Restaurant offers unrivaled ambience in Dinkytown

by Mike Oakes

Recently, local composer Randall Davidson was offered $50 for the shirt off his back while visiting New Orleans. The T-shirt read, “Al’s Breakfast.”
To anyone who has stepped foot into the ten-foot wide, 14-stool long breakfast-only joint located in the heart of Dinkytown, it’s no surprise Davidson returned to Minneapolis, T-shirt intact.
This marks the 50th fall since Al’s first opened its doors to provide Dinkytown and Minneapolis with a good breakfast, good conversation and employees who entertain as much as they cook and serve.
Amidst a trend toward a corporate-owned Dinkytown, Al’s has transcended change and is an unforgettable bridge with the past. A cast of regulars can be found, on any given day, sipping cups of joe and reliving old stories about the University, Dinkytown and life itself.
Colman Page, a regular, has been making new friends and rehashing old stories for close to 30 years at Al’s. “I really can’t remember why I first came in here … But now it’s just the ambiance, the people mostly.”
The ambiance at Al’s includes a number of characteristics found at no other locale. The seating consists of 14 stools and a counter top, with three feet between them and the wall for customers to stand in a line and watch those lucky enough to arrive before them eat.
The wall behind the waiting customers is full of holes and chips in the paint. “Those holes in the wall are made from butts,” explains Doug Grina, co-owner of Al’s.
The wall opposite the counter top is full of newspaper and magazine cutouts, bearing awards and praises for the diner.
There are hundreds of “meal books” scattered on a shelf that consist of twenty tickets. And for $20, a customer can buy one and use it instead of cash on the next visit.
“Some (meal books) have been here for 20 years, and occasionally people come in and still want to use them,” says Allison Kirwin, a manager.
And in there somewhere, Grina and Kirwin cook, Mary Rose Ciatti and Matt Koerner take orders and yell, “Two dark!” for two pieces of wheat toast, and faces old and new enjoy the atmosphere.
Some old faces might remember when Al’s opened, and Al Bergstrom, the proprietor, flung pancakes with a cigarette dangling from his lips while flirting with all the girls.
Bergstrom opened the restaurant on May 15, 1950, after quitting his job because of a dispute at a restaurant across the street called The Flying Dutchman.
Bergstrom’s nephew, Phil Bergstrom, took over as owner in 1974 and shortly thereafter started a three-way partnership, which included Jim Brandes, who is co-owner today. Brandes and Grina have been partners for 20 years.
Built on top of an alleyway –once a storage area for plumbing parts used by the store next door –Al’s is considered an addition and pays rent to the building that houses the Espresso Royale Cafe. This arrangement has existed for 50 years.
And in those five decades, Al’s has won the hearts of many.
It won the heart of Page, who visits Al’s an average of five times a week.
“Why I came, I don’t know. I never got into the habit, but you meet people and talk to them and it’s pretty easy to have a conversation,” he said. “My friends got into going to the bar after work. I never did. Al’s is my bar.”
Elementary schooler Austyn Hartwell visited Al’s for the first time with her mother, Maria, and was dazzled and amazed by Grina, who juggled a freshly cooked pancake, a bottle of hot sauce and an egg for her enjoyment.
And he told her a joke: “What did the zero say to the eight? … Nice belt.”
Hartwell grinned and giggled and said, “He’s funny!”
Al’s significance is unmatched. University music professor David Baldwin has written and composed songs in honor of the restaurant.
He and the Summit Hill Brass Quintet performed them in front of Al’s on May 15 of this year, Al’s 50th anniversary.
One of the songs is titled, “Short Stack of Whole-Wheat Wally Blues,” an actual menu item that is blueberry pancakes, wheat, with walnuts.
When you go to Al’s, don’t plan on simply having breakfast. Plan to be entertained. Plan to laugh. Plan to listen, plan to tell.
Al’s has something for everyone — except elbowroom. Many will continue to come back for different reasons over the years, but the promise of intrigue and ambiance brought them to Al’s for the first time.
Hartwell definitely has a reason to come back, aside from the entertainment. As she clenched the sides of her stool and gave herself a push, she said, “I like this place cause I can spin.”