Have you ever staggered into Al’s Breakfast early in the morning, when the sun is just about to burst like an over-easy egg over the horizon?
If the answer is yes -- and I hope for your sake that the answer is yes -- you’ll know that the atmosphere is a potent cocktail of grease, nostalgia, coffee, and happiness. It may be physically impossible to walk into Al’s and remain in a terrible mood.
That’s partly because Doug Grina, co-owner and grill commando since the late 1970s, does cranky better than most people ever could. He’ll tell you what’s what -- which generally entails the fact that the world is basically fucked, so you might as well order hash browns with cheese and a short stack of the signature blueberry walnut pancakes on the side of your West Bank Omelette (mushroom and onion, topped with strawberries and sour cream).
But in September, Al's made an announcement. For the first time in its 66-year history, the diner would open weekend nights, slinging at the grill starting at 6 in the evening and shuttering at 1 a.m. -- just before the streaming hordes hit full throttle after bar close -- on Fridays and Saturdays.
Of course, a natural question presents itself: Is there a reason you should drag yourself down to Dinkytown on a Friday night to eat, well... breakfast?
At Al's, the after-dark atmosphere conjures just enough Edward Hopper-esque intrigue to offer a contrast to the experience the diner provides mid-morning. For example, until I sidled up to the counter during evening hours, I’d never noticed the boxes of decades-old yellow booklets sitting under a rack of mugs. Since the 1950s, the diner has offered customers the option to pay ahead with the kind of informal meal book credit system that is now virtually extinct, just in case someone who paid for an omelette during the Kennedy administration got hungry and wandered in.
“I feel like I’m entering another era and stepping back in time," said Jonathan Macdonald, a server who’s a night-shift newbie. While this might not be a compliment from someone working at, say, a circa-1989 Taco Bell, here it was a compliment.
Jonathan reached into one of the boxes and fished out an antique-looking meal book. When he opened it up, our eyes both widened: “5 Cents” was printed on each coupon.
“Wow,” we both said.
The night menu is limited to a good selection of breakfast burritos -- called "Al-urritos" -- that are generously stuffed with hashbrowns, along with several types of pancakes and waffles. There are a couple of plated egg, hashbrown, and toast combos, and just a few weeks ago, they mixed things up again, adding hot dogs and polish sausages from Kramarczuk's to the list of offerings. (If you’re hankering for a cheeseburger, you can always come back in the morning.)
I’d been momentarily heartbroken that while my regular order, The Jose (poached eggs and salsa on a bed of to-die-for hash browns, blanketed in melted cheddar) was on the menu, poached eggs are deemed too high-maintenance for the evening shift. But when my veggie Al-urrito arrived alongside a short stack of blueberry pancakes, my disappointment was instantly soothed.
If you’re one of those intrepid breakfast-for-dinner souls who prefers their late night hash browns in relative tranquility, you might be wondering: What about all of the drunk people?
“Oh,” said night shift grill jockey Eric Green, tossing his rather fetching mullet over his shoulder. “They do come in. But we’ve never had to throw anyone out yet.”
So, Al's regulars, should you go? If you’re planning a night of drinking at the Dinkytown bars and you’re hungry, the answer is an obvious, unequivocal yes. The Al-urritos are a tasty take on Al's classics, and the offbeat kitsch of its decor -- equal parts historical artifact and wacky junk -- is a more interesting conversation piece after a few beers.
Even if you’re just hungry, it’s still probably worth a trip.