114 S. 8th St., Minneapolis; (612) 333-1981
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-7:45 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Saturday
Christmas is a time of loss, yearning, and patching holes with scraps sewn on by Visa card--or so it's always seemed to me. I'll never forget the year, not too long before my father's crack-up, when he sat there with an enormous Betamax video camera in front of his face, demanding that everyone report to a particularly well-lit chair to open presents, and answer the following questions: What's that? Are you happy? What's that? Are you happy? It's a sweater. A pink sweater. I'm very happy. Yes. Dad. This is so... It's a matchbox car, it does flips if you smack it into the wall. Yes, I'm happy. Yes. Yes, I told you....
Looking back, I think he really did want to know: Was that it? On the other side of the lens, was that happiness? Well-off American children on Christmas morning, wasn't that the very definition of happiness? Alas, happiness is not unlike a bowl of egg whites; beat it too severely, all you get is a runny mess. To my mind, one of the true miracles of Christmas is that an event loaded with so much miserable freight can so frequently yield true pleasure. Take out that Visa and round up some good wine, cheese, and some special little sausages that come from a special little place that only you know about, and soon enough everyone's laughing so hard tears are running down their cheeks. Happy? You bet. You can make happy, as long as no one's actively trying to sabotage it. Christmastime is a laboratory for happy. Throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks, see what blows up, see what makes you smile.
As you can tell, I take this all too seriously, but one thing I can share with you is that this year Peter's Grill makes me smile, continuously. What a little gem! Homemade, old-fashioned, American diner classics served in a place that satisfies all one's vague senses of loss and longing, filling them with authentic generosity and an atmosphere straight out of the mists of time. And pie. Never forget the pie.
Counterintuitively, my favorite time to go to Peter's Grill is after 6:00 p.m. I like to catch it in that hour and three-quarters of twilight when the place is winding down, when there's loads of street parking outside on Second Avenue, when the waitresses in their cardigans move at their own pace, when the clientele is distinctly various. There are construction workers on dinnertime lunch breaks, cops, security guards, couriers killing time between pickups, senior citizens agreeing at the counters about the news, and punk-rock kids assembling meals out of spare change. Basically, people who have little in common except an understanding of the value of a dollar and an appreciation of authentic, from-scratch cooking.
Especially on Wednesday nights. My God, on Wednesday nights! That's when you can get a baked quarter-chicken, homemade celery dressing, cranberry sauce, cabbage salad (basically light, dry, very good cole slaw), mashed potatoes, and a big Peter's Grill-made roll, all for $3.45. Three dollars and forty five cents! I'm not kidding you, I've spent that much on coffee in restaurants not ten blocks away. On Mondays and Thursdays, a similar dinner is served, with turkey and gravy: $3.75 gets you an open-faced-sandwich-size portion; $7.65 gets a groaning platter with soup and salad. Wander into the costliest reaches of the menu--like the fried whitefish fillet, for $8.95--and you get a meal so large it would put a rural supper club to shame. The fish fillets are as long as my forearm, crisp as a playing card and so perfectly fried they becomes greaseless. They're served with homemade tartar sauce, an expanse of well-crisped hash-browns, a bowl of soup, a bowl of salad (creamy Greek dressing is best), that big old roll, and, of course, pie. Several varieties are baked daily: a very simple apple pie with the barest touch of sugar and a cinnamon-dusted crust ($2.85); blueberry; cherry; and blackberry. There's a spicy and savory pumpkin pie on Mondays all winter. (You'll know it's summer when coconut cream comes in to replace it.)
How has this relentless rejection of the world of jicama-olestra-mahi-mahi-roulade been achieved? Not by accident. "I like the old things," shrugs Peter Atsidakos, whose uncle Peter and father opened the restaurant in 1914. Liking the old stuff isn't as simple as, say, liking apple pie. Atsidakos and his cousin Andy Atsidakos work incredibly hard to maintain the old things. While Peter's Grill looks like it's been set in place since it opened in 1914, in fact the entire restaurant has had to move twice: once when the original building, on Ninth and Nicollet, was being bulldozed, and again a few years later. Instead of letting the restaurant go and starting from scratch, the Atsidakos cousins underwent a massive effort at historical preservation, transporting the old counters, stools, booths, signs, hat-racks, kitchen scales, and even the terrazzo footrests below the counters for each and every move. Consider yourself a furniture expert? Then try to figure out which of the distinctive wooden booths that ring the room are the original oak installed in 1914, and which are the cherry-wood matches constructed when Peter's Grill moved into its current home in 1990.
Where nearly every other affordable restaurant downtown serves some quantity of pre-made food off the back of a foodservice truck (ever wonder why so many restaurants seem to have identical soups, dressings, and sauces?) the Atsidakoses run a scratch kitchen. Every day they roast six 25-pound turkeys for platters, sandwiches, and hot dish. Every day they stew bones in a giant stockpot for soup. Every day they make yeast dough for their rolls, and the sweet smell of rising bread fills the kitchen. Probably no one knows it, but Peter's Grill does more actual cooking than lots of restaurants that charge twice as much.
"In 30 years, Andy and I have seen lots of restaurants come, and we've seen lots of restaurants go," says Atsidakos. "But we never change. Our hostess, she's been here since before 1983. We have the same menu we did 50 years ago. We use the same recipes Uncle Peter did. We use the same apples for the pies that Uncle Peter liked. People like to see something from the old years. We think you change a little this year, a little more next year, a little more after that... Next thing you know, you're off track. When we moved, lots of people had ideas: Change the stools, change the counters. But if you do that, you take the story out of the place."
The story of the place is very near to the surface at Peter's Grill. It's in the ash urns that have been carried forth from 1914 (and will soon be purely decorative; the restaurant goes smoke-free in the New Year). And in the truly marvelous bread pudding, soaked through with buttery vanilla sauce. I think it's a story of sustenance supplied, succor dispensed to some 100,000 hungerers. (Yes, that many. Do the math: If a counter stool has served for five meals a day, six days a week, for 86 years...) Is it any wonder that this is my pick for the perfect restaurant for true holiday spirit?
A DUCK-FAT CHRISTMAS: Got some stockings set by the chimney with care, in hopes that stewed duck fat soon will be there? If so, have I got a store for you! I breezed through Surdyk's Cheese Shop the other day and was set adrool by all the things that fit into stockings. Paint me pink and call me bubblegum if a half-pound container of duck rillettes (duck meat and duck fat, seasoned and stewed together, $7.99) won't slide right down to the toes. If duck meat is distasteful to you, consider pure D'Artagnan duck fat, $5.39 for seven ounces. Or if money's no object, how about a whole, duck foie gras, at $72.99 a pound. Once you've filled your sock up halfway with duck fat, top it off with more fat: D'Artagnan truffle butter runs $6.75 for three ounces. And don't even think of feeling bad about not shopping until the last minute. Surdyk's just got a shipment of this year's gift for the person who has everything: 750-milliliter bottles of nouveau 2000-harvest, unfiltered olive oil, from both Spain and Tuscany. "It's like the nouveau Beaujolais," explains Sally Witham, the former chef who runs the cheese shop. "It's fun to make a big deal about the arriving harvest."
"So," I asked Witham, "what's it really like cutting cheese ten hours a day for holiday hosts?" "It's fun!" she insists. "It's pedal-to-the-metal season, but the wonderful thing is that people are really nice this time of year. Holiday spirit, I guess. There's a lot of special ordering, people want to make their own baskets, or give whole wheels of Brie as gifts. Actually, we have one woman who drives up from Iowa to get a whole wheel of five-year-old [aged Gouda] Saenkaenter. That's the cheese I recommend with Scotch. Anyway, she takes the whole wheel home, cuts it up, and gives it to friends as gifts. Or that's what the woman from Iowa says, anyway." Something tells me she talks up the cheese, but she comes for the duck fat. Surdyk's Cheese Shop; 303 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; (612) 379-9757.
DON'T SMOKE 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM: Don't smoke them at Peter's Grill, and don't smoke them at Lucia's either, not nowhere: While the beloved Uptown institution's restaurant went smoke-free years ago, the bar just made the leap.
"A lot of the regulars were smokers, so the late-night crowd has slowed down quite a bit," says Kim Belk, Lucia's bar manager. "But I think once word gets out, we'll get a new, nonsmoking bunch of regulars." To spread the word, Belk is organizing a series of mid-month beer tastings, where you can pay $4 to $6 for a flight of beers. The next tasting is scheduled for Wednesday, January 10 and will feature little-seen regional beers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Further details are available on Lucia's Web site: www.lucias.com. Please note that Lucia's wine bar also serves a light menu of snacks until midnight on weekdays, and 1:00 a.m. weekends. Lucia's, 1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis; (612) 825-1572.