On Saturday, take advantage of a rare opportunity to get a glimpse inside a historic Twin Cities dining venue.
In conjunction with the crowds generated by the St. Paul Winter Carnival and Red Bull Crashed Ice Championship, the Original Coney Island Restaurant & Bar will be opening its doors (that's the restaurant, above, in a provided photo), starting at 2 p.m.
Why should you go? “Because it’s like walking into an Edward Hopper painting,” said Aaron Rubenstein, a historic preservation consultant, and program coordinator at Historic Saint Paul. “It’s remarkably preserved, and it’s adorable, and fabulous. There’s really nothing else like it in the Twin Cities.”
The restaurant, which has been closed to the public for 23 years, is actually two buildings. One dates to 1858 – it’s the city’s oldest commercial structure, and has enjoyed a series of lives that includes its time as a Civil War-era arsenal and armory. The other, originally a saloon and hotel, went up in 1888.
They were converted to a restaurant and bar by Greek immigrant Nick Arvanitis in 1923. His sons Louie and Harry temporarily closed the restaurant in 1994, as the family rallied to care for their ailing mother Frances. Sadly, and somewhat eccentrically, it has remained closed, meticulously preserved in a dipped-in-amber-like state. Since 2011, the lights have occasionally come back on for private gatherings, along with open-to-the-public events like the one coming Saturday. (Warning: Expect crowds).
Over the years, the family has resisted offers to sell. "This place is a part of us, an extension of who we are," said Mary Arvanitis, the youngest of Nick and Frances' six children, told Star Tribune staff writer Joe Kimball in 1998.
She’s the Arvanitis playing host this weekend. “It has all been entrusted to me,” she said. “It’s a joy to be here. I find it very endearing.”
On Saturday, diners will not only gain access to a heaping helping of that captivating history and atmosphere, but they’ll also be able to purchase a taste of the family’s signature delicacy.
Kimball described the Arvanitis version of a Coney as “long, thin hot dogs that were smothered with
mustard, diced onions and a special sauce and served on a steamed bun.” The sauce was developed by Nick Arvanitis, and its contents are secret, although Kimball reported that it contains 14 spices and simmers for six hours.
“The recipe is written down and stored in a safe deposit box,” he reported.
When the cafe opened 94 years ago, Coneys were a nickel; by 1994, the price was $1.25. Another historical tidbit: the family turned the quarters above the restaurant into a revenue stream, renting to boarders.
"We had up to 25 men living there at a time," Louie Arvanitis told Kimball in 1998. "I only rented to guys I knew. They were good guys; they all called Mother `Ma.' But new regulations made it more trouble than it was worth. The last guy left in '91."
The city council granted historic status to the two buildings in 1999 (they're located at 444-48 St. Peter St., between the Minnesota Children's Museum and the Palace Theatre). The family’s painstaking restoration of the two buildings won an honor award from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in 2001, and was a 2001 St. Paul Preservation Heritage Award winner, a program sponsored by the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission and the St. Paul chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
On a side note, doesn’t it seem as if nearly every city has – or once had – a Coney Island to call their own? In Minneapolis, it was Gary’s Coney Island (that's owner Gary Lingen, pictured above, in a Star Tribune file photo), an institution that enjoyed a 38-year-run at 7th and Hennepin until closing in 1970.
Duluth still has its Coney Island, going strong since April 10, 1921.
On Saturday, experience, in full "Brigadoon"-like manner, St. Paul’s.