“NOW OPEN,” reads the white sheet taped to the door. It is a humble invitation to a big deal: the reopening of the Original Coney Island Tavern, a building as old as the city itself.
From 1923 to 1994, the tavern served Coney hotdogs, and when St. Paul scored the Republican National Convention, locals urged the founding family to reopen.
“Joe Soucheray thought this was the soul of the city,” said Mary Ellen Arvanitis, 49, the youngest of founders Nick and Frances’ six children. She is tiny, but her wild black curls and red silk shirt are striking.
Locals pause as they pass by.
“Coney Island? Are they open?”
Tom McDonough, 50, of St. Paul, steps inside with his wife. His elderly uncle John attended high school nearby. “They’d come over for lunch, just like we used to go to Burger King,” McDonough said. “He said, ‘Every once in a while they’d slip us a beer.'”
Another man peers through the door and starts laughing. “No one’s in there!”
Indeed, the turnout has underwhelmed. When I arrived at noon Wednesday, I was the first customer of the day. “I was expecting the conventioneers to come,” Arvanitis said. But the response from locals has been “touching.”
Arvanitis’ nephew, Jim Pathos, 47, of Eau Claire, Wis., also chose to look on the bright side. “We’ve had a steady flow,” he said. “Nothing overwhelming.”
Those who do enter find a surprise: the legendary Coneys aren’t being served. “The turnaround time just wouldn’t have done it justice,” Arvanitis said.
“It’s just beer and pretzels,” said one woman who stepped in and promptly left.
The tavern smells musty. A high tin ceiling, wooden booths and a mahogany art-deco bar whisper of the past, while Code Pink women shout outside.
Someone jumps in front of a car. “They’re not supposed to be doing that!” Arvanitis said.
Last night, she said, tear gas exploded outside, on the corner of St. Peter Street and Seventh Street. The tavern has been a “haven” for convention goers. “They’re a little leery of heading out.”
“Bye!” Arvanitis bids a man. “I hope this isn’t goodbye forever.”
The plan was to reopen the tavern from Aug. 29 to Thursday. There’s a slim chance it’ll stay open today, too.
“It’s kind of like we don’t want to close that door.”