EVERY MONDAY morning at about quarter to eight, two men in business attire arrive at Peter’s Grill in downtown Minneapolis, hang up their coats, and settle into the fifth booth on the left. The waitress brings them “the usual”: oatmeal, juice, and coffee for one; eggs, hash browns, toast, juice, and coffee for the other. The routine has gone on every week for maybe 20 years, as long as my father and his friend Doug have been playing racquetball together. After their weekly game, the winner pays for breakfast. So the loser wins, too.
As soon as the coffee is poured, Doug and my father flip through the paper and comment on whatever news has made its pages that day. Then Doug reads Isaac Asimov’s Super Quiz aloud (except when it was briefly removed during the Star Tribune’s redesign and everything seemed off balance) and, without fail, remarks how much higher their score would be if their wives were there. Free-form conversation follows, on the sort of topics that Midwestern men prefer—the price of farm land, rising health-insurance premiums, how to dismantle an old gravity-flow furnace and lug it out of the basement. Soon, the wall clock reads 8:30, and Doug stands up, snaps his suspenders, and follows my father out the door. In the days when he still smoked cigars, Doug might have lit one as he walked across Second Avenue.
There must be hundreds of others who share such traditions at Peter’s. It’s a place made of memories, after all: the diner has been operating in Minneapolis since 1914. Grande dame Barbara Flanagan has a table named after her. Bill Clinton visited in 1995 and autographed a menu (“One of the best days of Peter’s Grill,” owner Peter Atsidakos reminisces in a thick Greek accent). The restaurant has survived two moves—both times packing up the well-loved wooden booths, the horseshoe-shaped lunch counters, the green padded stools, and the vintage neon sign—but a financial setback nearly killed the business last year. In July, when Peter’s suddenly closed, my father and Doug were forced to have their breakfast at the adequate-but-charmless 8th Street Grill.
The closing made us wonder about the necessity of Peter’s. Amid the global smorgasbord—sushi platters, southwestern wraps, and balsamic-drizzled salads—is there still a place for meatloaf, sardine sandwiches, and other old-fashioned fare?
Atsidakos thinks so. His father and uncle, the original Peter, started the place, and Atsidakos ran it from 1983 to 2003. He sold Peter’s to a pair of less-seasoned restaurateurs four years ago, but when they filed for bankruptcy last fall, Atsidakos decided to buy the family business back. He reopened in December and the tables quickly filled. It seems we still have a taste for the foods June Cleaver might have served her family: where else in downtown Minneapolis can you find a liver-sausage sandwich?
While Atsidakos was away, the food quality at Peter’s slipped a bit. (A friend of mine was once served egg salad on moldy bread.) But happily, with Atsidakos seating customers and checking on the kitchen, the scratch cooking (“like home, you know,” he says) is just as it was at Peter’s 50 years ago. The beef barley soup is chock full of meat and veggies, swimming in rich broth, the surface speckled with fat. The clam chowder is light and herby, the antithesis of the thick, tasteless epoxy that comes in cans. At Peter’s, almost anything you’d trust a Midwestern grandmother to make—baked chicken, coleslaw, tapioca pudding—will taste like the simple comforts you remember.
Sometimes the kitchen misses a step. The pork chops can be dry and overcooked. The green beans are flavorless, the drab olive hue of army fatigues. (“They look like troop rations,” my friend remarked as we dined at twilight, amid a sparsely filled house.) The leaden crab-stuffed salmon special—a recipe I’ve never seen at Grandma’s house—should be avoided entirely.
That said, Peter’s can always be trusted with pies: theirs are among the best in the city. The thoughtful waitresses suggest you put in your order early so they can reserve the biggest slice of whatever apple (with a slice of cheese, of course), rhubarb, or coconut heaven has been baked that morning.
But food is only part of the Peter’s experience. The waitresses—the sort who still get their hair set at the beauty shop, and who call customers “hon,” “bud,” or “girl”—make Peter’s one of the last places in Minneapolis that still feels small-town. It’s perhaps the last refuge for those who grew up in homes where bread and jelly were served with every meal, or for those who occasionally order milk instead of a mojito. Or for life-long friends keeping a tradition alive.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor at Minnesota Monthly.
114 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis,
Open: Monday through Friday
7 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.
Reservations: not necessary but recommended for large parties
Parking: in nearby ramps, lots, or on the street
Prices: entrées $4–$17