Land of 10,000 Stories: Al's Breakfast is feast for senses

6:27 AM, Oct 3, 2012   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS - Seven hours does not make a day, anymore than 11 feet makes a restaurant. Those are just two of the delicious contradictions at the biggest breakfast draw in Dinkytown.

"It's amazingly tiny," says Mike Loftus, as he sits at the counter of Al's Breakfast.

He is perched on a stool, roughly four feet from the wall behind him and six feet from the wall he's facing.

"Al's is a little piece of history," he adds.

What chance did this restaurant have of even lasting a year, opening as it did in an old hardware storage shed that was little more than a roof over an alley?

"There's maybe a 10 to 15 degree slant to the counter," says Ken Coenen as he sits with his brother Thomas, his water glass threatening to slide toward disaster.

Yet slant and all, somehow Al's Breakfast has been defying food service logic for 62 years.

"I need more hash browns!" barks Doug Grina in a throaty baritone that can be heard clear out on the sidewalk.

Grina purchased Al's with Jim Brandes in 1979. The "new" owners continue to pay silent tribute to Al Bergstrom, the diner's founder, with a photo perched on a cluttered shelf above the counter.

It's about the only silence Al's serves.

"I need eggs please!" Grina barks again, "Chicken eggs!"

Friendly abuse is served up like hash. A sign warns diners to be on guard for the "attack waitress."

"Can you imagine who that might be?" says Grina, casting a glance toward Mary Rose Ciatti.

"It fits a number of people here, believe me," she fires back.
Ciatti took a temporary waitressing job at Al's when she moved to Minneapolis from New York. That was 25 years ago.

"You become damaged property after a while," she laughs. And she's not the only one willing to put up with some good natured kidding.

"C'mon in, we'll serve anyone," is Grina standard welcome.

It seems to be working. Even on slow days, Al's customers are trained to stand behind a stool, before they can cover a stool with their behind.

Seats at Target Field are not this prized.

"I usually tell them to stand behind somebody who looks like they're about done and give them a little kidney chop," instructs Grina.
Al's has just 13 stools; 14, if you count the removable counter insert that Grina puts in place to provide temporary seating in a passageway to the restrooms.

Regulars become accustomed to the "shift," a choreographed movement used to open up space for diners who've arrived in twos and threes.

"OK, everybody sitting at the counter, I need you to move down one seat to your right," directs Ciatti.

On cue, customers begin sliding plates, coffee cups and finally themselves, one stool down, to make room.

Despite the cramped quarters, despite being open just seven hours a day, despite Al's refusal of credit cards while holding fast to pay-ahead ticket booklets that once helped railroad workers make it to payday - students, professors and assorted stumble-ins hold Al's dear for what it is not:

Not Perkins, not IHOP, and not about to change.

"This place is run by and for quirks," notes a regular.

Eleven feet may barely make a restaurant, but to those who sit at

Al's slanted counter, it definitely makes a home.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. )

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