Ode to a McDonald’s: So Long to Dinkytown’s Public Square


Since 1963, a benign vortex of grease and alcohol in the heart of Dinkytown has marked the center of college nightlife, luring wobbly partiers to its always-aglow Golden Arches.

That’s where, until its expected-yet-abrupt closure Monday, the franchised McDonald’s at 407 15h Ave. SE. seared its legacy into the hazy memories of decades of University of Minnesota students. “THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES… THANK YOU FOR 57 YEARS OF BUSINESS,” reads a sheet of printer paper now taped to the franchise’s glass door. 

As the once-quirky neighborhood becomes even more sterile, you might not expect McDonald’s closing one of its 38,000 worldwide locations to elicit an outpouring of online mourning. But you’d be wrong. Tinged with only hints of irony, the reflexive mourning witnessed across local factions of the internet proved that this was an important McDonald’s. Through some strange alchemy of time, geography, and demographics, the Big Mac destination just north of the U gained a soul. And also… a reputation. 

“RIP to the Dinkytown McDonald’s,” tweeted local radio personality Dana Wessel. “A spot where myself – and every other person who attended the University of Minnesota – did some things they aren’t proud of.”

Such is the legacy of the so-called “Drunk Donald’s,” which may be reimagined inside the seven-story, 300-unit development from Chicago-based CA Ventures that is expected to gobble up its footprint, as well as those belonging to nearby Dinkytown Wine & Spirits, Five Guys, Pagoda, Pizza Hut, Subway, and a TCF Bank. Don’t expect a possible Drunk Donald’s 2.0 to recapture the magic of its singular predecessor; Northeasters haven’t been duped by the sleek Nye’s Polonaise Room reincarnation currently wedged into the ground floor of the development that toppled the original. 

The utility of Dinkytown’s McDonald’s was always shifting, depending on the time of day. In the morning, as is typical inside so many McDonald’s, old-timers would hold court with their coffees and physical newspapers. Come lunchtime, lines could snake out the door with hungry students and U of M workers seeking quick, cheap eats. And, as the clock approached midnight, the two-story restaurant resembling a frumpy wizard’s hat became a booze-soaked funhouse – laughs, fights, makeout sessions, or sometimes combinations of all three. 

At 2 a.m. on a Saturday, the throwback dining room transformed into something resembling a nightclub. Following Varsity Theater shows or after bars emptied out, the deep-fried chaos felt electric. McChickens scarfed with schnockered ferocity; far-flung crews smushed together alongside one another in plastic booths; the cacophonous din of so much brainless, ecstatic drunk talk; rivers of illicit vodka nips and smuggled beers; and, of course, the saintly workers who mopped up puke like it was Valleyfair. It’s a scene that has been repeated on a loop every semester for nearly six decades, with only the outfits and slang ever changing. 

“I both vomited and fingered someone in that McDonald’s… I fell asleep in there at least once” one friend shared with me, tone genuinely wistful. 

“A good place to cool your heels post-party, get some food in your stomach – it was a lifesaver for us,” said another friend, this one known to sip covert PBR via his plastic McDonald’s cup.

“Got drunk and ate food in that McDonald’s,” offered a loquacious third. 

Tearfully sending off a multinational fast-food giant would seem incomprehensible exactly 50 years ago in Dinkytown: In 1970, as Vietnam War protest tensions boiled over following the Kent State massacre, the impending arrival of now-defunct national burger chain Red Barn sparked a 40-day occupation of the neighborhood. Eventually, cops in riot gear squashed the Dinkytown Uprising, a movement that feared corporate takeover of the counterculture neighborhood that briefly housed an underachieving undergrad who called himself Bob Dylan.

“People use the word ‘community’ too much today,” local filmmaker Al Milgrom told Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine while promoting his 2015 doc Dinkytown Uprising. “But [Dinkytown] was a very unique busy community, if you looked down the street you knew you were exactly there and nowhere else on earth.

The times… well, they’ve changed. In 2017, City Pages bemoaned the “corporatized death spiral” that had ravaged Dinkytown for the past decade. Out: House of Hanson grocery store, Dinkytowner Cafe, Podium guitar shop, Biermaier’s Books, Espresso Royale, Vescio’s Italian Restaurant, and the Purple Onion. In: Target, Jimmy John’s, Starbucks, and an endless onslaught of indistinguishably glitzy apartment complexes. 

So, perhaps just by virtue of its longevity and accessibility, the Dinkytown McDonald’s was able to carve out an emotional space adjacent to the ones Al’s Breakfast, Varsity Theater, and Annie’s Parlour hold in alumni hearts. Perhaps that’s what inspired @wannabfisherman to tweet: “Whoever is responsible for the closing of the dinkytown mcdonalds will not see heaven.” 

This much is certain: Sober or sloshed, the Dinkytown McDonald’s – and, really, all Mickey D’s – represent the rarified egalitarian commons. Ideally, a society can create accommodating indoor public gathering spaces, but we’re stuck with McDonald’s. Where else can you buy a $1 coffee and sit for hours while enjoying blazing WiFi? And around the U of M, outside of pricey ticketed sports events, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that feels so directly tapped into the campus id, so buzzing with ambient Gopher solidarity. This is why, across Twin Cities social media channels, the shuttered Dinkytown McDonald’s is being processed as not just a nostalgic loss, but also as a cultural one.

On Tuesday, a surprisingly popular Twitter account that catalogs architecturally significant McDonald’s locations stated it best

“We are sorry for your mcloss.”