Dive right in

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2009 - 2:39 PM

Tough economic times or not, Twin Citians have long been enamored of "lived-in" places where shabby meets chic.

Whether we call them frowzy or frumpy, tatty or dumpy, we Twin Citians love our "lived-in" locales.

We perch on unsteady stools or chairs and scarf down breakfast at Serlan's and the Band Box Diner. We tiptoe around the scuffed floors of Hennepin-Lake Liquors and Morelli's for wallet-friendly wine prices. We frequent Mixed Blood Theater and the Soap Factory, delighted that the proprietors' money goes into their work and their people rather than gussying up their decor. The State Fair and Williams Arena would not be the same with spendy renovations.

Is this some kind of edifice complex? A yearning for Grunge Era, Part Deux? A penchant for down-and-dirty "slumming it"? None of the above, according to a local psychology professor.

"The nostalgia piece is a big part of it. In many cases, we have very powerful associations with a specific restaurant or store," said the University of St. Thomas' John Tauer, a lifelong local and Pavlovian fan of St. Paul's Ran-Ham bowling alley. "Often we're not even aware of it. It's like walking into a movie, and all of a sudden you want popcorn.

"Also, some people have this yearning for life to be simpler. So those throwback institutions often bring us back to a time when we think life was simpler, even though it really wasn't. But these places, these rituals, they provide that kind of comfort."

There you have it: These places fit like an old shoe -- and we don't care if they also smell like one.

BREAKFAST

Al's

413 14th Av. SE., Mpls.; 612-331-1991

The vibe: The not-so-mellow yellow walls and counter are perpetually lined with customers enjoying or awaiting one of the 14 stools. It's the narrowest restaurant in the Twin Towns, quite fitting for a neighborhood called Dinkytown. It also, apropos of everything, has a hole in the wall. A vaguely un-PC sign reads, "Tipping is not a city in China."

The lure: The food, much of it from Al Bergstrom's original recipes, gives "greasy spoon" a good name. (Just try to find better hotcakes or hash browns.) Regulars love the prepaid "meal-ticket books." Perhaps no place in the region has such a spot-on combination of character and characters, including virtually every student who ever attended the nearby U of M.

LUNCH

The Wienery

414 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.; 612-333-5798

The vibe: Left, er, West Bank bohemians -- multiculti and often in family or friend groups -- wolf down hearty breakfasts and Vienna Beef wieners beneath a deer head bearing a necktie and a ballcap reading "Jesus is my homeboy." Behind the Formica counter are stickers touting Peace Coffee, Nader-LaDuke 2000 and "The CIA killed Wellstone."

The lure: Owner/self-proclaimed "grease-slinger" Pat Starr offers ingredients-driven diner fare and a contagious personality. "He's the James Brown of Minneapolis diners," said regular John Reine. "I like that it's not someone's marketing scheme, that it's not totally packaged and sanitized. They replace 'personality' with a brain."

DINNER

Red's Savoy Pizza

421 E. 7th St., St. Paul; 651-227-1437

The vibe: The midcentury supper club has the kind of bar with signs reading, "Beer: so much more than just a breakfast drink." It is more family-oriented since the smoking ban. "We pour more pitchers of pop than we used to," said bartender Mike Venia. "The regulars who used to sit and smoke and drink at the bar now get the pizzas to go."

The lure: The pizza is regarded by many as the Twin Cities' best, featuring owner Red Schoenheider's secret-recipe Italian sausage and sauce. The front (a concrete slab near the door to keep cars from hitting the building) and back (Norm Coleman Sr., 81, was caught in flagrante delicto with a much younger woman in the parking lot) are local landmarks.

REC

Ran-Ham Bowling Center

490 1/2 S. Hamline Av., St. Paul; 651-698-0252

The vibe: It's like stepping back into the real Great Depression, but this place is anything but depressing. From the oversized Budweiser bowling-pin clock to the manual cash register (no credit cards accepted) to the plastic seats with attached cupholders and ashtrays (clean and shiny these days), this subterranean throwback oozes history.

The lure: Bowling (eight lanes) costs $3 a game, and the balls roll back up the gutter. The classic bar has a "streaming" Hamm's sign. This is a popular party spot for an all-ages clientele. "We've even had a couple of 80th-birthday parties," said Steve Steiner, who grew up in the neighborhood (the corner of Randolph and Hamline; thus the name) and has owned the center since 1990.

NIGHTLIFE

Nye's Polonaise Room

112 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls.; 612-379-2021

The vibe: It looks retro -- with sparkly-gold vinyl booths and cut-glass lights that seem like something out of Fred Flintstone's bachelor pad -- but these elements were installed back in the day. A stern Frédéric Chopin peers down over the piano-cum-drum-machine. Patrons of all ages are served by waitresses of a certain age.

The lure: There are piano and polka bars -- crooning on one side or dancing on the other -- as well as Polish beer and strong drinks. On weekends, Ruth Adams and the "World's Most Dangerous Polka Band" delight revelers. "When someone comes in with a smile, they're gonna have a bigger smile within two minutes, max," said veteran bartender Mark Carlson.

ARTS

Uptown Theater

2906 Hennepin Av. S, Mpls.; 612-825-6006

The vibe: This theater doesn't seem to have been renovated since the 1970s, with kitschy neon in the lobby and odd murals inside. Temperature control and seat conditions have improved, but a long-promised renovation that would turn a place that just feels old into something classic (à la the Heights) has yet to unfold.

The lure: It shows great movies that almost always are exclusive to the venue. A wide range of spots for a pre-movie bite or a post-movie beverage are available nearby. The clientele is über-hip, with the ever-present possibility of having lesbians passionately making out in the row in front of you. Did we mention great movies?

STORE

Midway Books

1579 W. University Av., St. Paul

The vibe: It's comfy-cozy, funky-artsy, with Edward Gorey posters, a carousel horse's head and a life-sized cutout of Chief Wiggum from "The Simpsons." The place is markedly removed from the prevalent coffee shop where you can read. "That would take up so much of the book space, and we're a bookstore," said owner Kathy Stransky. "I don't mind making somebody a cup of tea, though."

The lure: A gazillion books are sprawled over three floors, offering everything from a first edition of "Green Eggs and Ham" and fabulous arrays of art and photography books to a rack of CliffsNotes and old Playboys. Plus there's some swell people-watching. "I could write a book on the different types of characters who come in here," Stransky said.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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