Al's Breakfast is reportedly the narrowest restaurant in the city of Minneapolis, at a width of ten feet (3.0 m). Al's Breakfast (Dinkytown Branch) is crammed into a former alleyway between two much larger buildings and is located in the city's Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota. The restaurant's 14 stools have seated generations of local students, along with notable figures such as writer James Lileks and humorist Garrison Keillor, all of whom consider the tiny diner to be a significant icon of the state.
The restaurant as it is today came into being in 1950 when Al Bergstrom parted ways with another neighborhood restaurateur. Bergstrom had gained experience at the griddle and in kitchen management in the 1940s while working for John L. "Jack" Robinson during summers at a popular Minnesota State Fair cafeteria. The Dinkytown building he purchased dates back to 1937 when a neighboring hardware store erected a shed in the alleyway to hold sheet metal and plumbing parts. This was eventually rented out and was a Hunky Dory hamburger stand by the time Bergstrom took it over. The new owner renamed the diner to Al's Café and first opened the doors on May 15. Initially, he produced three meals a day, seven days a week, but scaled back the operation to simply be a breakfast outlet after one year.
Bergstrom retired and passed the restaurant to his nephew Phil Bergstrom in 1973–1974. Doug Grina and Jim Brandes eventually took over around 1980, and have continued to operate the diner in the same way. The recipes and short-order cooking style that Al Bergstrom developed remain the same to this day.
Customers who visit the tiny space experience something that is not duplicated anywhere else in Minneapolis. Guests must first stand in line along the building's back wall as they wait for others to finish their meals. It is commonplace to be instructed to move down the counter to allow newly seated customers to be seated together. Veterans of Al's are used to the instruction and keep their attitude extremely flexible as you may sit on 2 to 3 different stools during the duration of a standard breakfast.
Frequent customers can purchase "meal books" and pre-pay for their food. (this practice dates back to the 50's, when Al Bergstrom would accept prepayment from railroad workers that were only paid once a month) Hundreds of such books line the opposite wall, where two griddles are also situated. A number of unusual trinkets line the front area of the diner. The stools and a linoleum countertop run down the middle of the building. The menu is considered to have a number of superb selections including buttermilk pancakes, bacon waffles, hash browns, and eggs prepared in a number of different styles including omelettes. There are also some seasonal items.
Awards and popular mention
A University of Minnesota music professor, David Baldwin, composed some special tunes in celebration of the restaurant's 50th anniversary in 2000. These were played in front of the building on May 15 by a local brass band. Al Bergstrom died at his residence in Forest Lake, Minnesota in 2003, at the age of 97.
In 2004, Al's Breakfast won a James Beard Foundation award in the "America's Classics Restaurants" category. The award medal now hangs behind the counter at Al's, blending quickly into the explosion of toys, old foreign currency, and other assorted memorabilia that covers every surface.
In 2007, Laurie Lindeen, Minneapolis author, wife of ex-Replacements member Paul Westerberg, and former bandleader of Zuzu's Petals, chronicles several years of working at the "Hi-Lo Diner," described in her book Petal Pusher as a "famous fourteen-stool breakfast joint" near the U of M campus that has narrow walls "covered in grease-preserved foreign money." While the name may have been changed to protect the innocent, it's clear she worked at Al's.
- Tim Holtan: Al's Breakfast
- James Lileks: Al's Breakfast
- Al's Breakfast "Official" MySpace
- Al's Breakfast "Official" Facebook