It's just after 5 p.m. when Gary Eichten saunters into his favorite joint, Mancini's Char House on West 7th in St. Paul. Spiffed up for the interview in a sport coat and tie, Eichten sits down and orders a Grain Belt Premium.

Of course he does; it's a local legend that spans generations.

If I hadn't requested an interview, Eichten would be eating his supper, as he does once a week at Mancini's. It's the same thing every time: a petite filet, medium rare, a baked potato and a salad with ranch dressing.

It's too early for most patrons, but 5 p.m. is just right for this Midwesterner. He calls it "Eichten Hour."

Before long, owner John Mancini drops by to pat Eichten on the back and congratulate him on his upcoming retirement from a 45-year stint at Minnesota Public Radio.

"How do you think he'll do outside of radio?" I ask Mancini.

"I think he'll go nuts," Mancini says.

So, will the man who has interviewed just about every prominent Minnesotan over the past four decades miss being out of the loop?

"Damn right," says Eichten, who turns 65 in two weeks. "But it's time. It's the right thing to do."

Eichten's run of hosting "Midday" will end Jan. 19. On Jan. 20, for the first time, he won't have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to get on top of the news. The first day he won't have to walk his dog, Ella, before warming up the Ford and driving through the dark to the station to prepare for his broadcast.

He probably will still have popcorn and a Coke for lunch, which he has every day for as long as he can remember.

On the way to Mancini's, Eichten said he was thinking about his career, of all the important events he's been lucky to discuss with the most important people in the state, many of whom will likely show up for his sold-out going away show Jan. 19 at the Fitzgerald Theater.

"As far as I know, I've been able to work at the best radio station in America," said Eichten. "It is utterly amazing to me that this has happened. I'm just a kid from Mankato."

A kid from Mankato who got his first radio job as a student at St. John's University because it sounded easier than flipping burgers or washing dishes. That little station on the prairie became the behemoth of radio, and Eichten became one of its most recognizable voices.

He traded stories and barbs with state legislators, sitting governors and presidential hopefuls. An evasive answer might be met with Eichten's lovable grumble: "Aw, c'mon, Senator."

When Jesse Ventura was hating the media, which was pretty much all the time, he still went to talk to Eichten because Eichten never forgot Minnesotans elected Ventura governor, so he always treated Ventura with respect.

Bill Wareham, senior editor at MPR, said he initially thought he wouldn't miss Eichten because "he's been a really good friend and I'll still see him a lot."

But Wareham began to realize that Eichten has meant "as much to public radio in Minnesota as [founder] Bill Kling or Garrison Keillor."

While the station has sometimes had a reputation for being elitist, Eichten "is kind of the everyman in the newsroom," Wareham said. "He loves outlaw country, softball, red meat and Grain Belt. If you have a risk of running off the tracks, you have a guy like that sitting in the middle of the room."

Wareham thinks Eichten will do just fine outside of radio. "He'll probably sleep in until 5 or 6," he said.

Eichten says he'll miss his colleagues the most. "I love being around younger people."

But he is looking forward to reading for leisure and spending time with his wife, Joann. "I didn't get to spend nearly enough time with Joann over the years," he says. "Who knows, a couple of weeks into this I think she'll be looking at the want ads for me."

Eichten, who has never traveled much and never outside the United States, is planning "a couple of trips and other tired, old guy stuff."

He looks around as the bar gets busier and notes that as the population ages, he's seeing bigger crowds for early dinner.

Does that mean Eichten, at retirement, is finally a trendsetter?

"That's me!" he said joyfully. "I'm livin' the dream, man." • 612-673-1702