Ode to Serlin's Café

Tomorrow is the last day of operation for Serlin's Café, a breakfast/lunch diner up at the top of Payne Avenue on Saint Paul's East Side. Payne Avenue as a special place, easily the most contiguous stretch of century-old building façades in the Twin Cities. Walking down Payne Avenue you can really imagine what the street might have looked like in the streetcar era. There used to be a lot of streets like this, with 2-3 story mixed-use buildings with cornices, windows, narrow frontages, and a diversity of entrances. But during the post-war ear, most of them were badly eroded by parking lots and strip development. Payne Avenue, tucked away north of the old Hamm's Brewery, far from the economic and social centers of the Twin Cities, is out of sight and mind. It managed to escape and survive, and reminds me a bit of Cincinnatti's gorgeous Over the Rhine neighborhood -- historically beautiful and economically depressed.

But Payne Avenue has retained a good measure of its working class businesses and residential quality of life. Anderson's Shoes is still selling good quality boots and shoes, and I've personally purchased linoleum from the linoleum sales guy. When I was growing up, my dentist used to be located on Payne (an unfortunate name for the street when you're a kid). But one of the oldest businesses on the whole stretch has long been Serlin's Café, started by Irving Serlin, who was navy cook during the war. A lot of the recipes are from the ear. For example, I had one of the classic Serlin's meals the other day: Navy Bean soup, hot meatloaf sandwich, and rhubarb pie.

[Men cooking.]

[The menu.]

[Alas, they were out of jewish bread.]

When people think of a 50s diner, they probably think of a Porky's style drive-in, neon and glitz and roller skates. Serlin's on the other hand, was a 40s diner. It's a completely different kind of experience, and going to Serlin's you can begin to imagine what it might have been like during the depression and the war.

In fact, eating old-school food is a bit odd for my generation. The foodie revolution emphasizes everything that old-school food rejected: local sourcing, hand-made ingredients, moving away from sugar and refined products. On the other hand, I imagine navy food to come in large bulk crates all labeled "US Govt beans." I imagine Wonder bread and sugar and a spice-free palette. I imagine Spam. Contrast that with the new Payne Avenue restaurant, Ward 6, which has a whole different concept of food.

Since Irving died, the business has been run by "the boys," Irving's two step sons who are now in their 60s. Apparently the boys have been looking for a buyer for the place for some time. One of them explained to me that he was looking forward to retiring, "because he's never been to Mount Rushmore."

[Christmas deçor.]

[Navy Bean or Split.]

[Looking past the coat nook and the pie plates into the kitchen.]

Everything about Serlin's is from another era, not likely to be recreated ever again. The booths are small, with small cushions and straight-backed wooden seats. They're not comfortable at all, but they're entirely practical. Credit cards are not accepted, but you're welcome to go to the ATM at the SA nearby. When you sit down, they ask you "Do you need a menu?" (Most people don't.) The walls are covered with Saint Paul patriotism, strange food collages, framed newspaper clippings, and Christmas cheer. There's the inevitable Herb Brooks picture, a photo of the 1992 Saint Paul Winter Carnival Ice Palace (the best one), a faded collage map of East Side businesses from 20 years ago (including the Whirlpool factory and Mr. Movies).

Everyone at Serlin's the other day seemed a bit sad about the close. They finally found a buyer, a couple that one of the "boys" kept saying were "30-year olds" as if it was a miracle. Payne Avenue is amazing, but won't be the same without its real 40s diner.

[A booth at Serlin's is the best place to read the Pioneer Press.]

[The Payne Avenue sidewalks.]


Alex said...

On the bright side, Keikeu's cakes are really good.

Eric said...

What a lovely tribute to a great place! We at Ward 6 will miss Serlin's too, though we hope Gary and Al will be able to come here more often and let US cook THEM some food....

Our Trip to Vietnam: Jacob & Rachel said...

I miss Serlins a good deal! Their rhubarb pie was phenomenal all the way down to the buttery crust. Hats off to a great neighborhood diner who had great food with popovers and cinnamon rolls! This place took care of us.