> About five years ago students living a late-night lifestyle had few options besides convenience store junk food, frozen pizzas and ramen noodles.
But today’s campus restaurants create a different scene – one that caters to a variety of palates including late-night studiers and hungry beer guzzlers.
Burrito Loco Bar & Grill co-owner Greg Pillsbury said that when he attended the University there were limited on-campus options for grubbing past midnight.
“The only places you could go were Taco Bell or White Castle back in the day,” he said.
Now, local independently owned restaurants take advantage of proximity, evening study hours and the barhopping night life.
When you’re small and independent you don’t get to pick and choose,” Pillsbury said. “You have to go after every penny you can get.”
He said Burrito Loco and others, including the DinkyTowner Cafe and the Steak Knife, welcomed students past dinnertime long before franchises such as McDonald’s.
DinkyTowner employee Ben Tacheny said their breakfast menu became a late night hit nearly seven years ago.
“Every Friday and Saturday was crazy busy,” said Tacheny, a Chinese and economics junior.
An increase in street-level bars and restaurants might have created a stigma that their basement-level entertainment and food is somehow inferior to their competition, he said.
“We cater to a different crowd,” Tacheny said, reasoning the dimly lit, seedy noir, pool hall atmosphere might not be to everyone’s taste.
Tacheny said it’s often those who don’t buy drinks who stumble in after 2 a.m. to devour a plate-sized Tex Mex breakfast.
“Our breakfast transcends all the (DinkyTowner) stereotypes,” he said.
Like the DinkyTowner, Steak Knife co-owner Tony Nicklow flipped burgers and managed after-bar-close crowds for about five years, but now he turns off his “Open” neon sign at 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The Steak Knife was a popular after-hours hangout that touted a chill Reggae Thursday and late-night meal deals.
“Once in a while people got a little rowdy or vomited, but that wasn’t the reason we stopped,” he said, explaining that he and his business partner wanted more time to spend with family and restructure the business.
But with neighboring Mesa Pizza drawing lines out the door after 2 a.m., Nicklow is reconsidering his restaurant hours.
While Nicklow devotes his attention to lunch and dinner rushes, franchises rake in the big bucks at night.
Dinkytown McDonald’s owner David Choate said their after-midnight hours fit students’ lifestyles without hurting their pocketbooks. Choate attributes the bulk of his profits to “Dollar Menu prices” and a good community reputation.
The restaurant sees many students come in to use free Wi-Fi on weeknights, but it’s the weekends that boom.
“You know we close our doors on weekends at 3:00 in the morning, and I swear sometimes we’re shutting doors with students’ fingers in ’em,” he said, describing how employees turn customers away at close.
Stadium Village hangout
When bars like the Big Ten Restaurant & Bar and Sally’s Saloon and Eatery have thrifty drink specials, late-night eateries in the area get bombarded with last-minute diners.
Village Wok shift manager Walter Chan said after locking the doors at 1:45 a.m., customers knock at the door and windows wanting service.
Besides students, Village Wok’s over 25-year reputation as a late-night stronghold among police officers, health-care staff and families makes it easy to fill tables.
“It’s amazing how many babies we see coming in at midnight,” he said. For that reason, employees keep an eye out for loud, “rowdy” customers. In large part, though, Chan said people just come in to hang out because not many Asian restaurants around the Twin Cities stay open late.
What diners want
Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said no matter how good the food is, late-night crowds demand impeccable speed and near pocket-change prices.
And it’s clear the most popular restaurants use such strategies.
Mesa Pizza packed students in like sardines on a cold March evening, dishing out more slices of pizza than the nearly furniture-free space could handle.
Late night is the “bread and butter” of Mesa Pizza’s business, said Matt “Pizza Jockey” Tomkins, known for his plate-flicking theatrics and good-natured customer heckling.
“Cheap, good food is why we’re popular,” he said, adding that “late-night customers are often afternoon regulars.”
Tomkins said it’s a challenge to serve customers after they’ve visited the bar, but there’s a trick to serving those who’ve had one too many: Follow their gaze until it rests on a particular pie.
Working late really tests your skills, he said. But Tomkins’ height comes in handy when he reaches over crowds from behind the counter to grab the oregano, parmesan cheese and red pepper shakers lost in a sea of greasy-fingered customers.
Long hours pay off when high-spirited customers dance to the music or he sees a guy get brutally rejected while hitting on a girl, Tomkins said.
“It’s late at night,” he said. “It’s your last chance to find that special someone,” he said with a smirk.
Neuroscience sophomore Arman Cicic left a house party to meet a friend for a slice of pizza at Mesa around 1:30 a.m. Cicic said grabbing a bite after drinking is a way to extend the night.
“It’s part of the party experience,” he said.
University alumnus Mike Yakovlev said he often inhales the food without paying attention to flavor after leaving the bar.
“I’m like a landfill; just throw that (stuff) in there,” he said.
Laid-back late night
While some feel bar close is a fun atmosphere, others seek a place to play chess, sip coffee and people-watch in the dark of night.
Hard Times Cafe cook Lori Haymon said the West Bank draws a less traditional campus crowd but still sees a lot of students and recent graduates among their mix of latenighters.
Hard Times co-owner Troy Pieper said their motivation for being open 22 hours a day, 365 days a year isn’t profit based.
Pieper, a University alumnus, stakes claim to having an authentic connection to the community they serve, including cabbies who pop in for a $1 cup of coffee, or band members and groupies winding down from a show at the Triple Rock Social Club.
Hard Times late-night regular Otha Lohse said “all-night” restaurants add to the local culture, particularly those that offer an alcohol-free atmosphere.
“We have so many bars in this city; people need places to go to and get a cup of coffee and wind down before they try to drive home or whatever,” he said. “It’s also just a place to mingle.”
Lohse, a former Dinkytown resident, said on a citywide scale, Minneapolis has a less diverse, authentic night-life culture compared to others.
“As far as being a late-night city, Chicago is the nearest one that tops us, and they top us by a long shot,” he said.
Despite the city’s “mediocre” late-night reputation, last week’s snowy weather proved that after midnight, crowds have reason to stick around – if they’re given one.
There’s demand for restaurants that offer people a place to go when everything else is closed, Haymon said.
Hours: Sun.−Wed. 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Thu.−Sat. 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Quick-paced Burrito Loco employees man their stations Thursday Feb. 22, meticulously folding hearty burritos and assembling cheese-filled quesadillas. Customers line the glass-shielded counter shortly after 2 a.m. eagerly selecting their choice of flavorful stuffings. They shuffle down, swipe for payment and head to the nearest empty table to enthusiastically unwrap their end-of-the-night treat.
Most popular late night item: Burrito $5.95
Hours: Mon.−Sun. 11 a.m. to 1:45 a.m
Weekly regular Patrick Harmett and a friend prepare to fill their forks with fried rice around 12:30 a.m. Feb. 28 at the Village Wok. Adjacent to Harmett’s table, employees lounge, consoling each others’ concerns that the impending snow would mean less business.
Most popular late night item: Sweet & Sour Chicken $6.45
Hours: Sun.− Sat. 5 a.m. to 3 a.m.
When night fell, students trekked along snowy Dinkytown sidewalks toward McDonald’s glowing golden arches March 1. Dollar Menu prices, fast service and typical American eats lure lines well into the 3 a.m. hour. Inside, customers swirl their fries in ketchup-filled condiment cups and sip water as a burly security guard monitors the bathroom and keeps watch for patrons falling out of their chairs.
Most popular late night item: Double Cheeseburger $1.29
Hours: Sun. 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Mon.9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Tue.−Wed. 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Thu.ñFri. 9 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Chinese and economics junior Ben Tacheny stares at his weighty plate filled with a salsa-topped, egg and hash brown-stuffed tortilla Friday March 2 at the DinkyTowner Cafe. After the bar closes, Thursday through Saturday, their red vinyl, diner-style booths appear in a new light as employees clear empty drink glasses and replace them with heaping breakfast orders.
Most popular late night item: Tex Mex $7.25
Hard Times Cafe
Hours: Sun.ñSat. 6 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Despite dangerous winter weather conditions, a late-night regular digs a blue corn tortilla chip into a dish of sour cream while conversing with a friend Feb. 28 at Hard Times Cafe.
Most popular late night item: Nachos $5.50
Hours: Mon.− Wed. 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Thu.−Sat. 11 a.m. to about 3 a.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
First-year student Laura Hughes ponders over the selection of pre-cooked pizzas at Mesa Pizza around 1:30 a.m. Feb. 22, deciding upon which slice to have employees reheat. About 25 customers lingered in the L-shaped dining area, chowing down on a $3 piece and reliving the night’s finest moments.
Most popular late night item: Macaroni & Cheese Slice $3.00