In the restaurant business, as in real estate, the three biggest factors to success are location, location, location. For restaurants, add good food and a good atmosphere.
All of which have well served the venerable Mickey’s Diner, 36 W. Ninth St. in downtown St. Paul. The Art Deco railroad car diner was built in 1937 by the Jerry O’Mahoney Company in New Jersey and shipped to St. Paul, where it opened in 1939.
An entry in the Minnesota Historical Society describes the restaurant’s attributes best:
Inspired by streamlined railroad dining cars, Mickey’s sports a symmetrical facade clad with yellow and red porcelain steel panels, a horizontal band of plate glass windows and a projecting neon sign with Art Deco lettering. The interior of the diner features stainless steel, mahogany and mirrored fixtures. A glass vestibule, added when the diner was installed, protects patrons from harsh Minnesota winters.
Breakfast any time
Mickey’s is known for its all-day (and night) breakfast menu featuring fluffy pancakes made from a special batter recipe, as well as its patty melts, hamburgers and ice-cream milk shakes.
Its website touts its longevity and family ownership: “Mickey’s Dining car has been operating 24 hours a day 365 days a year for nearly 70 years. Spanning three generations the diner has remained family owned and operated.”
According to Mickey’s, the dining car has had no shortage of media attention. It has been on TV shows including “Unwrapped,” “Roker on the Road,” “Rachel Ray’s Tasty Travels” and “Alton Brown’s ‘Feasting on Waves’;” it has been featured in magazines such as The Smithsonian, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Easy Rider, Playboy and Elle; it has been replicated as a collectible by Department 56, The Danbury Mint and Saks Fifth Avenue; and it has appeared in movies including “The Mighty Ducks (I, II, and III),” “Jingle All the Way” and Robert Altman’s star-studded “A Prairie Home Companion.”
The cherry on top? On March 10, 1983, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, although the entry on Mickey’s Diner hasn’t been digitized and is unavailable on the register’s website. Luckily, the Minnesota Historical Society has an entry for those who are curious.
Police gas protesters during GOP Convention
So, between fluffy pancakes, Al Roker and “A Prairie Home Companion,” it would seem Mickey’s Diner has had a charmed existence. It has, except for one night in September 2008. That’s when police confronted about 200 protesters during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. It was nighttime, and police gave the order for them to disperse. When they didn’t, tear gas, pepper spray and flash grenades were launched into the crowd.
It was witnessed by Kate Iverson, then an editor at l’etoile and a writer for The Rake, which in September 2008 had stopped printing and was online only.
The Rake “had several people with credentials to be in the convention center at the RNC, but I wanted to be out on the street writing about the protesters and their costumes and ideals,” Iverson says today. “I was an arts and entertainment writer, certainly not a political writer. I thought it would be fun. It didn’t turn out that way.”
In The Rake blog, headlined “Mayhem at Mickey Diner,” Iverson wrote, “I had a feeling plenty of sassy nut jobs in outrageous get-ups would be out in full force. I was definitely right, but what I didn’t really bank on was getting tear-gassed by the end of the night.”
She said that only about 200 protesters remained when police put up a barricade in front of Mickey’s Diner. In the blog she wrote that the protesters “basically just stood there, chanting and talking smack to the lines of police.
‘I think both sides were looking for a fight of sorts’
“Honestly, I think both sides were looking for a fight of sorts. The cops were practically vibrating with excitement at the thought of getting to kick the crowd’s ass, and the protesters seemed to want them to do it, and were basically asking them to do it by not moving after the three warnings police gave, ordering everyone to disperse via bullhorn. … I heard a loud pop and saw billows of tear gas start rising up in the middle of the crowd. Numerous more pops and the streets were filled with screaming protesters running aimlessly as lines of police advanced on us.
“I turned tail and began booking up the street, veering away from the thick line of cops liberally dousing retreating protesters with huge arcs of pepper spray as flash grenades and tear gas canisters fell all around us. People were writhing on the ground crying and screaming for medics, and while everyone ran, the police seemed to be shooting things directly at our backs. …
“I saw a crying girl stumble too close to the police line (and) was met by a douse of pepper spray that was so extreme that it literally splashed off her face, downing her instantly. Another young kid was balled up by the doorway to an office building, clawing at his eyes and bawling while other protesters screamed for someone to help him.
“I’d never seen such a thing. It was like a war zone, minus the actual killing of course.” Eventually she found her friends and walked to their car. “Along the way we passed by at least 500 cops in full riot gear, traveling in menacing packs all over downtown and at the Capitol. It was quite intimidating, and a little bit shocking.”
While the entire event seems surreal now, Iverson said the most surreal part was the image of tear gas rising up among the chaos of protesters and police on the dark St. Paul street, lit only by the garish green and red neon of the Mickey’s Diner sign.
Location, location, location. Sometimes even a famous restaurant has to suffer from a good one.