The place is all kinds of green. Lime green. Emerald green. Yoda green. The color of money.
Our eyes need time to adjust.
The waitress arrives at our booth blowing a wisp of hair out of her face. “Gentlemen,” she says. She hefts a bulbous glass carafe of steaming brown sludge. “Coffee?”
It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, but at a place like Bonnie’s Cafe the hour is irrelevant. Coffee is assumed.
We politely decline and she grabs the overturned ceramic mugs from the table and carries them away clinking in the crook of her arm.
On the cover of the menu is a crude drawing of a chicken, with a human face and a goatee, laying an egg into a frying pan. “Don’t say our eggs aren’t fresh,” reads the caption. It’s unclear if this is a boast, a threat, or a joke. Likely, it’s all three.
The waitress returns flipping open an order pad. “What can I get you?”
We ask what she likes.
She taps her temple with a ballpoint and asks if we’re hungry.
We assure her we are.
She narrows her eyes, challenging us.
We reassure her.
A devilish smile spreads across her face. “The McBonnie,” she says.
It’s a dish named after both the owner of the cafe and one of the most famous breakfast sandwiches in America. This sounds promising.
“Two English muffins, served open faced, layered with eggs, ham, American cheese, covered in sausage gravy, and topped with cheddar.”
“American cheese and cheddar cheese?”
Her smile widens.
We order one McBonnie and one daily special, the chicken stew.
As promised by the fading sign and the failing, blinking arrow outside, this is indeed a cafe.
There’s the familiar laminate lunch counter with round stools padded in vinyl; the line of high-backed, wooden booths along the opposite wall; the rectangular tables, complete with checkered tablecloths, running down the center of the room. But the telltale sign we’re in a true cafe comes when our food hits the table.
It’s a tiny wink of green on a plate otherwise drowned under a sea of cream-colored sausage gravy and brown fried potatoes.
A sprig of parsley.
There’s not an ounce of irony in that sprig. This isn’t the manufactured charm you see so often these days. That sprig wasn’t deliberately placed there by some investor-backed restaurant group hoping to capitalize on a new breakfast / lunch concept designed to woo the suburban crowd with cute reminders of a simpler time before iPads.
No. Bonnie’s Cafe isn’t a reproduction of, a nod to, or a twist on the classic main street cafe. It just is one.
The food is solid, reliable, filling. The McBonnie comes as advertised. An ooey, gooey mess of artery-clogging yummy. The stew is filled with chunks of potatoes and white chicken and gets served over a mound of mashed potatoes and topped with breaded, fried strips of chicken.
(For those keeping count, yes, that’s two kinds of potatoes and two kinds of chicken. Moderation isn’t on the menu at Bonnie’s.)
John, the chef for the last 20 years, tells us everything is made from scratch. No small feat for a modest cafe with prices to match. Homemade muffins, rolls, buns, cookies, and cakes. There are even homemade signs lining every wall pushing menu items. “We think you will like this one,” claims one sign with typical bombastic Midwest flair.
John walks us to one of the collages on the wall. It’s filled with dog-eared pictures of the regulars. He shows us a photo of Bonnie, says she’s under the weather. After running a cafe for the last 30 years, she’s earned a sick day or three.
Her employees rib her in the familiar way only friends can. Or family, maybe.
“Last year the place was littered with Christmas cookies Bonnie made,” our waitress tells us. “She just made them on her own time. Gave them away to everyone who came in. Boxes of the things all up and down the counter.” She lifts our empty plates and smiles and swipes a washcloth over our table. “I told her if she makes more than two dozen next year, we’re putting her in an institution.”
Foodies, look elsewhere. You don’t come to a place like Bonnie’s for a gourmet meal. You come to be reminded that there are still places run by real folks whose names are still on the door after 30 years — places that exist not to squeeze money out of you, but simply to sling some decent hash, pour a reliable a cup of joe, and give away the occasional cookie from the owner’s home oven.
Yeah, the place is all kinds of green. The color of money. Thing is, no one’s getting wealthy at Bonnie’s. Still, the joint is overflowing with riches.
BEST BET: Any menu item with “Bonnie” or “John” in the name. If the owner or chef is willing to stake their name on a dish, it’s your obligation to order it.
2160 University Ave W
St. Paul, MN 55114
HOURS: Mon-Fri 5:30am-2:30pm