“People hadn’t seen a white guy standing in here, ever. I had five stools and two tables and we all drank coffee and everybody was smoking everywhere. It was that kind of a place.”
Brad Ptacek muses on his early days at Band Box Diner, the 80-year-old historic diner that hides in the warren of streets that is Elliot Park. It was 1998, and in this neighborhood at the easternmost edge of downtown Minneapolis things were really, really rough. “We had customers who would shoot at each other,” says Ptacek.
Still he stood firmly at the stoves, cooking. Steadily, constantly cooking. He’s been doing so for almost 20 years.
Ptacek and a buddy moved from the Iron Range to the Twin Cities so he could “play music and be an art school guy.” And he was, for a time, until he realized he had to make money. His buddy went out for overnight janitor jobs “because nobody else wanted them,” and Ptacek went in for baker’s hours. From then on, the baking, pastry, and chef positions kept on rolling in.
Ptacek eventually fell in with a young Lenny Russo (now of Heartland fame) and the pair ran a forward-thinking gourmet grocery and deli called Blackberry Green Market. There was nothing like it at the time. Pesto was new. Free range turkey was new. Brie en croute was new.
“It would be like, squid ink? What’s that? Let me get this book and see what they say!” He had to go down to Barnes & Noble and find travel magazines to figure out what he was working with. But it was exciting — until he looked up and realized he wasn’t making any money.
“I mean, why have a bank account? You have rent, and then what’s left?”
He lived in Elliot Park at the time, and there was talk of the neighborhood association wanting to preserve the historic diner that was originally one of 15 in a Minneapolis chain called the Band Box. By 1972, the Elliot Park location was the only one still in operation. The owner, Orin Johnson, was running the place, but it wasn’t going well. Ptacek brokered a deal and joined him at the flattop in exchange for an initial 20 percent of the business.
Eventually, Johnson left and Ptacek got a low-interest city loan to put a small addition on the place and add a larger kitchen. The rest is, and continues to be, history.
“This is my bank account now,” he says.
His “gal” Heather manages the front-of-house operations, and their 4-year-old seems to run things as confidently as the two of them put together.
“He’s walked up to tables and taken orders, and he knows how to flip his own sausages,” Ptacek tells me. The boy wields a server’s notebook and declares that I ought to order some French fries. He’s right. I ought to.
It would be easy to say that the food at Band Box, which is singularly delicious and superior to most diner food you’ve probably ever eaten, is rendered so because of Ptacek’s pedigree as a cheffy-chef. But no, he says. “The older you get, the more you realize that the simpler the food is, the better. You go: I’ll give them this cheese and this meat, and this piece of bread, and put them all together!”
You won’t find anything fancy or cheffy at Band Box. Ptacek tried that, it didn’t work. He tried curing his own lox, putting fresh fruit in the salads; they didn’t sell. And just by coincidence, the stuff that did sell — breakfast and burgers — is what he had space and manpower to accommodate anyway. So that’s what he cooks.
Does he miss the highbrow cookery of his youth?
“It doesn’t matter how expensive the cheese is,” he says. “You’re still standing in a hot kitchen putting it on the sandwich. At least here I’m having fun.”
Short order combos come first: two eggs, legendary American fries, and toast; and probably the best egg sandwich in the world, served upon an English muffin, right and proper. Then there’s a smattering of ingenious specialty items, born out of Ptacek’s boredom with burgers.
“I added it up once, how many burgers I’ve cooked and eaten, and I don’t want to talk about it. Six days a week for 20 years?” He makes a face that is one part surprise and one part disgust.
So, from the ever-loving resentment of burgers comes the Lil Buddy — an egg, sausage, and slice of American cheese peeking coquettishly from between two pancakes. Also note the Dude Ranch, which is a burger, yes, but wears an onion ring like a headband and gets bathed with a basin of ranch and striped with “Bro Sauce,” Band Box’s take on Sloppy Joe dressing.
This is dude food at its best, the genius result of a chef playing to the whims of his own appetite. You want this.
And you can have it, for prices that seem in line with another era, just like the place itself. Few things exceed $10, and even then, it’s by a narrow margin.
Ptacek reminds me that though he sells these things for these prices, “it’s all good stuff.” He takes care to buy bread fresh instead of frozen, and the brioche-like buns smell of real butter and eggs.
“We make every little thing on this menu,” he says.
All of it taken together is what keeps the place a stomping ground of democracy. I ask if there are there any regulars who’ve been coming since the beginning. Ptacek cranes his head around the room to see if there are any in our midst, now.
“We had a 60-year-old black guy, Tony, who basically lived here. A pre-op transsexual waiting for a sex change. This guy who’s a construction mogul,” he says. “People still get out of jail and come see me. We lost some. Some of the old ones died. We still have crazies come walking through. It’s still fun. We can talk, drink coffee. Have fun.”