Increasingly, it seems food fortunes are won catering to Ladies Who Lunch. If I wanted to go out for a bite with my mother and daughter, I could think of dozens of suitably charming bistros, where both the space and the food would be light and pretty.
It’s trickier to get it right with Dudes Who Dine. As the oldest of two daughters, I grew up the pretender to the throne: the son my dad never had. When dear old Dad came to visit, I wanted to take him and my son out for a manly midday meal, just us guys. Dad (pictured above) is a retired phys ed teacher and Son is a bike mechanic. They are not afraid of sweat, grease, or meat. (They like it when I idealize their masculinity.)
I wanted a place that catered to guys. Nothing fancy. No light rock, no menu created by a chef and a graphic designer, and no servers who introduce themselves and rhapsodize about sauces. No themes, other than a sports vibe. If there was anything French on the menu, it should be the fries and the brand name on the mustard — which should be sitting on the table.
The Gopher Bar was recently named as a contender for the “Manliest Restaurant in America” by Men’s Health, a magazine that appears determined to give guys woman-sized body image issues, judging from its preoccupation with the male torso. On a corner in downtown St. Paul, The Gopher Bar is wedged between two masculine businesses: a locksmith and a janitorial supply shop. It’s dark, even at midday. Three mounted deer hang over the bar, appearing to stare at the Confederate flags on the opposite wall. The back of the bar is lined with pro-gun, anti-immigrant, anti-Obama signs, slogans, and bumper stickers.
We plopped down and our waitress passed out menus. She asked if we were ready to order before we glanced at them, a sure sign she’s used to regulars who arrive knowing what they want.
I asked for a cup of coffee, and she gave a curt shake of her head.
They weren’t out — they don’t have coffee. Ever.
They don’t have plates, either. The waitress smoothed a square of waxed paper on the table in front of each one of us and left us to make our decision.
What they do have are beer, fries, onion rings, and Coney dogs. While we debated how many Coneys to order, our waitress delivered a tray full of them to the uniformed National Guardsmen at the table next to us. The Coneys were stunning, arriving posed in a frilled paper canoe and a load of onions, chili sauce, and with or without cheese.
Dad had his without cheese, and my son had his with. They handled their dogs with reverence, but quickly went to work. Processed meat such as this is meant to be gobbled, not savored. The Coneys went down their intergenerational hatches in four bites each. Same story with round two.
“I’m impressed,” said Dad.
“I could eat at least four of these,” said my son.
I thought the toasted, buttered bun gave each bite a pleasing textural complexity that bumped it up to first rate status. My dog was not quite hot enough, but I decided not to complain.
The Gopher Bar has earned a reputation for being a place where the attitude of the staff can be saltier than the food, but on the day we dined, the mood was mellow and the profanity was limited to the signs that emphasize No ****ing Checks, No ****ing Credit Cards, No ****ing Debit Cards, each in actuality emblazoned with the king of expletives, the good old F-word. My dad is no prude, but he is the kind of man who seldom swears and feels the need to apologize to any women within earshot when he does. He did not read the signs out loud. We burped onions the rest of the day.
Mac’s Industrial is situated in a getting-trendier part of Northeast. Although it is adjacent to the airy Aveda Institute, it solidifies its cred by being on the first floor of the United Labor Centre. The building is the working man’s Amalgamated Central, a blocky building that houses union offices representing bricklayers, plasterers, pipefitters, and cement masons. There’s a chiropractor in the building to ease the pain of honest toil.
Mac’s Industrial has a cement floor, scratched wainscoting, a dart board, and a door to the kitchen that bears serious kick scars. A layer of dust is settled on the track lighting overhead.
While my guys ordered Surlys, I tried again for a cup of coffee. I practically did a spit take when I swallowed my first gulp. I haven’t had a cup of coffee that loathsome in years, since the great Cappucino Revolution turned us all into snobs. It made the gas station swill I used to swallow seem tasty by comparison.
“That’s the worst cup of coffee I ever had!” I blurted to the waitress.
“I know,” she said sadly. “Everyone says that.”
“Is it from the bottom of the pot?” I asked.
“No, just made. It’s not fair trade or fresh ground or fresh roasted,” she went on. “It comes in a little silver package.”
After that, we weren’t expecting much.
But when the kitchen door was kicked open and lunch headed our way, I watched my dad and son perk right up. Dad’s chili burger arrived with steam billowing forth and a manly looking knife impaling it. My son’s four-alarm burger, complete with Cajun-dusted fries, looked like a picture in a glossy food magazine.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” my son (pictured above) breathed.
“Pass me a napkin,” said Dad.
These lunch burgers had the two qualities that these two appreciate — they were tasty and generously portioned.
I looked around at the sparse crowd at Mac’s. Mostly male, and not much small talk going on.
I eat out with girlfriends frequently, but couldn’t say when I last dined with two dudes. I was struck by how their conversation stopped when the food arrived. Meat, hot, juicy and well-prepared, was worthy of their full attention.
“Let’s do this again,” said my son, when he was half through his burger. “Next time you’re here.”
“When we’re all together,” said my dad.
As one of the guys, I’m looking forward to it.