The Restaurant Requests column’s most-requested recipe was the potato salad at Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale in downtown Minneapolis, and it demonstrated the column’s never-ending tug-of-war between readers’ needs for clearly-written recipes and chefs’ desire to maintain trade secrets.

Queries for the salad came early, and often. Within the first few months of the column’s debut, more than a dozen readers wrote in asking for Charlie’s most talked-about appetizer.

“This may be a challenge,” wrote Clementine Michael of Minneapolis, in what might have been the understatement of 1971. The restaurant’s reply was basically, “Never going to happen,” although chef George Lisovskis offered some helpful advice.

“It’s really not that difficult,” he replied. “It’s like the potato salad you make at home. The difference is that we make our own mayonnaise, using fresh eggs.”

Four years later, the restaurant finally capitulated and submitted a recipe for publication. Turns out, it was identical to one that they’d shared with Better Homes & Gardens magazine in 1963.

Oddly, when the recipe was republished in “Requests” in 1989 — part of a Taste 20th anniversary issue — Charlie’s owner Louise Saunders picked up the phone and cried “foul.”

“[Saunders] said the time has come to stop using it, ‘Because the recipe is incorrect,’” wrote Star Tribune reader representative Lou Gelfand.

But was it? Saunders, then retired — she closed the 49-year-old restaurant in 1982 — insisted that the recipe’s true ingredients were known only to her and to two others. Further, the salad had always been prepared in stages, which prevented employees from devising — and, presumably, stealing — the coveted formula.

Saunders did give her blessing to another slightly altered version, which was published in “Minnesota Eats Out: An Illustrated History” (Minnesota Historical Society Press) in 2003.

In Saunders’ 2003 obituary, longtime Charlie’s manager David Jensen noted that the recipe’s mayonnaise also relied upon ingredients not available to home cooks, adding that, “Blends of juice from canned fruit might supply the sweetness instead of sugar.”

Yes, the juice from fruit cocktail. Another example of why the Restaurant Requests column was such a juggling act. Even if they were outwardly sharing their recipes, chefs and restaurateurs weren’t necessarily handing over all of their secrets.

Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale Potato Salad

Serves 8
Note: This recipe, published in “Requests” in 1975, is identical to a version that the restaurant submitted to Better Homes & Gardens in 1963, part of the magazine’s tribute to classic American restaurants. In 1974, Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan suggested including the recipe — along with a Dayton’s charge card, a bottle of water from Minnehaha Falls and other quintessentially Minneapolis items — in a time capsule that would remain buried until 2074.
  • 5 medium potatoes, freshly cooked and peeled
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • Dash white pepper
  • 2 tbsp. chopped green onion
  • 2 tbsp. chopped pimento
  • 3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and diced
  • 1 1/4 c. Mixer Mayonnaise (see recipe)
  • 1/4 c. diced celery
Dice potatoes; they should equal about 5 cups. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add green onion, pimento, hard-cooked eggs, mayonnaise and celery and mix gently. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Chill at least 2 hours.

Mixer Mayonnaise

Makes about 1 1/2 cups
  • 1 pasteurized egg yolk
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Dash cayenne red pepper
  • 2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
  • 1 c. salad oil
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat egg yolk, mustard, sugar, salt, red cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice until blended. Continue beating, adding oil, drop by drop. As mixture thickens, increase rate of addition. Slowly stir in remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Beat thoroughly. Chill.