Mickey’s Diner: Everybody knows Mickey’s

MIckey's Diner 2

Long before “24/7” became a popular phrase, Mickey’s Diner was operating in that mode. Mickey’s has been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week since it opened in 1939.

Mickey’s Diner is a prominent St. Paul landmark, highly visible at the corner of 9th and St. Peter in downtown, a must-see for visitors. While the city surrounding it has changed greatly over the years, Mickey’s hasn’t changed much at all since it arrived in St. Paul on a railroad flatbed car toward the end of the Great Depression. Even its neon sign is original.

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You can’t miss it. As it’s described in the National Register of Historic Places, “Inspired by streamlined railroad dining cars, Mickey’s sports a symmetrical facade clad with yellow and red porcelain enameled-steel panels, a horizontal band of plate glass windows and a projecting neon sign with Art Deco lettering.” When City Pages named it Best Diner in 2001, the article described it as “a dollop of Edward Hopper Americana.” Inside the walls, a mix of red and red-speckled panels are interspersed with wood sections. Seventeen red-leather-covered, silver-metal trimmed barstools line up in front of it. Jukeboxes adorn the counter and the four booths, though they don’t work. The area behind the bar is all metal, with a fan-shaped pattern in it.

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People tend to associate diners with railroad cars and the 1950s, but neither association is entirely valid. Though diners were popular in the 1950s, those with the streamlined look began popping up in the 1930s. According to Larry Millett, well-known expert on Twin Cities architecture, the diner is “a distinctly American kind of eatery that traces its roots to the late nineteenth century” (St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 26, 2005). It evolved from the night lunch wagon, he says, “a horse-drawn vehicle that offered quick, inexpensive food for industrial workers and others in search of a meal at an hour when most restaurants had closed.” By the turn of the twentieth century, lunch wagons were being widely manufactured; at one time as many as 75 companies were making them, Millett says. He describes Mickey’s as “one of the nation’s finest classic diners.

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Nor were many of the diners actual railroad cars. Mickey’s was prefabricated by the Jerry O’Mahoney company of Elizabeth, New Jersey, whence it was shipped to St. Paul. The original Mickey’s owners had attended a convention of the National Restaurant Association in Chicago, where the O’Mahoney Company had a booth touting its wares, and they ordered their diner right then and there, according to current owner Melissa Mattson. It even came with a built-in cigarette machine and a brochure projecting sales and profits from the machine, she said.

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Mickey’s history has been all in the family. The two original owners were John “Bert” Mattson and David “Mickey” Crimmins. The place was likely named for Mickey because he was the primary financier. Bert bought Mickey out in the 1950s (Mickey went on to run a McDonald’s), and Bert’s son Eric took over in 1970 when his father died. At one time the company operated 11 food operations, of which six were downtown: one on Fifth and Main, one on Robert Street (run by Mickey only), one near Lafayette and Seventh called the “Little Diner,” one at Wabasha and Sixth, the original at Ninth and St. Peter, and Mickey’s Courthouse Cafeteria. Four other Mickey’s properties were outside downtown: one at University and Snelling, one at 1950 West Seventh Street (still operating but not managed by the family), one at Robert Street and Plato Boulevard, and one at Landfall. The family also ran a catering service for West Publishing Company at one time when West was downtown. Nowadays all that’s left is the original Mickey’s, where the third generation of Mattsons, Melissa and her brother Bert (named for his grandfather) are in charge. Both have been college-trained in the hospitality industry.

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Mickey’s staff go out of their way to interact with customers, which is a natural reaction to the setting, according to Mattson, who recalled from her own experience working in the diner as a young woman, “You’re really on stage. You’re right there and everybody can see you. Otherwise shy people become really outgoing.”

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More than just the building has stayed the same over the years. Mickey’s still prides itself on using fresh, local products and many of its recipes are unchanged from the early years. All the steamtable dishes are made from scratch, according to Mattson, such as the Mulligan stew, the navy bean soup, and the chili. Some items, like malts and milkshakes, were added in the ‘50s, and the Sputnik burger, as its name would suggest, dates from 1957, the era of the space race (Tim Brady, “Diner on the Corner”). The menu says Mickey’s strives to provide “delicious, homemade, wholesome and economical meals,” and uses local produce: “Our meat comes fresh from a local butcher. Our buns and bread arrive fresh daily from our St. Paul bakery. Our coffee is ground fresh and roasted locally.”

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Business has held relatively steady over Mickey’s long history, according to Mattson. When it first started diners were a big fad in this country, Brady notes. The National Register of Historic Places says it “remains a successful business, in part due to its unique atmosphere.” There was a slow spell in the 1970s, particularly after the downtown skyways took the pedestrian population upstairs. Plus, that was an era of urban decline. However, as downtown has changed one source of customers has replaced another, Mattson said. For example, the Children’s Museum is next door now, though the bus station is long gone. The Xcel Center has provided a strong boost.

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Mickey’s is something of a local celebrity, as well. It’s been featured in magazines: The Smithsonian, Conde Nast, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Playboy and Elle. The menu notes it’s often photographed and painted and has been replicated by Department 56, the Danbury Mint, and Saks Fifth Avenue. It’s been featured in films, too–all three “Mighty Ducks” films, “Jingle All the Way,” and the Robert Altman/Garrison Keillor film “Prairie Home Companion.” Mattson herself hasn’t seen much of the film-making or the stars, however, because she had to stay in back and keep equipment like refrigerators from disturbing the sound recording.

Visiting celebrities have included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Jennings, Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, Sinbad, Robert Altman, Julio Iglesias, Bill Murray, Larry Gatlin, Willard Scott, Garrison Keillor, Clay Aiken, Emilio Estevez, Liv Tyler, John Lithgow, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Andy Garcia, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, the Beach Boys, Jon Stewart, New Kids on the Block, Jimmy Fallon, and various local political figures.

As Brady says in his article, simply, “Everybody knows Mickey’s.”

Mickey's Diner 1

March 2006, revised November 2016 and January and June 2019

 

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