Take Me Out

Two hundred years of history as experienced in Minnesota's bars and restaurants

Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky, with recipes by Eleanor Ostman
Minnesota Eats Out
Minnesota Historical Society Press

It's 1945 in St. Paul, and John Dillinger "owns" the corner table at the notorious Green Lantern, where he conducts "business" over lunch. The menu: hot dogs and hard-boiled eggs. The agenda: bootlegging and money laundering. In this era of excess and glamour, Minnesotans thought big. Why go to Paris when you've got the American Bar in the Coliseum Pavilion where you can sip a martini and listen to Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong play to the beautiful and the damned?

In Minnesota Eats Out: An Illustrated History, you'll sample a rich pastiche of menus, photos, and trivia. This big, sumptuous book tells the story of Minnesota's restaurants from the 1800s through the 1960s. In 11 chapters, divided by type of eatery, authors Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky, with recipes by Eleanor Ostman, showcase innovative foods, graphic designs, inspired restaurant architecture, and a priceless collection of recipes for dishes made famous through the years. The pioneer home eateries with wood-fired stoves, early health resorts, Prohibition-era speakeasies, drive-ins, and department-store fountains are illustrated with postcards, matchbook covers, menus, dishes, and cutlery. It's all here.

Remember Charlie's Café Exceptionale? The flaming cherries jubilee, crêpes suzette, and bananas Foster? How 'bout Harry's Café? It out-New Yorked New York with entrées of pheasant, grilled salmon, or sweetbreads that seem strikingly au courant.

At Freddie's, on the corner of Second Avenue and Sixth Street in Minneapolis, men huddled over deals at lunch; come nightfall, couples ordered Rob Roys and filet mignon, and Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, and Count Basie swung through the night. Ah, the Jazz Age. Cigarettes, sleek women, Diamond Jim's Supper Club, the Prom.

Page after glorious page, you'll find the country's most important events played out at the table: We learn that in the 1800s when genders did not dine out together, DelMonico's in Hibbing (modeled after the New York steak house) offered women-only meals. Bergsing Café, a speakeasy renowned for its hearty soups, outstanding pot roasts, and endless desserts, served libations during Prohibition to those who knew the password (a secret to this day). We find comforting food and a roaring fire at those big northwoods lodges built in the '50s--the Grand View, Breezy Point, Gunflint--wearing "I Like Ike" pins and driving T-Birds.

The original Fuji-Ya (circa 1960) was among the first restaurants to serve sushi in the United States. I remember the place--sitting cross-legged on a grass mat watching the brightly lit barges float down the Mississippi. Fuji-Ya's founder, Reiko Weston, chose the site for its lucky signs of a bridge and running water, despite the riverfront's then-dreary, deserted aura. How I wish she had held out a bit longer to enjoy the area's revival, the lovely Stone Arch Bridge, and new Guthrie Theater. Her daughter Carol (with husband Tom Hanson) picked Lyn-Lake for their new Fuji-Ya; its lucky signs are foot traffic and parking.

You'll also find the ubiquitous German restaurants with their endless wursts and schnitzels; dark, heavily wooded places whose menu selections require two sturdy wai tresses to haul their hefty plates of indecipherable and nearly identical fare. Here, too, are Scandinavian landmarks like Savarin Scandia Kitchen, the Edgewater Inn, Taste O' Sweden, and A Bit of Norway, known for authentic open-faced sandwiches, and Aquavit paired with iced beer.

More interesting and much missed are the dinner trains Zephyr and North Coast Limited, where you could watch the world sway by, seated comfortably in the narrow dining car. It was white-tablecloth service with attentive waiters in starched uniforms, heavy silver utensils, dinners of broiled trout or roast meat, a surprisingly wide selection of wines. On trains the going was good.

Oh, those steamers! I'd take the steamer Sidney from Lake City down the river, supping on oxtail soup and chicken in egg sauce with vegetables du jour in a chandelier-lit dining room with real palm trees, over Interstate 94 East any day.

If we must understand history so as not to repeat it, perhaps that's why this book documents such regrettable restaurants as Becky's Cafeteria, with its steam-table meatloaf, eerie Jell-O concoctions, and stocks of Bibles for patron enrichment; Restaurant Camelot with its weird moat and drawbridge; as well as the Jolly Troll.

It's fun to page through the photos of Dayton's Sky Room's dramatic fashion shows, and revisit Young-Quinlan's Fountain Room. You'll even find a recipe for their beloved chicken mousse. I was also happy to see the recipe for the Lincoln Del's Thousand Island dressing. (The Lincoln Del served a great Reuben sandwich and honest-to-God chopped liver. I still miss the bossy woman at the counter who'd push me to add more corned beef or egg salad to my takeout order, insisting, "Believe me, you'll be back." She was always right.)

Over the pop of champagne, the clink of glasses raised in cheer, the clatter of china in the kitchen, one can almost hear conversation and laughter throughout these pages. Yes, the buildings and food are interesting, but it's the stories and people that draw us in: the suffragettes in their big hats, the giggling soda jerks, the conga line at the Shakopee Riviera, the men chatting over newspapers at Serlin's Café in St. Paul. Here are the places where we've shared our losses and hopes, shed our loneliness like an overstuffed down coat.

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