Of all the recent changes in the Payne-Phalen district on St. Paul’s East Side — new businesses, spruced-up commercial corridors, the soon-to-open library and recreation center — perhaps none carries more of a symbolic wallop than the closing Saturday of Serlin’s Cafe.
It’s not just that the legendary greasy spoon, where white and blue collars mixed easily, is shutting its doors after 67 years. It’s been for sale since 2008, and Al and Gary Halvorson — stepsons of founder Irv Serlin — are more than ready to hang up their spatulas. “We’re happy and anxious to go, but we’ll miss the people,” said Al, who turns 67 in January.
The rest of this story is that Eddie Wu and Charles Cook, two boyhood buddies from South St. Paul, are buying the Payne Avenue institution with plans to remodel it, tweak the menu and reopen this winter as a contemporary American-style diner called Cook St. Paul.
“We understand the core clientele,” said Wu, an ex-Marine who has varied management experience in the food industry. “There won’t be sticker shock.” Cook, his business partner, is chief operating officer at Cossetta’s near downtown.
But there will be changes. Everything will be made from scratch, with organic and local ingredients used as much as possible. Once they get on their feet, Wu and Cook may add dinner hours on weekends.
And Wu’s wife, Eve, will run a custom cake business out of the kitchen (which is bigger than the dining area) and supply some of the restaurant’s desserts.
The partners, both 34, are excited by the growing East Side vibe. They looked at the North Loop and Uptown in Minneapolis, but it was Serlin’s on Payne that wound up having what they were looking for.
Wu, whose father once worked on Payne as a firefighter, said he “was caught off-guard at how different it was” from when he was a boy. “I know that we can not just survive, but prosper and thrive there,” he said.
Al Halvorson thinks so, too. “I think it’s a good plan to keep the customers we’ve got, and introduce new items to attract young people,” he said.