Forty years of forking over

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September 13, 2010 // UPDATED 9:35 am - September 13, 2010
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar

Forty years is a long time for any enterprise to stay in business — and the odds are even tougher in the restaurant trade, where stats show that 50 percent of new eateries fail in their very first year. Yet, just as Downtown Journal (formerly Skyway News) has flourished for 40 years, so have a number of Downtown dining destinations. Not all are see-and-be-seen spots, nor are they headed by a chef whose name you’d recognize. And, rather than bend to the latest culinary breeze to blow a fad their way, they just continue to do what they do best. They haven’t tapped a bold-name designer to remake their comfortable, familiar quarters, either. Just as important to longtime success, their floors are staffed by career servers who know the ropes and bend over backward (well, some are no longer as agile as that, but you get the idea) to make your experience pleasant.
Here are some of our favorites.

Leading the list is Peter’s Grill, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in Minneapolis, serving up plain, old-fashioned home cooking since — gasp! — 1914. That’s the year when a young Greek immigrant named Peter Atkas retired his fruit stand for bigger, better things. These days the place is run by his nephew, Peter Atsidakas, who knew from the get-go not to tamper with his uncle’s formula for success: “good, honest food, a lot of food, and good prices.”

Those prices seem to have been frozen back in the ’30s, when the café took on its present Art Moderne persona. Those Deco lamps still dangle from the ceiling above the wooden booths and U-shaped counters. Those seats are filled breakfast, lunch and dinner — when the meal deal includes soup or tomato juice, coleslaw or salad, potatoes and homemade roll plus chicken, meatloaf, roast turkey, what have you, and you’ll get change back from a $10. Regulars religiously heed the sign in the window that instructs, “It’s Apple Pie Time” because all Peter’s baked treats are homemade.

Waitresses probably turn over their tip money to podiatrists, for they’ve tramped the terrazzo floors in double time year after year, serving office workers, shoppers, retirees, and, oh yeah, President Clinton back in 1994. (You doubt me? Go look at the plaque on his chair.)

For three generations — since 1946, that is — the familiar red neon has spelled out Murray’s, the family name that’s become a synonym for steak — silver butter knife steak in particular, so-called because it’s so tender you can slice it with the dainty little tool you use to spread your bread — er, garlic toast, whose recipe originated with founder Pat Murray’s wife and resides under lock and key. Same for the secret behind the legendary Caesar salad.

Murray’s is, and always has been, a special-occasion place: destination dining for visiting celebs, politicos and sports heroes as well as many a couple commemorating their anniversary. They return, year after year, to take pleasure in the faux-Louis chairs, Baroque mirrors, fancy drapes and elegant chandeliers — all in all, a valentine in pink. Except for the veteran waitresses in their professional black, topped with crisp, white aprons, who treat one and all like VIPs.

The time-honored menu gets a tweak now and then, but its building block remains the same: big beef. Beef well-aged in Murray’s own coolers. Such quality doesn’t come cheap, but most agree, the splurge is worth it. Add a wine list as big as a phone book, and when Pat’s grandson, Tim stops by your table with “How’s everything?” all you have to do is purr.

’Forty-six was a lucky year for Downtown’s foodies, for that’s also when Market Bar-B-Que first lit up its smokers and opened its doors. Since then, it’s more than a barbecue joint; it’s a place of worship. Longtime fans — and they are many — followed the market’s move from one Downtown location to another. After baptism in the hickory smoke that permeates the slow-cooked racks, they’re born-again believers in these ribs — rib s for those who love to wrestle the meat from the bone rather than have it steamed into submission.

Regulars head past the bar to get their religion in the back room, where checkered oilcloth garbs booths as unpadded as a church pew (after a slab, you’ll never notice). The bones are delivered just as God meant ribs to be — bare-naked, unmasked by sauce (add your own if you must), accompanied, with nary a nod to trendiness, by a tiny cup of coleslaw, a mess of fries and slabs of white-bread toast.  

Among those pigging out here at hog heaven you’ll find blue collars and white, plus big-name musicians and politicians, all noted on little brass nameplates and autographed photos, attesting to the joint’s longstanding good standing among the many fans of ’cue.

Nye’s Polonaise Room is beyond a place to eat, it’s an institution. Polish native Al Nye launched this supper club in 1944, back when Northeast Minneapolis was still Nordeast, a neighborhood of settlers from the Old Country. Not much has changed since then — well, inside, anyway — from the neon piano logo to the Golden Oldies plinked out in the piano bar: still the vintage, gold-spangled booths, the red-flocked wallpaper and Naugahyde to match. Especially not the veteran servers. And certainly not the menu.

The food carries a heavy Polish accent here, as in sauerkraut with short ribs, and maybe the best liver and onions in town. Then there’s the Hunters’ Stew, rich with beef and Polish sausage. The cabbage rolls. The loaves of Polish rye. And did someone say ‘pierogi’?

Today, thanks to nearby condo dwellers and college students on a night out, the crowd of Nye’s admirers has widened. But they blend right in with the old-timers twirling to the polka band.

The Monte Carlo’s menu states “since 1906”— but that’s long before seasoned restaurateur John Rimarcik foretold the bar-and-grill’s potential, took the helm and steered it to SRO status. In the old days, it served as a working man’s bar, but for recent decades it’s been packed from its stamped-tin ceiling to the lino-tiled floor with a cache of professional types who’ve claimed this Warehouse cubbyhole as their haunt, milling around the ornate bar in wait for a table.

In the long, narrow room beyond, career waitresses still call you “hon” as they take your order. They’ll counsel you to begin with the mom-style chicken soup and chopped liver, both among the best in town. Then hit the beef, from sirloin to the addictive Caesar burger and the “secret recipe” steak sandwiches served for 48 years at legendary Charlie’s Café before its demise. Bordeaux? Oh, no: This is the place for a Martini.

Macy’s (back then, Dayton’s) famed Oak Grill debuted in 1947, thrilling suits and shoppers alike with its tribute to Olde England’s Jacobean days. In fact, the ornate fireplace from the 1800s was shipped from Salisbury, England, complete with the solid oak columns that have served as the café’s focal point ever since, abetted by dark paneling, dim lighting and substantial chairs. The timeless room has remained cozy for succeeding generations, who find old favorites — wild rice soup, baked meatloaf, Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, complete with peas and carrots under that flaky pastry crust — among entrees updated for today’s perceptive palates. It’s a tradition, especially during the department store’s Holiday and Flower Show exhibitions, so prepare to stand in line. You’ll agree it’s worth it.

Other kitchens of 40 years’ standing have reinvented themselves for today’s tastes, like the Radisson’s Flame Room (remember the strolling violins?) morphing into the farm-to-table FireLake; the Normandy Kitchen, revived once more, and retaining that legendary Henry VIII burger and popovers divine; and the Forum Cafeteria, once again resplendent in its Deco trimmings, albeit with an updated menu.