition explains the people gathered around the door on the streets of Dinkytown through the pandemic, waiting for a cook to hand them an omelet, hash browns, and poached eggs in a brown paper bag.
COVID was a terrifying proposition for the Twin Cities’ urban landmarks, places that rely on intimacy and atmosphere. That our smallest diners have stayed afloat is testament to both dogged regulars and government relief.
“We’re going to make it through this,” Alison Kerwin said of her business and staff. “The unemployment and extra stimulus payments are very, very helpful to them. If they just had to rely on what was coming on off of Al’s it would be a pretty sad little story.”
Meanwhile, at 78, Mickey’s Eric Mattson qualified for early COVID vaccines, and has gotten his shots. With the state on track to open vaccinations to everyone, there might be hope for diners on the horizon. We’ll know that the pandemic crisis is finally over when people are back atop stools in the city’s oldest diners.
“We’ve never closed before, but we’ve never opened before,” said Eric. “For the last 80 years, to go out and find a new crew, how many people will we get back after a year? A lot of them probably found other things to do.”
“How do you get a diner through COVID?” replied his daughter Melissa. “There are so many answers, I don’t know what the right one is.”
“But museums are opening again,” added Eric. “I’d like to get one shift open and put my toe in the water.”