Ask any local what defines North St. Paul and they'll likely agree: Friday night car shows, a 20-ton snowman off Hwy. 36 and Mac's Dinette.
The 1940s textbook American diner was a tiny suburban hub that became a piece of history when it closed more than 20 years ago. Until now.
Opening soon on that same lot on Margaret Street and 7th Avenue, the new Mac's Diner will pay tribute to the beloved locale nearly two decades after its demise.
Originally called the Beam, the building was built in 1937. A chrome-dotted interior and stacked coffee cups awaited patrons for decades under a handful of owners, with Helen and Mac Mulcahy taking over in 1948. Mac's was known for cheap fare and its own tight-knit community amid the eight stools and three booths.
The building eventually became unsalvageable, never meant to last as long as it did. Down it went.
"It was really heartbreaking," said Julie Schultz, who grew up in North St. Paul and worked at Mac's in the 1980s and '90s. "I did shed a few tears when they tore the building down."
Locally owned, locally loved
The 2,400-square-foot-plus diner is now owned by Brandon Bramscher, his third restaurant in the metro area. This one, though, hits closer to home than his two B-52 Burgers & Brew locations (in Inver Grove Heights and Lakeville).
Bramscher and his buddies grew up just a few blocks from Mac's, regularly hopping on their bikes with $1.25 in tow to snag a burger.
"That was the place," he said. "It was a sad day when it closed."
For years now, Bramscher said he's tossed around the idea of reopening Mac's. Thanks to his yearslong vision and work — and his crew — it's once again that small-town spot to gather. The goal?
"To revive some of that feeling here," said Bramscher, who now lives in Stillwater.
The new Mac's Diner cures much of that longing with both classic diner bar stools and classic diner fare, local photos of years passed, and the original red and blue neon sign that has been refurbished and now hangs inside. Even the original phone number is intact.
A new-to-Mac's liquor license, expanded menu and seating and an outdoor patio rejuvenate the restaurant. It's far from a carbon copy of what stood before, but it's an obvious tribute.
"The vibe is going to be very friendly and welcoming," Bramscher said. "We're not going to stray too far from what North St. Paul residents expect."
The rest is history
Last year, the city of North St. Paul was actively searching for a restaurant to add to the city's yearslong $100 million rehaul, which included new sidewalks and an 88-unit luxury apartment building adjacent to Mac's.
The city received a few proposals that fell through before Bramscher called Mayor Terry Furlong. After a tour of the already-built space, it was a near-instant perfect fit.
"It just kind of all worked out and it's like, 'Oh, well, let's do this,' " Bramscher said.
The city ceded around $120,000 to build the kitchen, Furlong said. All-too-familiar supply chain issues and construction hiccups pushed opening day from spring to this summer.
Joe Stahlmann, vice president of the city's historical society, is a fourth-generation North St. Paulite, which isn't unusual in that neck of the woods.
"My great-grandfather grew up and walked these streets, so it's always been kind of nostalgic to think of the generations before me that sat at that counter and I sat there as a kid," he said. "The memories were the best part."
What Bramscher has done from a historical perspective is hard to miss, Stahlmann said. He's worked intently with the group, asking for old photos and favorite menu items (think hot cakes, cream pies and tuna salad sandwiches).
"Brandon is a local boy and a successful restaurant owner, and he's preserving the history of the old Mac's," Furlong said. "I think people will relate to that, especially if you're a longtime resident."
It's expected to bring in out-of-towners to the destination spot, too.
"It's going to be the catalyst of bringing people downtown," Furlong said.
Stahlmann said the city has needed an anchor restaurant and grocery store for years to join staples Village Pizza and Neumann's Bar. Mac's knocks out half of the city's major commerce to-do list.
"It's been kind of this missing element for years," he said.
Diner fare with flair
Bramscher calls the menu picks, all under $20, "traditional diner fare with a little flair here and there."
All-day breakfast seekers will find classics like pancakes and egg sandwiches alongside chorizo bowls and the Mac's Omelet, with roasted tomato, smoked Gouda and truffle aioli. Mornings will also offer breakfast flatbread, a tofu scramble, breakfast tacos and banana caramel French toast.
Meat lovers can go for sirloin and mashed potatoes, beef stroganoff, fish and chips and grilled lemon chicken breasts with broccolini and a garlic butter sauce. Smashed burgers, grilled cheese dunkers, croque monsieurs and jalapeño-dotted BLTs with avocado all make an appearance. An array of salads, soups and bowls even out the food pyramid.
Leave room for chocolate cookie skillets, monkey bread and pie (think chocolate peanut butter). Or craft cocktails from the full bar, a shake, cold press coffee, 1919 root beer and a nonalcoholic Bloody Mary or mimosa. Gluten-sensitive and vegan options are sprinkled throughout the menu.
The good ol' days
Schultz, 50, is moving back into her North St. Paul childhood home with her ailing mother. Her memories of Mac's run deep.
She recalls biking to Mac's for a sundae or fries as a child with her allowance money. During the move, she found photo albums with a few pictures from high school taken at Mac's, where she also worked.
To this day, she says it was one of the best jobs she ever had, working for then-owner George Di Martino. It's where she learned the value of a hard day's work and an even harder thorough cleaning. It was the teenage dream, too: making money, working with friends and socializing with never-dull regulars.
"I can remember [a customer] had the first cellphone I had ever seen," Schultz said. "These old fellas would sit and prank call us and giggle. … They would dial the diner phone from their booth and watch us run back to answer it for nobody to be there."
Every Saturday, she'd sit and talk with two fathers of classmates who returned week after week. She'd serve bikers coming in for breakfast and watch parades go by.
"You were right in the heart of it," Schultz said, recalling the smell of hot open-faced roast beef sandwiches and pie. "It was such a landmark."
Years later she'd take her grandparents and son to Mac's for lunch once in a while. Now she plans to not only frequent it, but maybe pick up a few serving shifts here and there outside of her job as a surgical technician. She could make friends and reconnect with past ones, she said.
To Schultz and so many others in town, Mac's — both the Diner and Dinette — is the perfect blend of old and new, and an integral part of North St. Paul.
"It was truly a centerpiece of so many families' experiences," said Stahlmann. "We're finally getting that place back."
2526 E. 7th Av., North St. Paul, 651-777-9995, macsdinernsp.com. Opening soon; follow social media (facebook.com/MacsDinerNSP) for updates.
Amy Felegy is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Minneapolis.