At the dawn of the 21st century, a spirited form of anti-development rebellion emerged in newly capitalist China: “nail houses.”
Like delightful eastern cousins to America’s “spite houses,” these were homes whose owners flipped the bird to man and bulldozer alike until encircled by freeways or pits of dirt three stories deep—surreal, absurdist testimonies to the past, in the face of terrible odds and a crushing present. The most successful of these housed quixotic experts in rarified fields: the martial arts pro who wasn’t ready to turn over his home, the restaurateur who built an eatery on the building’s ground floor (sans access to water or electricity) to feed the resistance.
Here in the Twin Cities, we may not have nail houses, but we do have restaurants that feel descended from them. Though progress will forever lurch forward, there remain a handful of places where people have gathered for generations, united in food and drink as particular in flavor as their proprietor’s history. These beacons of the local dining culture have endured in an industry that dances with failure daily, where fast and new are the sirens’ song of customers and investors alike.
Each of these legendary establishments boasts its own distinct palate and palette, honed by decades of sweat and love. Complimentary with their meals, customers are given hard-earned notes of melancholy, decadence, salt, beauty, and the occasional back-slap of machismo echoing from a bygone era. Their details—from actual bullet-riddled works of art to the very dinnerware from which one eats—are infused with such touches of personal history that no sack of gold could make selling out worth it.
These are our holdouts: employee-families, surviving against improbable odds, every day, to treat us to what they cherish most, their way.
Lindey’s Prime Steak House
Since 1958, Arden Hills has been home to Lindey’s Prime Steak House, where it’s no exaggeration to say their specialty is hospitality—with a hefty side of steak. The menu is a mere four options deep, yet it clocks in at (no exaggeration) just as many feet tall, positioned like a guard atop each table. Every steak (or rogue shrimp) order comes with bottomless salad, grease-less hashbrowns, warm garlic bread, and pickled watermelon rind. What’s most mind-blowing is how service at Lindey’s runs counter to modern miserly penny-pinching, while being the most American experience known to man. Entrees arrive tableside via cart, because why do with limbs what wheels can do for you? And forget asking for a takeout box; they’re foisted upon you like a fourth course, but only after each side has been refilled. Lindey’s cares not just about whether you’re fed tonight; as a thanks for making the trek, they want you to feel full for the next three years. 3600 N. Snelling Ave., Arden Hills; 651-633-9813, theplaceforsteak.com
The Monte Carlo
Bolstered by its crystalline back bar, lotus-covered wallpaper, and booths trimmed in mirrors perfect for checking one’s lipstick mid-martini-sip, the Monte Carlo feels like the only place in the Cities where the bartender may just say, “Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance.” Established in 1906 and now situated around the corner from the Hewing Hotel, the Monte Carlo stares down the rest of the North Loop like a dare, showing no signs of bending to the neighborhood’s capital-cum-condo affliction. Time continues to stand still on its patio; only there have we witnessed a well-to-do lady place her tiny, expensive dog upon a tabletop, whereupon the waitstaff (bound to ancient rules of decorum, when such nonsense predated modern health codes) let her get away with it. Pop in for an impeccable pairing of their venerable “Beijing style” wings and a couple of martinis, the latter of which are still pleasingly portioned with restraint. 219 Third Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612-333-5900, montecarlomn.com
Open since 1939, Mickey’s Diner in downtown St. Paul is every single piece of an Edward Hopper painting come to life: nostalgic, melancholic, wearily beautiful, and, depending on the hour, a little seedy. Though made famous around the world thanks to appearances in the Mighty Ducks movies (among others), locals don’t love the place—they respect it. Its sleek, art-deco interior never ceases thrumming: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, the kitchen offers customers time-worn pleasures like cheeseburgers and pancakes, or maybe a simple cup of coffee for when you’re too tired to pour one yourself. Mini-jukebox radios on the booths no longer work, but it’s these details that act like candy coating for the (sometimes) gruff, put-upon demeanor of Mickey’s staff. Parking is free, and it’s worth a trip just to stand under the “Mickey’s” sign—among the last places on Earth you can hear the lights. 36 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-698-0259, mickeysdiningcar.com
Though it could be mistaken for its Northeast dive-bar brethren when surveyed from the curb, Jax Cafe hides an astonishing array of secrets in its belly. A river of stained glass greets diners who bypass the lounge’s booths for the mahogany dining room. Though once touted as “Famous for Steak,” Jax boasts a stream from which intrepid guests may choose to fish their own rainbow trout during the summer, whereupon staff will fillet it table-side for their dining pleasure. Full-bellied guests slouch in quintessentially restaurant-red upholstered chairs, perched atop a burgundy carpet, gazing out the window at a garden with a crackling hearth, glowing lamp posts, mock mill, and flowing water. When a tray of desserts is trotted out, accompanied by a server gently singing “Happy Birthday” in tune, one can’t help but feel like Jax—open since 1933—may be the world’s most mature Chuck E. Cheese, like a little piece of everyone’s dreams can come true here. 1928 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis, 612-789-7297, jaxcafe.com
Mancini’s Char House
Mancini’s Char House is a blood-red, Lynchian naugahyde thunderdome where lobsters, live music, coat checks, complimentary salads, and light gambling commingle like the post-war heyday is still in full effect. Nick Mancini introduced his restaurant on West Seventh Street in 1948, with huge open charcoal broilers replicating the Italian tradition he’d inherited as a treat for the neighboring community. A series of banquet halls spills off the main dining area, barely concealing whatever raucous good time is being had by larger parties, while the lounge is known for weekend dancing featuring an elder statesman who glides across the floor with such grace that it takes 30 years off his hair color. No matter the protein, every individual is given an iceberg salad punctuated with one (1) cherry tomato, and a toast basket that tastes like a singed-meat fantasy. 531 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-224-7345, mancinis.com
Founded in 1954, when it was but an unassuming bar and eatery in Minneapolis’ Corcoran neighborhood, Matt’s has since taken on a totemic position in the Twin Cities’ dining culture. This is due, first and foremost, to its hotly contested role in inventing the juicy lucy—excuse us, jucy lucy—hamburger style: a magmatic hockey puck served on a basic white bun with pickles (and fried onions, if ya’ nasty). Matt’s is legendary in a second sense because, once upon a time, President Obama graced one of its gleaming booths with his bum, electing to hoover Our People’s Burger like One of Us, from the table, without a plate. The author rests her case. 3500 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-722-7072, mattsbar.com
Famous for receiving a silver butter knife denoting a nigh-perfect steak in 1951, Murray’s has been the place to “Meat Downtown” in Minneapolis since the onset of World War II. With an atmosphere less bludgeoningly masculine than, say, Manny’s, today it’s fine enough to warrant white tablecloths and chandeliers in the dining room. Yet the lounge is casual enough to find children seated alongside their parents, the menfolk confident in baseball caps while their ladies forever out-dress them. The menu wants diners to know about historic details like the “Thermo Plate” (invented by Art Murray), the famed golden toast, and house-blend Murray’s salt, and they provide supplemental knowledge in the form of a take-home, full-color pamphlet. A whirlwind truce between past and present is reached via the menu itself, with everything from 28-ounce “Silver Butter Knife Steak for Two,” chunky smoked chicken wings, shoestring beef jerky (sold by the ounce), perfect sidecars, and local beers on offer. 26 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis; 612-339-0909, murraysrestaurant.com
When Curran’s debuted in 1948 at the corner of 42nd Avenue and Nicollet as a root-beer-stand-slash-carhop, little did the family realize that the dawn of the next millennia would find three branches of a single family tree squishing into a booth, indoors. Behind their heads would be previous sketches of the restaurant itself in frosted glass: a mobius strip of all things Curran’s, folding in on itself like their decadent bread pudding. Were it not for the unmistakable Irish pride greeting customers—a giant flag, signs above the registers marking the distance to Tipperary, cracked pleather menus touting the quality of the homemade corned beef—one would be forgiven for thinking they’d timewarped back to the Big Boys of yore, when things were simpler, food was affordable, and it was more about being together than being seen together. 4201 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-822-5327, currans-restaurant.com
Celebrating its 70th turn about the sun, Cecil’s has spent the better part of a century caring for the Highland Park community, stomach-first. Divided into two rooms that look like they’ve popped out of a Jim Jarmusch film, Cecil’s is a functioning deli at the front, and a sit-down restaurant in the rear. Bathrooms are literally grandfathered in, through the kitchen, down a flight of stairs, in the basement. First-timers will find their options dizzying: hundreds of choices present themselves on a menu that folds out like a laminated roadmap. All the bread is homemade, and sections are divided into “Hot Stuff,” “Cold Stuff,” an entire department of “Reubens,” and more. Aim for something with pastrami, but no matter what, you’ll be set. Don’t miss the celery soda, or a slice of the miraculous meringue pies, served too tall for a mouth. 651 S. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul; 651-698-0334, cecilsdeli.com
W.A. Frost and Co.
This list’s award for “Unexpected Whippersnapper” goes to none other than W.A. Frost, whose positioning in the Dacotah Building (listed in its own right on the National Register of Historic Places) belies its founding in 1974’s disco days. To be fair, one stroll from bar to downstairs lounge, up through the dining hall, and into the courtyard is enough to convey the airs of an absinthe-hall-turned-fainting couch-museum. Whether inside or out, there’s a nook for everyone, and odds are great it’ll be firelit. Cocktails are a blend of classic and twisted, met with food that ranges from duck cassoulet to french fries. It’s okay to be fooled into grandeur, sometimes—especially when the place is guaranteed to have legs as long as our gasping planet. 374 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 651-224-5715, wafrost.com
Black Forest Inn
Founded in 1965 by Erich Christ and family, the Black Forest is responsible for bringing one of the first outdoor “beer gardens” to the metro area. Moreover, for the past half-century, the Forest’s reputation has been linked to art patronage. By hosting events like storytelling competitions and craft markets in its Festaal, and regaling customers with tales of how its priceless Richard Avedon print (donated by the photographer himself) came to be festooned with bullet holes by a piquant customer, the Forest has created its own world entirely apart from its Eat Street peers. Whether you’re snuggling into a pew-like booth for a bowl of sausage and lentil soup, or downing steins at Spargelfest (their annual springtime tribute to asparagus) with the Forest’s jovial regulars, you’re likely to have a new favorite “secret spot” on your hands... only to discover it’s the secret everyone else had been keeping all this time, too. 1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis; 612-872-0812, blackforestinnmpls.com
Located in the footprint of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the Lexington came out into the open in 1935, whence St. Paul’s early movers and shakers grabbed onto it for dear life. For more than 80 years, its bank-like facade has safeguarded the sloshed transactions between businessmen and their most intimate companions. The past decade saw the Lexington’s ownership change hands, and the wilted boys-club-esque feel was modernized to ensure their legacy remains attractive to future generations. The off-limits, drop-down staircase behind the coat check has vanished; replacing it is a more accessible atmosphere, where enjoying chef-driven supper club fare from the rooftop is a new, exciting possibility. Yet the essence of the Old Lex still reverberates inside, where the experience of quaffing a fine red with steak tartare and the fanciest pot pie of your life can be found amid a sapphire velvet lounge, while portraits in oil paint gaze bemusedly at our fleeting frivolities. 1029 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 651-289-4990, thelexmn.com