Beth Dooley: What’s So Special About Al’s Breakfast?
"OK. Everybody at the counter, I need you to move one to your right," barks Doug Grina, co-owner of Al’s Breakfast. On cue, all 13 of us shift down a stool and slide our plates, coffee cups, and newspapers to the right. I grab the handmade jug of half-and-half as it veers toward the counter’s edge and then add another dollop of real maple syrup to my “short short stack of blues.” It’s just another busy morning at Al’s.
It has been six decades since the original Al—Al Bergstrom—started flipping hash in an 11-foot storage shed squeezed in the alley. Every morning, students, bankers, and blue-hairs wait behind the occupied stools at Al’s for their turn to eat and kvetch with the staff. The place hasn’t changed since Garrison Keillor, as a U of M freshman, ate his first plate of “Fancy Scrambled.” Today, he, too, waits in line for a seat.
“Everyone thinks we’re married,” quips waitress Mary Rose Ciatti at the grill, shouting orders: “More eggs! I need eggs!”
“That’s because we’re so mean to each other,” Grina retorts.
Under the counter is a cubby for purses, books, and briefcases, and above the coffee pots is a shelf laden with “best of” certificates, medals, trophies, foreign currency, and faded signs: “Tipping is not a City in China” and “Beware attack waitress.” “That sign fits a number of people,” says Ciatti, who returned to Minnesota after a stint in New York City 25 years ago. “I thought it was a temporary job,” she adds with a wink. “C’mon in, we’ll serve anyone,” Grina says before directing diners to shift again as another joins the ranks, keeping the 14 stools full until close at 1 pm.
But man cannot breakfast on history alone. The dog-eared menu of American favorites is turned out with skillful aplomb: crisp waffles studded with bacon, buttermilk flapjacks with summer's sweet corn or whipped with pumpkin come fall. On weekends, perfectly poached eggs are coddled in sunny polenta. Coffee cups are always kept full. There's a reason Al’s was named Best American Classic Restaurant by the James Beard Society.
But Al’s serves up much more every morning. Sitting cheek to jowl and chatting with a stranger demands patience and respect; attitudes and phones are switched off at the door. And sure as the sun does rise, Al’s will open each morning to serve breakfast, again and again. 413 14th Ave. SE, Mpls., 612-331-9991