Chaos and the Que-sera-sera-sadilla

Heartthrob Cafe
30 E. Eighth St., St. Paul; 224-2783

I've been obsessed lately with "the ride": it's a phrase most frequently applied to summer blockbusters, but I've also heard it used to refer to political campaigns, madcap love affairs, and brushes with tragedy. The movie Speed might have been the film that defined "the ride"; it started with a bomb and progressed speedily on freeways. Diana's death was a ride; it started with a surprise accident and ended with her conflation with Mother Teresa. The essence of "the ride" is that, as on a roller coaster, your senses become so overtaxed with stimuli that you become unable to filter and make sense of anything--not just what's going on in the ride, but in any part of your world. A ride leaves you stunned and blinking, and is generally construed to be a good thing, a non-drug-induced way to achieve temporary separation from self and the cacophony of your own mind.

In restaurants, "the ride" is to be had primarily at places you're supposed to bring kids to. The Heartthrob Cafe, across the street from the Children's Museum in downtown St. Paul, serves up a barrage of sensory stimuli so truly overwhelming I hardly know where to start. It's a '50s-theme restaurant--à la Happy Days--with rollerblading teenagers as waiters and waitresses; these teens occasionally perform choreographed lip-sync routines along with the blaring stereo system; and every surface is crammed with neon and pop-culture memorabilia. Of course, the "'50s diner" is a strictly codified genre--the Platters and the Big Bopper, poodle skirts and ponytails, two straws in every malt. But things are wrong at the Heartthrob on every front: A framed copy of Michael Jackson's '70s hit "Ben" is featured prominently on one wall and diagrams of bell-bottoms decorate another; TV monitors feature oddly grainy videos of things like Laurel and Hardy shorts; and the music ricocheting off the kitsch is an odd mix of '70s and '80s pop hits, like the Allman Brothers, Irene Cara, and the B-52's. The '50s diner is exploded to include all things fun, wacky, and unthreatening from every era; purely decorative little '50s tableside jukeboxes crown every booth.

If you can recover from the decor you'll find myriad other things to overwhelm you: How do those whizzing waiters carry trays of water? What's it like when they have to integrate a new person into their precariously efficient system? What sort of people are drawn to jobs like this? Would you yourself rise to this occasion--or fall apart in a fit of embarrassed sulking, as evidenced by that one waitress over there? Who is the target demographic? People who lived through the '50s and remember it hazily? Children who never did? Are people actually eating from giant garbage-can-lid-sized plastic platters? Is it a good idea to coat the sundae glass, inside and out, with hot fudge? With so many questions spinning through the brain it's impossible to hold conversations, dwell on one's own misery, or even think.

And then the menu arrives--four pages of chaotic puns and cultural references, some of which make sense, and some which never do. The appetizers include "Some Like it Hot Wings" (generic, recently frozen tangerine-colored ovals, $5.95); "My Name is Nachos Jimenez" (dry, icky nachos, $6.75); "Love me Tenders" (chicken, $5.95); and the "Que-sera-sera-sadilla" (with chicken this quesadilla becomes "The Bird is the Word," $4.75/$6.75). I became so intent on unraveling every odd reference--the "Hop Sing's Chinese Chicken Salad," the "Philly Bandstandwiches," the "Cluck Berry" chicken sandwich--that when I came upon plain menu entries like the "Traditional Skins," I'd read it half a dozen times before understanding that it referenced nothing. Traditional Skins, by the by, are deep fried, unexciting cheese-and-bacon topped potato skins ($5.45).

Conversation is discouraged not only by all the stimuli, but by the stereo, which is kept loud, perhaps to encourage the swooping staff to break into lip-sync. And when they do--singing, dancing, pantomiming, spinning in circles, leaping onto the furniture, stomping their skates, and pounding the tables in tune to the music--it's half dinner theater, half high-school talent show, and entirely overwhelming.

For what it's worth, the food at Heartthrob is nearly universally generic and icky, and the hot dogs are particularly worth missing. I didn't mind the chili (cup $2.45, bowl $3.45) or the Mickey Mouse club sandwich ($6.75--one of several "Bobby Ryedeli" sandwiches). Burgers and sandwiches come with battered fries and come on 18-inch plastic trays, and are gratifyingly infantilizing. The tray seems like you could, and perhaps you even ought to, bop your dining companions with it; it's clearly created, like grade-school furniture, to minimize the effects of violence or clumsiness.

Food is not why people go to the Heartthrob. The real draw here is the ice cream. Malts or shakes ($3.35) are the real genuine thing, made from ice cream and milk, and are utterly delicious. Flavors include all the regulars plus caramel, mocha, and banana. Extra ingredients can be added for 50 cents--my banana-hot fudge shake was heavenly, and came in a pretty fountain glass with the extra in the metal malt-cup, just like it's supposed to. The ice-cream sodas are also spectacular, those pretty fountain glasses topped with pillowy piles of vanilla ice cream. The dreamsicle is particularly great: orange soda, vanilla syrup, and vanilla ice cream; but I also love the fact that you can get the traditional soda-fountain greats, like the Brown Cow--root beer and chocolate syrup topped with vanilla ice cream--or the Black and White--chocolate soda, milk, and ice cream (all ice-cream sodas are $2.75). Sundaes, banana splits, and the famed inside-out sundae (hot fudge and nuts on the exterior of the glass) are all swell. Also, if I were entertaining children aged 6 to 12, this would be my destination of choice. The kids' menu is extensive and the entertainment keeps them subdued. (Grilled cheese, a soda, and fries are $2.45; chicken tenders are $4.25; and a kid-size shake or malt--no extra metal cup--can be added for another dollar.) It also seems to be a top choice for girls' birthday parties.

Leaving Heartthrob--woozy, slightly queasy, sort of exhilarated, cleaved from everyday reality--the true nature of the ride became clear to me: That pleasure has a foothold in pain is old news; in the ride pleasure stems from chaos.

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Heartthrob Cafe

30 E. 7th St.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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