Do I love weekend breakfasts? Yes.
Huge greasy weekend late morning/early afternoon breakfasts of eggs and pancakes and bacon and toast and coffee? Yes.
Do I live in Minneapolis? Yes.
Have I lived here for twenty years? Yes.
Had I ever been to the Band Box Diner, at 729 S. Tenth St. in Minneapolis? Not until yesterday.
Here is what I ordered: a plate-size pancake with butter and syrup, a side of sausage, and two orders of American fries. I debated about a cup of coffee – I’m a single perfect cup made with boiling water hand-poured through a filter at dawn type, so there is little worse in my personal culinary world than nasty coffee that’s been burning for hours on a hot plate, but I threw caution to the winds and ordered a cup.
Tasty! As was the pancake!
The American fries.
I’ve never had anything like them. They took a long time to get to the table, but in my experience, perfection often does take a long time. These American fries were soft, melt-in-the-mouth soft, with equally soft onions, grilled together with the potatoes just long enough so that crisp bits mixed in with the overall melting softness.
As I ate, the cook stood by the grill peeling already-boiled red potatoes and then, as he held each one in his hand, slicing it tenderly in cross-hatched rows until a pile of pieces fell into a waiting bowl. The waitress, with her many lovely tattoos and piled tangle of black hair, greeted an old, mute, toothless woman by name – “Hello, Monica, do you want the usual?” and set a can of Sprite and a hamburger down before her.
The counter stools are red. They twirl. The tables are red. The windows are large. The place is tiny. My friend and I ate everything on all four of our plates. “I’m surprised you can even move, after all that food,” said the waitress.
The Band Box is my new favorite diner in Minneapolis. It’s a one of a kind, the antithesis of a chain restaurant. Wherever you live, tell me about your own one-of-a-kind diner, will you? I’d like to visit it someday.
When I was in college, living in an art studio in downtown Minneapolis, my best friend lived a short stroll away, across the street from the Bandbox. We would go there in between our jobs and classes and sit on those red stools and blabber on as we have been in the habit of doing since Mr. Searle’s 7th grade biology class.
Now she lives a $1300 plane ticket away from me; I haven’t heard her voice in so long, and haven’t thought about the Bandbox in years. But she’s coming next summer, and she asked if maybe I could not tell her family or friends when she arrives, if I could pick her up at the airport and take her someplace quiet where she can adjust to being back in the U.S., where we can catch up without anyone competing for her attention.
Now I know just the place.
The trouble with Manhattan’s favorite old holes in the wall is that they are mostly by now icons, too well-known to be secret special spots. Eisenberg’s, facing the Flatiron building and famous for egg creams is untouched since probably 1940, but seems untouched by consumer-driven fiat rather than by either cozy familiarity or praiseworthy neglect. Tom’s Diner, on 112th, is authentic enough, but Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega have definitely left their mark.
The diners that would be now medium-aged are for the most part gone, replaced by Starbucks, or the more insidious Pain Quotidien. Their memory does linger however. The Four Brothers, on Broadway at 88th Street, my little sister perceived as offering the height of luxury; she never spoke its name but in hushed tones (tones she reserved otherwise for the name “Al Pacino…”–she didn’t know who he was but loved the way syllables fell from her lips). For me, at age 3, it was the Olympia Restaurant on 99th. Passing it on the bus as an adult, I was dismayed to see it had degenerated into Greek diner; I remembered it as much fancier. Wasn’t that the place where the waitstaff was so attentive? I know the waiters were foreign and kept stopping by our table to talk to me. Then the image of my favorite dish came floating back: crystals of salt I had added–all by myself, but with my mother’s permission–sinking into cheese the friendly orange of a Kraft Single.
There are few things I’m sorry I didn’t do in life, but here is one of them: I never ate at Ole’s Ham & Egger in Marion, next door to Cedar Rapids.
As I recall, this restaurant was open all night. As a result, its clients were an interesting collection of folks after the bars closed at 12 or 2 or whenever it was then.
I’m sorry I hadn’t eaten there by the time it closed or they tore it down. With a name like Ole’s Ham & Egger, surely it must have served good food.
Kieth – When I was a kid in Marion, I used to stop by Ole’s Ham and Egger to play the pinball machines. Ironically, I never ate there, although I got change and may have had a soda or two. I rememeber the older woman who always seemed to be working there and tolerated me and my friends hanging out but not buying any food. Yes, there were some interesting individuals there. The old Marion depot was a short walk from there and maybe a few of them had rolled in on the train. Some may have lived in the apartments on the upper floors of the buildings on that block, which was torn down to make a strip mall about a dozen years ago. Sad. But I heard that Ole’s was actually a a small franchise, so maybe a few still are out there in or near Iowa.