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Readers write about Dayton's restaurants: 'This is an irreplaceable loss'

Scratch a native Minnesotan of a certain age, find a Dayton’s recollection. These comments, lifted from the Star Tribune’s website, are reactions to this story on the 113-year dining legacy at 700 Nicollet. (The Oak Grill and Skyroom close for good on Jan. 27). What’s your memory? Share it in the comments section, below.

“My parents met as employees in the Sky Room. Mom did salad prep, Dad was a cook.  I have a small note book in his handwriting with some recipes marked ‘Sky Room.’ I remember I was allowed in the Oak Grill (before they stopped the no unescorted women rule). WDGY had the Saturday teen program from the 8th floor auditorium. Bill Diehl was the emcee, with Dayton's employees and Teen Board members doing fashion shows, make-up demos, etc.  The Beatles were all we talked about and Louise Harrison Caldwell (George Harrison's sister) brought information and news about them to us. Walking on Nicollet Avenue (pre-Mall days) and looking in the windows at the creative displays.  The sound of ladies high heels as we walked on the wooden floors. The Christmas and Flower Shows, always so anticipated and worth the wait. Towards the end, when Penney's, Donaldson's, Power's, Albrecht's and so many others had departed the area, Dayton's was the last reason to go downtown. Now there's nothing.” (Image, above: Sky Room, 1949, Minnesota Historical Society).

“I remember my mom taking me as a young child, to eat at Dayton's restaurant in the mid to late 60's, especially those times when we also went to see Santa's Toy Factory. The food was delicious, though I wondered why the ‘blue plate’ special came on a white plate. She'd also make sure to visit that wonderful candy counter. We usually ordered fudge and though it was very good, it wasn't quite as good as her homemade fudge. My Mom worked for Dayton's for about 30 years. She knew many of the family members and always said that they were first class people. When I was growing up my brother and I were pretty lucky, we pretty much had all of our clothes from Dayton's and they always had the best. This article brings back so many memories I am fighting back tears at times reading it. This is an irreplaceable loss to the Twin Cities. The Candy counter? I can still smell the chocolate!!!” (Image, above: Dayton's toy department, 1955, Star Tribune file photo).

“I'm old enough to remember the Daisy sales at Dayton's as well as eating at the Skyroom.  I was never fortunate enough to eat at the Oak Grill (it was pretty expensive), but the Christmas decorations on the 8th floor was a must for our family.  Anyone else remember the Santa Bears, and a new one coming out every year? Good times and great memories.  Dayton's was truly a fantastic department store.” (Image, above: Dayton's main floor, decorated for a Walker Art Center exhibition, 1980, Star Tribune file photo).

“My parents brought us to Dayton's every year to visit Santa and for the wonderful Christmas display. It was so much fun to walk through the display and then meet Santa. The display stories were always fun to see as you walked through to see Santa.”

“When I was very little, my mom sewed dresses for the mannequins in the store windows. I still remember walking through our living room and collecting the black sequins to hold in my hand and stare at the sparkle. Magical. I also had an old Dayton's gift certificate that I kept, unspent, because it looked so fancy. The envelope and certificate looked like an invitation to a White House event (I image) and I didn't have many fancy things. Long story short, my husband threw it away because he ‘didn't think I needed it’ . . .  Yes, you betcha, we are no longer married.”

“I have fond memories of my Mom and me doing our yearly trip to downtown, shopping along the Mall and having lunch at the Sky Room.  It was like going to a different world for me.  We lived in Bloomington and took the bus (adventure!) from Southdale.” (Image, above: Skyroom, 1987, Star Tribune file photo). 

“Went to the Oak Grill for lunch today.  I think the fireplace and horse painting hanging on the wall on the 12th floor need to be saved by the historical society and placed in St. Paul.” (Image, above: Oak Grill, 1987,when the restaurant was celebrating its 60th birthday, Star Tribune file photo). 

“This article reminded me that unlike many other closings in our fair cities, this one building's history was cultivated literally over a century and potentially decades’ worth of family memories for many.  Fondest food memories here were, lunch at the Skyroom with my mom, stopping down in the Marketplace to grab some of those amazing cookies and /or Frango mints and occasional holiday dinners with my aunt and cousin at the Oak Grill (always trying to snag a table by the fireplace).There was classiness and elegance about this place (much more so in the Dayton's years) yet still accessible to multiple stratas of income.  My fear is what the city and developers will end up replacing it with is more over-priced, high end boutique shops and gourmet eateries that are just plain impractical for many to want to visit multiple times if even once at all.”

“This article brings back special memories for me . . . in 1959 I was a young single lady with her first job out of Business College working in Minneapolis.  My very first credit card was at Dayton's!  My father did not like credit cards and warned me not to get one . . . but it was a matter of ‘establishing a good credit rating’ at that time.  Wonderful memories of the awesome Christmas displays on [8th] floor. When our daughters were early teens, I brought them to the Cities to see the awesome Christmas displays at Dayton’s." (Image, above: The Tiffin cafeteria, about 1950, Minnesota Historical Society)

“I'm just glad we went one last time this past Christmas.  How sad!!!! Just really sad!!” (Image, above: Santa breakfast in the Sky Room, 1961, photo Minnesota Historical Society). 

“That picture at the top is how I remember the Sky Room. It was the ladies' lunch place for special occasions, like when my mother's college friends came to town to visit.”

“We always went to the Sky Room for large family gatherings.  They served yummy lemon meringue pie.  My uncle would always order a piece and no one else would order dessert. Then we all had a bite!  Then he had to order another piece, and the same thing happened.  This went on until just about everyone had the equivalent of one piece!”  (Image, above: The store as it nears the end of construction of its 1947 addition, which added five floors to the 8th street building, including the Sky Room, located below the rooftop flagpole, 1947, photo Minnesota Historial Society).

“Thank you for a stroll down memory lane. Tears fill my eyes as I remember my glory days at Dayton's Saturday Teen day and then upstairs for lunch. Always dressed like a young lady. Loved it.”

“Will have to go for popovers somewhere else now and make the same memories with my grandchildren that we made with my children elsewhere. At least the elevators still say ‘Dayton's!’” (Image, above: Popovers are an Oak Grill tradition

“My heart is broken . . . made reservations for Connie and me on the 25th. One last time.”

Burger Friday: Surly brews up a worthy remake of its double-patty cheeseburger

The burger: Wait a second, there’s a new burger at Surly Brewing Co.? What was wrong with the old one?

“Nothing,” said chef Jorge Guzman with a laugh. “It was delicious.”

Agreed, as witnessed by this early installment of Burger Friday. So why change?

“It was two years of the same thing,” said Guzman. “You know how some chefs get stuck serving the same thing, over and over, forever, because they think it’s what customers want? We wanted to stir the pot.”

Translation: Guzman and his crew are adding new dishes, tinkering or outright eliminating old ones (more on that in a moment) and organizing the menu into a new format.

“We decided that we’d start with the burger,” said Guzman.

For fans of the Surly double-patty wonder, here’s the good news: this is not a radical, 100 percent makeover. The patties — both of them — are unchanged. They're the same skinny, 3-ounce portion, served in the same duo-patty format. Ditto the toasted, sweet potato-enriched bun. It’s as spot-on as ever.

The terrific, made-on-the-premises bread-and-butter pickles — a key component in the previous incarnation’s success — , still performing the same vital palate-cleansing duties. (If only they were sold by the jar in the brewery’s gift shop.)

What’s different? It starts with what’s no longer there. The shredded lettuce is history, as is the “Fancy Sauce,” a delectable blend of mayonnaise, ketchup and cornichons. Ditto the snips of raw red onion.

“We simplified,” said Guzman.

You know what? I didn’t miss the special sauce one bit (it's a less sloppy experience, for starters), and I didn’t notice that the lettuce had disappeared. As for the onions, the absence of those sharp red onions is entirely cloaked by the addition of a ton of grilled onions, slipped in between the bottom bun and the lower patty. They’re softened on the stove but not mushy, and while they’ve got some smokiness to them, they’re still sweet. What a fantastic idea.

“It’s the White Castle treatment,” said Guzman, but even he realizes that it’s an unfair comparison. “Yeah, White Castle are probably the worst hamburgers, ever,” he said. “Although I probably shouldn’t say ‘worst,’ because I’ve had some bad burgers in my day. But it’s that onion taste. It’s so good.”

Yes, it is, and it’s a dominant flavor, and texture. But it’s not an overwhelming one.

The cheese is another switch. Gone is the yellow American, although its replacement isn’t exactly radical. It’s white American. Same salty bite and same melts-on-command texture, minus that attention-seeking color. The same amount, too: lots, and lots, and lots of cheese.

“I like white American,” said Guzman. “It’s cheaper, for one thing. And our sous chef worked in Boston, where he said that white American is the only cheese that gets used on burgers. We wanted him to feel at home.”

By streamlining their original formula, Guzman & Co. have improved upon it, hurrah. Oh, and the menu thoughtfully recommends pairing Burger 2.0 with the Furious, the brewery’s citrusy, amber-tinted ale. I firmly endorse their choice.

Price: $13.

Fries: Included, a gigantic handful of them, so crisped, darkly golden and liberally seasoned. Perfect with beer.

Say it isn't so: I asked Guzman if he was tinkering with a sterling Surly menu item, the farro salad with smoked salmon. The tone in my voice? Let’s just say it might have suggested, “You’re not going to break my heart and tell me that you’re changing the farro salad with smoked salmon, right?”

Wrong. My favorite grain salad — such a nuanced assortment of textures and flavors — has headed to the departure lounge. It'll be history, shortly. Color me bummed.

“We’ve got to shake things up a little,” said Guzman with a laugh. “We’ve got to give you guys something to write about.”

Fair enough. The good news is that the smoked salmon isn’t going anywhere. It’s being repurposed, as the centerpiece of a tartine, and the components all sound promising: whole grain sourdough and a cream cheese-mayonnaise spread that’s enriched with honey and roasted shallots. Dill, arugula and a bit of “everything” bagel seasonings constitute the finishing touches. I can't wait to try it.

Working for the weekend: It had been a few months since my last visit, and a big surprise greeted me at the door. It was a sign heralding the arrival of brunch. “Omar [Ansari, the brewery’s founder] has wanted it for forever,” said Guzman. “I sat down with the team and asked, ‘What do you want to do?’”

Not an easy answer, because brunch service can’t add a lot of complications to the already booked-to-the-limit kitchen (For those who haven't been to Surly, know this: the gigantic beer hall is seemingly packed into perpetuity). The solution: A basics-filled menu underscored by a strict no-substitutions rule, one that can fit into the kitchen’s framework. “If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other nice places for having brunch in the city,” said Guzman with a laugh.

Selections ($8 to $16) include fried chicken with country gravy over biscuits, Toad in the Hollow with shaved bologna, cinnamon rolls (“They’re huge,” said Guzman), chilaquiles and a bfast platter heaped with scrambled eggs and toast with pepper jelly, sausage links from Lowry Hill Meats and the kitchen’s own thick-cut and grilled bacon. Some breakfast cocktails, too. Brunch is served 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Address book: 520 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., 763-999-4040. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. No reservations.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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