Breakfast of Champions

Al’s Breakfast’s new co-owner Alison Kirwin dishes on the Dinkytown institution with a huge reputation and diminutive size

Al's Breakfast's new co-owner Alison Kirwin pouring a cup of coffee.
Alison Kirwin

photo by TJ Turner

Al’s Breakfast was originally a hardware store’s storage shed before becoming Minneapolis’ most legendary diner under the late Al Bergstrom 67 years ago. The tiny, jam-packed joint is known for providing tasty, affordable morning meals and cozy camraderie to the University of Minnesota community and beyond. After two decades as an employee, Alison Kirwin joined longtime co-owner Doug Grina as one of the restaurant’s stewards, deciding how much to change a place that hasn’t so much as replaced its original 14 stools.

“Al’s is basically a lean-to on a building. We have one actual wall and the other is a header with our roof sitting on top. Sims Hardware, that used to be next to us, built a shed for storage in the alley, and that is what became Al’s in 1950. A staircase under our front door still goes into the basement of the old store.”

“We make everything from scratch. The pancake recipe goes all the way back, and there are certain things on the menu named after people that have worked here. I think a lot of it does date back to Al, but Grina tweaked a lot of things. Our corned beef hash is something he put together, and our ‘Jose’ [poached eggs served with hash browns, salsa, and Cheddar cheese] was put on just after I started in the mid-’90s.”

“I was a dance major at the University the first time I went into Al’s, and worked there for 20 years before buying in. My best friend from high school was working there, and I ended up on the schedule. Dancing and food have always been important things for me. I would take classes from my teacher Ranee Ramaswamy [of Ragamala Dance Company] on Sunday mornings, and it would always end with a meal at her house. I still teach at Ragamala, and we’ve started doing fundraising dinners for the company at Al’s, so it all comes around.”

“Al was from Forest Lake, and I only met him a handful of times. He was in his late 80s, early 90s, and would come in on anniversaries and stuff like that.”

“At Al’s, we have customers that have been coming in since the 1960s and ’70s, and to a certain extent they know way more than we do. They depend on Al’s being the same no matter what. We clean our grill so that it is shiny and silver every day, but I think that the regulars like to imagine that there is a certain amount of ‘patina’ that comes through in the food.”

“We have 14 stools—all original. So is the counter, with cubby-holes that run the length of the customer side. You find great things left there! It’s amazing that people never come back for that stuff; I haven’t bought a pair of sunglasses in years. We’ll need to replace, upgrade, or do something, because the counter is leaning horribly toward us as we are working, but we have to be careful about how we go about it because people notice.”

“I do feel a responsibility to keep it more or less the same as it has been because that is what people love about us. But at the same time, we have to progress.”

“We are open at night on Fridays and Saturdays, so that’s a new thing. At least for the winter we are inviting people to come in and dine from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. those nights. Al’s is usually open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., which means our space is closed two-thirds of the day. So, why not try out some new hours and serve our ‘Jose’ burrito-style, for example, to eat in or take out?”

“People share with people what’s important to them, and we’ve long been part of that here. As Dinkytown changes, we are one of the things that hardly change at all. We are unique in that we actually seem to mean something to people physically and culturally, maybe unlike other restaurants where no one would care. I am just incredibly humbled by that—that I got to buy this little hole in the wall that’s remembered so much that way.”