The sign outside the St. Clair Broiler writes a check that the kitchen can’t cash. This is a shame: The sign is a bona fide work of art, surely among the 10 best restaurant exteriors in the Twin Cities, featuring waves of neon flame rippling over a vintage font, promising authenticity, charm, grit, and soul. (In a nutshell: something along the lines of Al’s Breakfast).
What you get when you step inside, however, is an experience reminiscent of brunch at a suburban Residence Inn. Stroke-inducing elevator music and a Denny’s-like sense of interior design suggest that whatever verve this 50-year-old place once had has long since faded away.
Case in point: breakfast. The White Rock Coffee Company coffee ($2.25) is notably good, with a slightly burnt but low-acid depth to it, but things go downhill after that. A cinnamon roll ($3.50) tastes whitebread and insubstantial, save for the lumpy white topping spread over the bun. (The lumps turned out to be butter, for better or worse, which made the accompanying tub o’ butter feel both superfluous and a little bit threatening.) Lacking much of a cinnamon kick or any real substance as a bread product, the roll is a shadow of the real deal — albeit an agreeably bland and sweet shadow.
Blueberry pancakes ($7.70 for a short stack plus a side of ham) taste like competent Bisquick flapjacks — a bit cakey, tasting mostly of baking powder, with little chew or flavor to them. Even the blueberries were washed out in terms of flavor, and the thin, dry side order of ham was passable, but nothing to write home about.
The PJ’s One Egger ($7.25) was the high point of our visit — it’s a serviceable savory entree, grilled hash browns with diced ham and onion, a grilled tomato and a basted egg, served with an English muffin. There’s not much char, texture, or flavor to the dish — a little surprising for a place with the word “broiler” in the name — but it’s mild and filling and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, either.
Overall: This is not food for people who like food. It’s food for people who want familiar-looking fuel.
It all comes together when you realize that the Broiler is owned by the Theros Group, whose stock in trade (Rudolph’s, St. Clair Broiler, and the short-lived Theros-run Town Talk Diner) appears to be restaurants with fantastic vintage signage and consistently tolerable but underwhelming food.
With a proud 50-year history and a gorgeous exterior, the Broiler’s got plenty of potential to move beyond “wax-statue icon” and into the realm of “fantastic restaurant we want to eat at.” Whether that potential will be realized depends upon whether there’s any money to be had in building a more ambitious menu — from a financial perspective, no one ever went broke selling a lot of profitable boring food.
BEST BET: The coffee, and something savory.
St. Clair Broiler
Diner food in Mac-Groveland, St. Paul
1580 Saint Clair Ave
Saint Paul, MN 55105
OWNER: The Theros Group
BREAKFAST ENTREE RANGE: $5.25-$10
BAR: Beer and wine