Things modern restaurants don’t have enough of: jelly in packets, coffee creamers, scratch cinnamon rolls glistening behind glass, cash registers, $1.49 slices of pie.
The vinyl booths at Curran’s Family Restaurant are some shade of 1970s Avon tint like “Coral Buff.” Poster art worshiping County Cork and Dublin dot the wood-paneled walls, and efficient servers skate the well-worn faux parquet floors.
The twice-daily $1.49 pie happy hour was instituted during the recession but remains, along with the Early Riser Special that gets you two eggs, fresh hash browns or American fries, plus pancakes or toast for $2.49. Prices exist in the same era as the decor.
“I’ll negotiate with anyone including the garbage man,” Dennis Curran says. He took over the restaurant from his parents, Mike and Betty, who opened it in 1948 as a burger shack in the same location. They subsequently added a drive-in, and then closed it when fast-food behemoths cannibalized the old mom-and-pops in the early ’80s.
But Curran’s held on by staying nimble, giving people good food at a fair price. They did it by bartering and bargaining with everybody, including the garbage man. “I learned it from my dad and my uncle,” says Curran. “I was born that way.”
He’s rewarded with 500 to 600 customers daily. Let me repeat that number: 500 to 600 customers. I can think of — oh I don’t know — all of the restaurateurs in the Twin Cities who would swoon to see half those numbers.
“During the recession I had people coming up to me every day saying, ‘Dennis, this might be my last meal here. I don’t know when I’ll see you again. I just lost my job.’”
It broke Curran’s heart. So prices stay low. But do those hundreds come because it’s cheap? No. They come because it’s good.
If you were born after say, 1954, and prior to 1994, it’s possible you’ve never set foot inside of Curran’s unless your grandma or your college kid suggested it. It’s popular with the old, but also the young: two sets savvy about getting a good meal at a great price.
For a simple family restaurant that serves nearly the full compendium of classic American cookery, there’s more to Curran’s than meets the eye.
All of the orange juice is fresh squeezed. They go through 70,000 oranges annually. The buns, eggs, and sausages are all local. The ground beef is grass-fed and hormone-free. The corned beef is house-made (they serve over 600 pounds’ worth at St. Patrick’s Day), as is the sauerkraut.
And here, a person looking for a taco salad with a crunchy corn tortilla bowl can coexist with a lover of breakfast for dinner, plus the guy who has been searching in vain for a Monte Cristo. The classic sweet-savory French Toast sandwich is served with a little cup of strawberry cream cheese riding sidecar. There’s also the best sleeper fried chicken in the city, malted Belgian waffles, even liver and onions. And surprise: Beer and wine are served here, too.
It’s shooting fish in a barrel to poke fun at a restaurant that serves cottage cheese and peaches, or mounds of tuna fish salad on a lettuce bed. But as explained by a healthcare pro, “Those kinds of things are easy on the belly.”
And like it or not, we will all someday be in need of something easy on the belly for dinner. Luckily, Curran’s will probably be around to serve it to us, at a price we can afford. All the same, if you’re not prone to heartburn or indigestion or other age-related digestive maladies, do you want to eat at Curran’s, the Early Bird Special place?
First, know that there are few foodist, Instagrammable moments to be had here. And while most of the dishes are scratch-made, not all of them are. Hollandaise and gravy are instantly recognizable as reconstituted. But the potatoes are real, as well as the hash browns providing the base for the “Ham Dinger,” a Curran’s signature dish that swaps out English muffins for spuds on an eggs Benedict.
There’s a special kind of comfort to eating this way, to relaxing into your conversation with your grandma or your stoner buddy. Conversation that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the food. You can leave your phone safely in your pocket because the plating techniques don’t command an instant Twitter accounting. Besides, your fingers are too sticky from the honey-dipped fried chicken.
That chicken is available by the quarter bird, half bird, or by the bucket, and since Revival opened down the road, Curran’s chicken sales have gone up, not down. It’s a third of the price, and while it’s not at all the same as Revival’s, it’s also not disappointing in any way. The bird is juicy and tender, the crust a piping hot, golden carapace. A tub (yes, a tub) goes for $9.44.
But breakfast is the tall, glossy feather in Curran’s cap. Every short-order preparation is done with the expert hand of a 68-year-old kitchen with veteran staff. No broken yolks or other eggy crimes here, ever.
Curran makes trips up north to retrieve smoky German sausage, and he refuses to give me the name of which butcher. “Then you’ll publish it!” he cries. His secret remains a secret.
You can have pancakes instead of toast at no added charge, and the magnificent Belgian waffles are a toasty, malty dream. A steak and eggs meal is $8.55 ($8.55!), and at breakfast you can get that famous corned beef tucked under potatoes and two basted eggs. Kids eat for around two dollars.
The “family” in Curran’s Family Restaurant is not just a placeholder. Curran’s customer base is now in the third generation. Most of the management has been with the company for decades. Curran’s wife and children labor behind the scenes.
“It sounds clichéd, but I have the highest regard for my staff and my customers,” says Curran, in a back booth he hopes he’ll occupy until his body gives out. “I have a genuine caring for all of them.”
His way of doing business is no cliché; it isn’t common or overused. It’s the uncommon man who puts regard in place of capital gains and caring over corner-cutting.
Maybe you overlooked Curran’s because it’s slow, and it’s steady. It’s also steadfast. Just like family.
Curran’s Family Restaurant
4201 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis