Twin Cities Diner Tour: Our Kitchen, Band Box, and Dari-Ette
When I moved to the US four years ago from England one of the things I knew I’d miss was the greasy spoon — little independently run cafes, serving up classic full English breakfasts and mugs of milky, hot tea. What I wasn’t expecting was to fall head over heels in love with the idea and experience of American diners. There’s just something so appealing about a place that offers constant coffee refills, huge portions, and true retro charm. Minneapolis has some real gems in the old school diner category: From breakfast served all day to made-from-scratch meatballs, the Twin Cities has the diner thing down.
Our Kitchen has been operating in the same space since 1941 in a small house on 36th and Bryant in South Minneapolis, with just 19 seats. Even though they’ve kept things simple, most diner staples you’d expect are here — the breakfast menu features eggs, pancakes, omelets, and breakfast sandwiches. Lunch is available too and includes typical diner workhorses: burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, and chili.
The breakfast special ($9.50) includes two eggs, sausage / bacon, hash browns, and a pancake / toast with a constantly refilled weak but flavorful coffee on the side. It’s everything a diner breakfast should be. It’s cooked on a sizzling hot griddle and served with just the right amount of grease. The sausage — squeezed out of a tube into a giant blob on the grill and then smashed down into a huge flat patty with a spatula — was a spicy and delightful complement to runny eggs and crunchy-creamy hash browns. The effect is heavy on the stomach and certainly has diners wiping excess grease from the corners of their mouths — but isn’t that the expectation, and even the desire, for this kind of dining experience?
Lunch options are standard, if not uninspired; the BLT ($5.50, add fries for $3) was decent, with the bacon cooked to a crispness essential in a BLT. The lettuce and tomato kept their end of the bargain for the most part, although the tomatoes had an off-putting soft, watery quality. The fries, however, were seriously disappointing. While they looked the part — crispy-fried and piping hot – they lacked any seasoning whatsoever, lacking taste beyond a vaguely starchy flavor.
Overall, Our Kitchen lacked that addictive quality in its food that makes you return to a favorite time and again. In terms of ambiance, it’s missing some of the retro charm of other Twin Cities favorites but there’s a certain South Minneapolis vibe that’s hard to deny or dislike plus service that couldn’t come with a sweeter smile. If you’re in the neighborhood and looking for a no-frills option, this might be the place for you. Best bet: the breakfast special or the egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a buttery croissant with bacon.
Band Box Diner
Nestled in the crossroads between 10th and 14th streets in Elliot Park you’ll find the bright red facade of Band Box Diner. The Band Box has the full-on allure of a classic diner. The building, listed as a historic landmark, looks exactly as if it has been plucked from 1939 and dropped in the middle of present-day Minneapolis. Actually, the place underwent some serious renovations seven years ago but it’s lost none of its other-era charm.
The Sloppy Bro ($6, $8 with fries) is a jumble of beef, green pepper, onions, and sauce, “chopped, slopped, and cheesed” and served in a sweet, lightly toasted bun alongside a pile of perfectly seasoned skinny, crisp fries. Their version of this classic was right on the money — less sloppy than some of its traditional counterparts down to being seasoned and loosened up with ketchup rather than “Manwich sauce.” There’s plenty of meat and enough green pepper and onion for it to be reminiscent of a Philly cheesesteak. And that’s no bad thing.
Cheeseburgers ($6, $8 with fries) are served up on the same sweet bun. For a little extra they’ll throw in lettuce, tomato, and a generous side of mayo (always a winner in my book). Fancy-pants they are not but Band Box’s burgers are exactly what you’d expect and hope for from a diner. A thin burger patty, accommodated easily by a soft bun: hot, malleable, and gone-before-you-know-it good. All for $6. Also worthy of a mention is their simple two eggs, American fries, and toast breakfast ($6.75) for which the American fries are the standout feature, cooked crunchy on the outside and, like their regular fries, seasoned just right. Best bet: cheeseburger and fries.
When I pulled into a spot at East St. Paul’s Dari-Ette Drive-In and started perusing the menu, a bright red, shiny 1950s classic car pulled in alongside me, and its passengers were an older couple who looked to be spending a typical Sunday afternoon living the throwback lifestyle. It’s unsurprising that the Dari-Ette attracts this kind of customer, but there are plenty of folk of every ilk who eat there too, just stopping in for a sandwich or malt shake.
The Meatball Sandwich ($6.89) served on Italian bread with Dari-Ette’s “special sauce” and house-made sausage is a true delight. The bread is fluffy, light, and the perfect vehicle for meatballs and red sauce. The balance between ingredients is spot on and speaks to the Dari-Ette’s three generations of deep experience: The sandwich appears towering and a little scary but once you bite down you experience a glorious combination of soft bread, seasoned, chewy meatballs, and red sauce. The meatballs are predictably gigantic, this being the diner-world of epic portions, and yet they’re manageable in this sandwich. Despite eating it on my lap in my car nothing spilled out or dribbled down my chin. I only came away with stained hands and a happy, full stomach. Highly recommended.
Other options on the Dari-Ette’s menu include the Italiano Sandwich ($6.89), which comes with homemade sausage on Italian bread and again, that special sauce, plus melted mozzarella cheese. Italian spaghetti or rigatoni with two meatballs will set you back $9.29 and malts and shakes start at $3.10. While car hops add heaps of fun and retro novelty, a somewhat empty lot meant the experience felt ever so slightly lonely. Bring a car packed full of friends or family for the full-on Dari-Ette experience.