The last morning of our vacation earlier this summer, we checked out the continental breakfast at The Marquette, the boutique hotel we were staying at in downtown Minneapolis. It was the usual fare - bagels, toast, pastries, that sort of thing. Cindy wanted something a little more substantial for breakfast so I immediately thought about Keys Cafe, a local iconic restaurant in the Twin Cities. Given that there are 9 Keys Cafe locations around the area, I figured one had to be close by. I took a quick look on-line to see where the nearest Keys was and, to my surprise, there was a location - Keys Foshay - down Marquette Avenue a couple blocks and a half block to the south on 9th Street. (see map) We took our bags down to the car in underground garage to put them in the trunk and then walked over to Keys Cafe for breakfast.
I have eaten at a Keys Cafe location a couple three times in the past, but it has been quite sometime since I was last in one. A friend of mine from the Twin Cities, George Miller, turned me on to Keys Cafe when we were talking about comfort food one time a number of years ago. Every once in a while when I'm on the road, I'm tired of burgers or steaks or pasta, so I need some comfort food - hot beef sandwich, meatloaf, roast pork and mashed potatoes with a big glass of cold milk - to set my body right. Keys Cafe has been one of my go-to places for comfort food in the past, but it had been quite sometime since I was last at a Keys Cafe.
The first Keys Cafe opened in 1973 in St. Paul. Barbara Hunn was the mother of four children and a licensed practical nurse when she decided she needed a change in her life. Along with a friend, Beverly Oien, they looked at buying a restaurant on Raymond Ave. in St. Paul, Mr. D's. Only Hunn didn't have much experience in a restaurant. Her parents had briefly owned a bar on a lake in north central Minnesota, and Hunn had worked as a counter person at a Dairy Queen that Oien owned. But they forged ahead, buying Mr. D's. and putting Hunn in charge of the place while Oien took off to live in Florida. They changed the name to Keys Cafe - known to the locals as Keys on Raymond - and the story goes is that it was named Keys as it was going to be the closest that Hunn would ever get to the Florida Keys.
The former owner of Mr. D's gave Hunn three days of training and then said, "You're on your own! Good luck!" She toiled over the next 10 years, refining, changing and improving the original Keys with the help of family members. Hunn then opened a second Keys Cafe in suburban New Brighton, MN in 1983. As I said, today there are 9 Keys Cafe locations in the Twin Cities areas, all run by Hunn (now Hunn-Miesen - her third marriage) and her children - Carol, Jean, Celine and Roy - and their spouses and children.
The Keys Cafe and Bakery is located in the historic Foshay Tower - the first skyscraper built in Minnesota. Topping out at 29 stories, the Foshay was the tallest building in Minnesota from 1929 to 1972 when the IDS Tower was built. The art deco designed building was added to the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1978. About six years ago, developers Ralph Burnet, his son Ryan Burnet, Tim Rooney (the young Burnet and Rooney are co-owners of the Barrio Mexican restaurants that I've written about here and here) and the Ryan Companies development group bought the Foshay and turned it into a 230-room boutique hotel - the W - Foshay. The famous Manny's Steakhouse is located at the corner of Marquette and 9th, just up the street from Keys Cafe and Bakery. (Look for an upcoming entry on Manny's in the coming days.)
We got into a somewhat crowded Keys Cafe around 9:30 on a late summer Sunday morning. It's different from the other Keys Cafe's I've been in - but I've only been in two others. It features a bar area serving beer and mixed drinks, a bakery counter up front and a number of hardwood tables and chairs in the front part of the restaurant. There's also sidewalk dining at Keys, but it was sort of a dreary morning outside so we decided to sit inside. We were taken to the back part of the restaurant, up a couple steps to a little alcove where the sign said, "Section Closed", but it obviously wasn't. There were a row of tables with banquette seating on the wall in the little room. Cindy took the banquette seat and I took the chair opposite her. The hostess dropped off menus and soon thereafter, our server, Monica, came to great us.
Breakfast is served all day long at Keys and there is a lot to choose from. Pancakes, cinnamon French toast, omelets, eggs any way you like, and their famous caramel or cinnamon rolls are the big breakfast draws at the restaurant. They also have toast made with their homemade bread at Keys. I had only gotten comfort food on my previous visits, so I was sort of looking forward to trying their breakfast.
By the time Monica came back around to take our order, I was wrestling in my mind over the blueberry Belgian waffle or getting an omelet. I decided to get a sausage (pork sausage, they also had Italian sausage as an option), mushroom and Swiss cheese omelet. Cindy went the simple route, saying that she needed something more substantial that what the continental breakfast at the Marquette had to offer, but was still somewhat full from our meal the night before. She ended up getting a couple eggs over easy with hash browns, bacon and a couple pieces of Keys homemade toast.
Now, here is another story as to why I hate banquette seats in restaurants. To me, you're sharing a booth or a bench with someone. The tables with banquette seating are relatively close and it seems that conversations from the other tables carry more easily with banquette seating. Just after we ordered, a middle-aged couple were seated to my immediate left. The guy looked a little scruffy and he was seated in the banquette seat next to Cindy, and on the opposite side of him was the hallway that went down to the restrooms. The man announced rather loudly when he sat down, "Oh good! Right next to the restrooms! I'm incontinent!" A sophomoric joke that I probably would have laughed at if I were at a dive bar, but not at Keys Cafe.
The guy and the girl began to have a conversation and no matter how much Cindy and I tried to carry on our own conversation, the guy's vocal tone and volume always interrupted us. It turned out that they were probably on a first date, the guy was a recovering drug addict and he was describing his on-going treatment regimen to the lady. We also believe the lady was a recovering alcoholic as she was telling the guy that she was living her life one day at a time, trying to keep the temptation of having a drink at a distance. I'm sorry, but it was not hard to hear their conversation. Thankfully, the table on the other side of us stayed empty during our visit.
Monica brought out our breakfasts about 15 minutes after we ordered. The picture I took of my omelet didn't turn out. (I was having trouble with the camera and the lighting in Keys Cafe - a lot of the pictures of the bar area and the dining room didn't turn out.) But it was a thin omelet that covered a good portion of the plate. It was loaded with ample amounts of sausage and mushrooms, and was oozing with cheese at each cut into the omelet. It was very, very good. I don't know if it would have been better than the blueberry Belgian waffle, but it was pretty damn good for me that morning.
Cindy was amazed at the food on her plate. One thing Keys doesn't do is scrimp on portions. Her hash browns covered half the plate and the slices of bacon that she had were not as crisp as she'd like, but she still ate them. The highlight for her was the homemade toast. The toast was thick cut, but light and airy in taste. She loved eating the toast more than anything on her plate. I tried a couple bites from her bread and it was better than the 12 grain toast that I had with my omelet.
The Keys Cafe and Bakery location in downtown Minneapolis was just as good as the other Keys locations I've been to around the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, most of the Keys locations are on the east side of the Twin Cities and I just don't get over there all that often any longer. It was great to reconnect with Keys after not having been to one for quite sometime. It's no wonder the Keys Cafe's are so popular - good food, generous portions and a great back story of a woman who didn't know what she was getting into nearly 40 years ago making it all come together for a true American success story.