Who doesn't have a soft spot in her heart for a hole-in-the wall? A place that serves classic American fare as thick with nostalgia as it is with grease. And when change comes to our beloved burger bars, drive-ins, and pizza joints, as it did recently to the Gold Nugget in Minnetonka, Wagner's in St. Louis Park, and Golooney's in Minneapolis, fans tend to pitch a fit. The new Gold Nugget Tavern and Grille, which replaced the former shoebox-size dive bar beloved for its burgers, was immediately dubbed fool's gold. According to a blogger at ConstantlyComplaining.com, not only was the new Nugget guilty of serving specialty cocktails and tacking a pretentious "e" on the end of its name, it had the gall to serve Kobe beef sliders and brunch ("Nuggeteers don't get up before noon").
The new Gold Nugget is on the first floor of an apartment complex freshly built on the site of the original, and it's enormous—big enough to host several softball teams or a small wedding reception. The Nugget seems to have swapped character for class, reopening with pretty wood booths, a faux tin ceiling, and suspended televisions. Except for a few old beer signs and stained-glass panels salvaged from the old place, the decor is neutral enough that the Nugget might be mentally interchanged with several other metro eateries. The night I arrived, the joint was packed with families, sports fans (including one guy presciently wearing a Favre Viking's jersey), and lake-community types conspicuous for their deep tans and popped collars. A few musicians were performing, and when they launched into a rendition of "Sweet Caroline," the whole bar broke into song.
The Tavern and Grille's owners recruited a former general manager and chef from the D'Amico empire, Michael Gentile and Joel Delfiacco, to run the front and back of the house, respectively. The injection of fine-dining talent is more noticeable in the food than in the service, which was more friendly than polished.
The Original Nugget burger remains on the menu, joined by several newcomers. The Minnesota burger, for example, stuffed with a barely detectable amount of wild rice and topped with a portabella mushroom cap, may not be worth a drive across town, but it's certainly among the best burgers in the area. As is the Kobe burger—the American-raised version, our waiter explained—which has a more tender texture and a robust, steak-like flavor. The Nugget's kitchen gets the extras right: a puffy Kaiser bun, sweet pickles that taste like grandma's with a jalapeño kick, and thick, lush malts all round out the experience nicely. The burgers are certainly more expensive than those at the old Nugget—$9.75 for the Minnesota, $12.75 for the Kobe—but they come with a side of skin-on fries, onion rings, or coleslaw, so the price doesn't seem excessive.
Value-oriented customers may cry foul on the homemade tater tots, which are a sort of potato-based riff on the cheese-stuffed Jucy Lucy burger. When dipped in a smoky bacon-and-chive sour cream, the shot-glass-size nuggets, with their delicate crust and molten cheddar core, make for a tasty snack. But at five a serving, they're probably not worth a $7.95 outlay.
The rest of the menu includes such items as batter-fried shrimp, baby back ribs, and a silky mac and cheese topped with a delicate panko breadcrumb crust. Add bacon—I highly recommend it—and it'll cost you $10.50, but it sure beats a night of Kraft Dinner. The new Nugget may have higher check averages, but it seems a fair price to pay for the upgrade.
EVEN THOSE OF US who loved the vintage patina of rusting metal and peeling paint at Wagner's Drive-In, off Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, can't deny that the tiny shack was decaying. (Woe to those who needed to use the facilities....) Still, it was a little jarring to see the fading, 1950s-era drive-in get a tornado-like hit by Steve Schussler, the creative vision behind Rainforest Cafe.
Schussler remade the place as the retro-future themed Galaxy Drive-In: a slick, Disneyfied concept with lots of teal and purple paint, neon lights, and pint-size replicas of old-fashioned planes and cars. Anachronistic music blasts on the stereo, from KC and the Sunshine Band's 1970s hit "Get Down Tonight" to Soul Asylum's 1990s "Runaway Train." Vintage cars still frequent the spot, and some sound like they have half a dozen motorcycles stuffed under their hoods. Several of the parking spots are too tight for most cars' turning radii; I nervously watched several SUVs play chicken with the awning supports.
Like Wagner's, Galaxy employs a mostly high-school age waitstaff. (In talking with one of the teens, it became apparent that she was too young to identify a jukebox.) When Galaxy is busy, which it usually is, the process of greeting, seating, and feeding customers feels rather chaotic. Like Rainforest, Galaxy focuses as much on entertainment as dining. One night I watched an older couple put their feet up by a roaring fire pit and two parents teach their daughter how to move the pawns on a giant chess set, as a few other kids crawled on the statues. "It's like a KOA campground," my friend remarked.
For me, food was never the main reason to stop at Wagner's—often it was just an excuse for a Cedar Lake Trail pit stop. Nor was it what drew customers to Rainforest Cafe, I suspect. Little about Galaxy's menu is very compelling, either. The cheese curds are dense, with a thick, cornmeal-like breading. The corn dogs aren't battered in-house. And the double patties on my Galaxy Burger had been cooked to hell (the sweet pickle sauce and too-crisp bacon did nothing to improve their bland chewiness). When I tried a Philly cheesesteak, the bun, meat, and cheese tasted nearly indistinguishable: soft, salty mush. Even the malts and floats were a disappointment. Wagner's made both with soft-serve ice cream, and Galaxy does the same. Thus, my advice would be to skip 'em (though kids who wouldn't know Blue Bunny from Ben and Jerry's likely won't mind).
I recognize that convenience is of the essence for Galaxy's cramped kitchen to keep up with the crowds, but most things I tried had all the appeal of a microwavable frozen dinner, and none of the State Fair's fried-food glory.
CREATED BY A NATIVE New Yorker, Golooney's pizza was the closest thing Minneapolis had to an East Coast slice: thin-crust, oil-slicked wedges used to sop up an evening's worth of alcohol. The dingy Hennepin Avenue shop made its reputation on its late-night hours and scraggly staffers in heavy-metal T-shirts who tossed floppy dough discs into the air.
Since a Red's Savoy franchise took over the place (the original St. Paul Savoy was founded in 1965 by the barrel-chested Red Schoenheider), the staff still sports dreads and tattoos, and hard rock permeates the tiny dining room, which received a much-needed cleaning and new booths.
But the ovens now turn out Minnesota-style, super-cheesy pies cut into squares—one of my friends likes to call it "Saturday afternoon kid pizza." Savoy pizza has a crisp-but-chewy crust and a sauce that's spicier than you'd expect for hot-dish country. The cooks pile on toppings like they're feeding farm workers—I found a lump of Italian sausage the size of a ping-pong ball on one slice of the Special. While the kitchen excels in generosity, it can lack balance. A thick layer of browned mozzarella blankets each pie like a snowfall deep enough to overwhelm a pair of mukluks. And when the cheese paves over the piquancy of green olives, or the salty snap of pepperoni, the result is more filling than flavorful. It's the type of pizza that can lead one to overeat yet not feel sated.
Anticipating public outcry, the Savoy Uptown owners decided to retain Golooney's famous Philly cheesesteak. (For the same reason, they still serve slices during lunch and late-night hours—though if you spend a couple more bucks and wait five more minutes, you're better off with a fresh-from-the-oven individual mini-pizza.) The sandwich is served "OG-style" with banana peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo; it's a paper-wrapped beast that's as heavy as a Chipotle burrito.
When I peeled back its foil wrapper, the beef-packed bun oozed with a nacho cheese dip-like substance. And with each bite, the entire package dripped, slopped, and glopped. The heat of the pickled peppers caused my nose to run. No matter how many times the shop changes hands, it's sure to stay a classic.