The clock was ticking at Peter’s Grill on Friday as a noon-hour crowd snaked out the door. A full house was paying their last respects to the 99-year-old lunch counter — downtown’s last — which is closing after Saturday’s lunch service.
“If they had customers like this every day, they could keep it open,” observed Lisa Childrey of Minneapolis.
From the vantage point of the counter — where surprise customer President Bill Clinton enjoyed a Canadian bacon-and-egg sandwich, a bowl of vegetable soup and a slice of green apple pie in 1995 — it was business as usual.
Uniform-clad waitresses running sliced turkey sandwiches, clam chowder and other homestyle classics from the kitchen, and owner Peter Atsidakos doing what he has been doing for decades: greeting and seating customers. This time accompanied by a flurry of hugs, back pats and hand shakes.
“It breaks my heart,” said Laurie Moyer, who drove in from River Falls, Wis., for a last Peter’s lunch. “It seems like it should go on forever.”
Another diner standing in line shared his opinion on Peter’s demise. “I think you can file this under ‘hipsters ruin everything,’ ” he said, a hat tip to a popular Internet meme and a nod to Atsidakos’ contention that the city’s burgeoning food truck scene put an irreparable dent in his lunch business.
A dramatic drop in summer sales over the past few years is motivating the 73-year-old Atsidakos to retire, not an easy prospect for a man who lives to work. He is in negotiations with an unnamed party to purchase the restaurant, minus its name and recipes.
John Nelson of Minneapolis dropped in for a Swiss steak and a slice of the kitchen’s fabled green apple pie. He lucked out. “Yeah, I got the last piece,” he said. “What a thing to remember the place by.”
Former Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan was there, seated in the walnut booth that bears her name. Like so many of her fellow regulars, Amy Sweasy of Mendota Heights knew exactly what she was planning on ordering. “Chicken salad on pumpernickel,” she said. “Same as I always get. I don’t need to look at the menu.”
In a place where quick-service fare was the standard long before McDonald’s was a glimmer in Ray Kroc’s eye, Nick Santrizos of Edina articulated the day’s overriding sentiment. “Peter’s is a Minneapolis institution,” he said. “I’ve been eating here probably 10 years, and my dad before that, and my grandpa before that.”
With the exception of a short gap about a decade ago, Peter’s, located at 114 S. 8th St., has been owned by the same family since Greek immigrant Peter Atcas — Peter Atsidakos’ uncle — opened the place in 1914. Sales on the first day — a Saturday — were $33, recorded in a weathered ledger in Atsidakos’ father’s handwriting.
That enduring sense of history was frequently intoned among Friday’s diners. “It’s nostalgic for me,” said Mary Kay Fitzgerald of Woodbury, who recalled first coming to Peter’s in the early 1970s. “Then again, Peter’s was nostalgic even in those days.”
Joan Peterson of Edina, a Peter’s customer for more than 40 years, agreed. “I have a long and happy history with Peter’s, so this is sad,” she said. “But on the other side of things, the one constant is that change is inevitable.”
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