I’m a sucker for an old-school lunch counter.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a stool at the cafe in Halstad, a busy little place in the little Minnesota town where I’d graduate from high school a dozen or so years later. I’d go with my dad when he went into town and I still remember the clink of silverwear and the sound the double doors made as they swung open and shut.
Later, I’d work there. I’d flip pancakes on the grill (being a short order cook on breakfast shift is caffeine-fueled and glorious, a meditation on mastery and flow) and sling coffee and toast and hamburgers and fries for a couple dollars an hour and a couple dollars in tips.
The cafe’s latest incarnation is closed now and I can’t help feeling a little sad about it. There’s something reassuring about having a dependable gathering spot. Even if they don’t stop in as often as they’d like, everyone’s secretly happy when they drive by and see cars out front.
And there’s just something timeless about classic American cafe food and the simple pleasures of swiveling on a lunch counter stool.
Charlie’s Main Street Cafe is just that kind of gathering place for the city of Minot.
My brother Jacob and I stopped in after our adventures in the Bakken last summer to check it out. We learned a little about the history of the place from this article from the New York Times, which was proudly displayed on the wall along with drawings of the staff, community awards and photos of Minot from yesteryear.
Jacob likes lunch counters too.
A cafe has stood in this particular spot in downtown Minot since World War II. It’s been called Charlie’s since a Greek immigrant named Charlie DeMakis bought the place in 1957.
We tried (and mostly failed) to eat local in Minot (we totally came on the wrong day), so Charlie’s was a breath of fresh air. It’s one of the few non-chains open on Sundays and lots of several locals told us to check it out for breakfast. The next time we’re in town, we definitely will.
The menu is classic American comfort food — think hearty breakfasts, meat and potatoes lunch specials, burgers and sandwiches and generous, no-fuss slices of pie.
The restaurant itself is bright and friendly. The orange and green interior, the handdrawn soup menus, (complete with colorful doodles and bubble letters) and the little drawings of the waitstaff tacked on the wall are cheerful and utterly guileless.
We figured we had to have soup (who can resist bubble letters?) so I tried the tomato. This wasn’t the rich, creamy bisque we’re used to today. This was an old-school recipe with a thin, creamy base and big chunks of ripe tomatoes, light and still satisfying.
This was a soup my grandparents would recognize. My grandma’s aunt and my husband’s grandmother both operated small town cafes and I’m willing to bet they both had a recipe just like this in their recipe boxes.
The menu is full of small town cafe classics just like this. A meat and potatoes dish probably would have been a more typical lunch, but I was in the mood for a BLT. It was just as it should be, with thick bacon, generously sliced tomatoes and an unassuming pile of potato chips. My grandma would approve.
I was totally full by this point, but it only seemed right to have dessert. Jacob went for classic vanilla ice cream and actually laughed a little when our waitress swirled the chocolate syrup straight from the bottle and plunked it down in front of him like we were kids again.
Since nostalgia was the theme of the day, I went for the cherry pie topped with whipped cream. You just don’t get any more old school Americana than that.
Charlie’s Main Street Cafe
113 Main Street South
Monday-Saturday 6:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
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My travels across the state are supported in part by a grant from the fabulous people at North Dakota Tourism.