Found Art

An erstwhile hipster chef and a preservationist philanthropist team up to provide truly artful diner food

Now, if you are currently storming up and down and gnashing your teeth while cursing me, because you have been to the Band Box and you know it to be horrible, dirty, greasy and lackluster, a place where mere nostalgia is the only engine, I say to you: Hold your horses there, pardner. I, too, held a low opinion of the Band Box, based on long-ago visits when the place, quite frankly, stank. But things are different now. See, what happened was that Brad Ptacek took over the joint--and he's not just a diner chef, he's the old chef from Café Solo, the long-gone warehouse district restaurant that defined young, chef-driven Italian food in the Twin Cities in the early '90s. And he's not just the chef at the Band Box, he's also an owner.

I talked to Ptacek on the phone for this story, and he told me how a chef on the clear path to becoming a face on chef trading cards ended up in a diner: He got burned out on the rat race that was Café Solo's 24-hour super-stress kitchen (they ran a bakery at night too) and walked out the door, renouncing the whole world of competitive chefs. "I just got to feeling like that life was tainted," he says. "When you act as a chef for somebody, your investment is almost more personal than theirs. But you don't get any real control. It gets old after a while working for someone else, and I got to thinking: Maybe I'd just rather be a diner with regulars and a crew. Instead of trying to outdo the next guy I'd just try to do something nice. So I walked in here, introduced myself to the owner, and said, 'I think you need a hand. Would you like to sell it, or would you like a partner?'"

The owner was one Orin Johnson, a retiree who lives down in Red Wing, and to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. "Orin's a great guy," says Ptacek. "He's a retired rocket engineer--literally. He worked on the computers for the first moon launch, and he was living in the neighborhood because it was close to the Metrodome, so he could walk to games. When it looked like the Band Box was going to close, he figured, 'Why don't I just buy the Band Box so the neighborhood can have it?'"

New conductor, better song: Brad Ptacek, chef and part owner of Minneapolis's Band Box
Allen Beaulieu
New conductor, better song: Brad Ptacek, chef and part owner of Minneapolis's Band Box

Johnson provided this gift of architecture and history to the city; the Band Box has been officially designated by the city of Minneapolis as an official landmark, because of its odd architecture (it's a sort of rail-car diner made by a grain-bin manufacturer) and because of its local historical importance (in the pre-Eisenhower era of virulent Minnesota anti-Semitism the Band Box was an important Jewish hub).

But while Johnson rescued the place from physical oblivion, it was Ptacek who put it on the culinary map. When Ptacek left Solo and wandered into the Band Box, Johnson had been losing thousands of dollars a year on his gift to the city. But instead of closing it down, he worked out a sweat-equity deal with Ptacek, so that every day Ptacek worked he would gain a $40 stake toward ownership in the diner. By the time last winter arrived, Ptacek owned 65 percent of the restaurant, and shut the place down for three months to remodel the kitchen and add a separate dining room. So now the place is merely tiny, instead of being truly miniscule. They held a grand opening this summer, and the Band Box of yore has been replaced with the Band Box of now: A place with enough room in the dining room that you can teach your kid what a real diner burger is, and enough room in the kitchen to cure corned beef or make whipped cream from scratch.

Which is what you'll find on top of the strawberry short stack ($4.95), a dish I cannot go to the Band Box without ordering, and neither should you. Because when you do, what you'll get are two plate-sized, griddle-crisp pancakes with just the ideal amount of resistance, salt, and chew. These are real American diner pancakes, not the too-sweet, super-fluffy pillows that are currently so popular. They come decorated with a few strawberries' worth of fresh sliced fruit, a shaking of powdered sugar, and a mound of fresh whipped cream. The salt of the pancakes together with the sweet of the whipped cream make such a heart-soothing comfort that I gave serious thought to never writing about the Band Box for fear that I'll never ever again get one of the few precious seats in the joint.

And it is against my better judgment entirely that I point out, for all you folks who spend your work days in your cars, that the Band Box is merely a few blocks from the 11th Street/Grant Street exit off Highway 65, that tributary of Interstate 35 that goes into the heart of downtown. (Veer right at the top of the exit ramp and follow Grant for a few blocks, there's the Band Box.) And it is with even heavier heart that I point out that it is in fact the ideal place to take a kid before or after something at the Metrodome, and, sigh, that it's right close to Hennepin County Medical Center, too.

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