492 South Hamline Avenue
St. Paul, Minnesota
(at Randolph Avenue)
Step inside this solidly traditional tavern, and you are immediately taken by the atmosphere, which combines neighbourhood watering-hole feel with trendy hot-spot burble. You want to be there. So does everyone else, and so there's a waiting list at lunchtime. All the barstools are occupied, and the tables that line the wall along the side street seem to have permanent residents. A table at the Nook, it appears, is equivalent to a good parking place on the street in Manhattan: once you get it, you don't give it up lightly.
There is another, smaller, dining room, downstairs. After a wait of about ten minutes, with a TSA-imposed deadline to meet, we decided to try the lower level. Down the stairs, past the eight bowling lanes (how retro!), past the bowling-alley bar to some formica tables with metal chairs ... a full-service dining room, as advertised, but utterly, utterly devoid of the charming character infusing the upstairs room. It put me in mind of trickle-down economic theory. Well, at least the food's the same.
After reading some of the enthusiastic reviews this place has garnered from locals, I fully expected to merely be adding my feeble voice to a chorus of praise. To that extent, though, I was disappointed. Only the atmosphere upstairs, it turns out, is exceptional; the food we had, and the service we received, were not entirely without redeeming qualities, but on balance, they were merely acceptable.
My choice, from the interesting* selection of burgers and sandwiches, was the Paul Molitor, a hamburger stuffed with pepper-Jack cheese. Mr Molitor, it seems, attended the big unfortunately-named Catholic high school across the street before going on to greater fame in the larger world. My friend Brian ordered the bacon-cheeseburger. We both chose regular fries.
After a few minutes of idle conversation, during which we took in the sad ambience** of the downstairs dining area, I noticed a television at the far end of the bar, and remembered that the United States was playing France in women's Olympic soccer. I asked that the game be put on, and it was in the 68th minute when the barman found the channel. I can't fault the Nook for the horrible reception on that cable channel, except to note that the barman said, in passing, "I need to call the cable company," indicating that there may have been a problem let slide. My point, though, is that, by the time our food arrived in the dumbwaiter, the game was over; meaning that our wait after ordering was at least 22 minutes, plus the chat-time, plus any stoppage time, plus enough time for the broadcast to go to commercial, come back, and show the highlights of the 4:2 USA victory. The orders placed by the party of eight that was seated behind us took even longer, although they had ordered before us. Even admitting the popularity of the restaurant, that is too long a time to wait. (I may have taken a more accommodating view had our food been more carefully prepared.)
The menu touts the Nook as "the little place with the big burgers." I have no complaints about the size of the burgers: they are normal-sized in a supersized era. Still, the blurb on the menu led me to expect something more than what we got, and while we were both satisfied with the portions, we couldn't help feeling just a little mis-led. Maybe the slogan is a quaint relic of a charming time when ordinary hamburgers were an ounce of meat on a three-inch bun.
When the waitress delivered our meals, she warned me that the cheese inside my burger was very hot, and recommended that I eat the fries first. I asked her for a knife, thinking to cut the sandwich in half to help the cooling along, as I was running short on time. She said she'd bring that right away. I ate most of my fries and, thinking it had been long enough for the cheese to cool, gave up waiting for the knife. The first couple of bites of the burger had no cheese in them; the next had just a slight taste of cheese, cool enough to be eaten without harm. Encouraged, I took another bite, and was rewarded with a gusher of molten cheese that poured out of the burger and into the paper-lined serving basket. I got just enough on my chin to know I had narrowly escaped a trip to the E.R. Wish I'd held out for that knife.
The burger itself, lethal heat aside, was reasonably good at first. The sandwich was un-dressed except for a few slices of pickle and the grilled onions I'd ordered it with. The meat was reasonably good quality, not particularly lean; the pepper-Jack cheese was unexpectedly mild, but built to a satisfying piquancy before I was done. Unfortunately, when I reached the last few bites of the burger, I noticed a certain toughness, and on inspection found that one part of one side had been seriously overcooked. If I'd started eating on that side, I'd have probably sent the thing back, despite the length of time I'd waited.
The fries were done well: they were hand cut, with good texture and flavour, and cooked the proper amount of time in good oil.
The prices at the Nook are about right for what you get; though if the burgers had been as outsized as I'd been expecting, I probably would have had to raise that rating a notch, even though additional quantity of food would have been excessive.
* The jejeune humour attached to the signature Nookie burger, evident on t-shirts and wall signs, may help make discipline at the high school across the street problematic. But I'm sure, from my own blessedly brief experience with parochial education, that it's nothing they can't handle. I'm having some trouble, myself, restraining the impulse to indulge in some crude jokes on that point.
** I suspect that, when bowling is going on, the place has exactly the atmosphere one would expect in a bowling-alley restaurant. All things considered, I doubt that would have been a significant improvement for lunch.