Downtown Minneapolis classic Peter's Grill to close

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2013 - 3:22 PM

Peter’s Grill, when it was located on 9th Street in downtown Minneapolis. The restaurant moved to 8th Street and 2nd Avenue S. in 1991.

Get ready for four of the saddest words in the English language: Peter’s Grill is closing.

Owner Peter Atsidakos is calling it quits after Saturday’s lunch service, and when he does, a part of Minneapolis will disappear.

“It’s not going to be easy for me to see that door closing,” he said. “My whole family has been serving the Twin Cities for 99 years.”

That’s right, a year shy of a century. Except for a brief period about a decade ago, the restaurant (114 S. 8th St., Mpls., has been in the same family since 1914, when brothers and Greek immigrants John Atsidakos and Peter Atcas started a fruit stand that grew into a restaurant.

After decades on 9th Street between Nicollet and Marquette avenues — it was located next door to Young-Quinlan, the upscale department store — the restaurant relocated to the Foshay Tower for a brief run before moving to its present address, where it has remained for the past 22 years.

John Atsidakos returned to Greece in 1924 — and never returned to the United States — but his son Peter came to Minneapolis in the early 1970s, first working at the family’s Best Steak House properties.

Peter Atcas died in 1976, and his son Ed ran the business until he sold it in 1983 to his cousins: Andy Atsidakos, and the second Peter of Peter’s Grill, Peter Atsidakos. They sold it in 2003, but Peter Atsidakos bought it back a few years later, preserving the noble tradition of the downtown lunch counter, the city’s last.

It’s easy to take for granted that a landmark like Peter’s will be around forever. Unless you’re the one paying the bills and keeping 20 people employed, and business — especially the key noon-hour traffic — has taken a nose-dive during the past few summers. In June 2011, 500 to 600 customers a day were routinely walking through the doors. One day last week, that number was down to 85.

Atsidakos points the finger at the downtown Minneapolis food truck phenomenon, much of which is taking place around the corner from his restaurant.

“It’s the worst thing that could have happened to me,” he said. “There are trucks up and down on Marquette, a whole line of them right on our block. I don’t know why they all have to be right there, on Marquette. Why not spread them out, on Nicollet, or Hennepin?”

The kitchen worked to adapt to its new competition. “We’ve tried everything,” he said. “We made the food better than before. We served bigger portions than before. And still, no business.”

Changing tastes may also be playing a part, with demands for Peter’s straight-up comfort food on the wane. It’s an unfortunate development for those — present company definitely included — who enjoy a classic clubhouse sandwich, a turkey fricassee with dumplings and a yeasty dinner roll, a cling peach with cottage cheese or two eggs done any style with bacon and toast. Or anyone who appreciates being addressed as “dear” by their uniform-clad waitress, as I was when I had lunch there on Monday.

Quick-service Peter’s embodied fast food before fast food was invented. Less than 4 minutes elapsed between the time I ordered an open-faced hot turkey sandwich and it materialized at my seat.

What a lunch: a generous dollop of sturdy mashed potatoes and a towering stack of juicy, freshly roasted and thickly carved white and dark meat on slices of soft white bread, the plate brimming with a savory gravy. It was the epitome of old-fashioned, homestyle cooking. I devoured it.

Atsidakos is in negotiations to sell the restaurant — the equipment and fixtures, anyway, although not the name, nor the recipes — to “three ladies, I won’t say their names,” he said. “I should donate the sign to the museum. I don’t know that I’m going to need it.”

The 73-year-old restaurateur said he’s unsure of his future.

“Retire? I don’t know how to do that,” he said with a laugh. “My hobby is work. I enjoy working in restaurants. I enjoy coming here. I can’t go and be an office guy.” One definite plan is to spend more time at his home in Greece.

As for the restaurant’s justifiably fabled apple pie recipe, it’s remaining with Atsidakos, although he did reveal two secrets: each mountainous pie — divided into six slices (“six big slices,” he said) — requires three pounds of apples, and they’re not Granny Smiths, despite the “green apple pie” title.

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