Last night we headed over to Eagan’s newest restaurant, Betty’s Cafe and Pies located in the same strip mall as Hoban. According to a recent SunThisweek article, the restaurant is modeled after classic 50s diners and will serve classic breakfasts, classic pies, classic fare, hopes to live up to the classic eggs and hash browns at Mickey’s, and comes with a classic name like Betty. They used the word ‘classic’ 5x in the article, I figured I should at least one up ‘em in classic Lazy Lightning fashion.
The restaurant itself looks nothing like a classic 50s diner from the outside being that it’s stuffed into a crappy strip mall in Eagan next to a gas station and old folks apartment complex and across the street from a business park. Walking in the front door doesn’t feel anything like standing and waiting for a table at Mickey’s or stepping back in time at the Windmill Cafe. What it feels like are any number of other faux diners which have cropped up around town over the years. These places with their Target-purchased retro posters, garage sale records glued in a line along the wall, and a modern-twist on the jukebox against the wall do not evoke anything of the era they supposedly emulate. What they do provide is a tacky and miserable facade cavorting as something it’s not, as if that’s the key to good food. While history has provided cartoonish and outlandish futuristic scenes, we have already lived the past and know exactly what it’s like. We should not be doing the same thing in reverse and providing ridiculous faux 50s diners in strip malls and claiming it pays homage to the feeling evoked when walking into Mickey’s in St. Paul. But yet, here is Betty’s Cafe and Pies in Eagan doing just that. You can’t just throw in a nice counter facing the grill and call it good, bringing that 1950s feel takes quite a bit more than that.
The menu is boring. No, really. It’s really, really, really, really boring. Claiming to offer ‘home-style cooking in a classic diner atmosphere’ is their first glaring error. Not only is it not a classic diner atmosphere, the food isn’t home-style anything. We ordered their Biscuits and Gravy ($4.99) with American Fries ($1.99) and Bacon ($1.99), a California Cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, mayo and onion ($4.99), an Egg Salad Sandwich on choice of bread ($3.99) and the Hot Roast Beef with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy ($7.99).
Our food eventually came out and was delivered to the table. As I was taking pictures of the food less than 10 seconds later, the owner/chef came to the table and asked how everything was. Camera in hand, I explained we hadn’t yet tried anything. He then asked, in all seriousness, if we were going to try the food or if we were just going to take pictures of it. Stunned into silence, The Wife saved the day by looking at him like he was as insane as he sounded and let him know in no uncertain terms that we paid for it, we were going to eat it. He then walked away never to return again that evening; in fact, he spent the rest of the meal hiding in the back out of view of the restaurant. Listen, if you’re going to verbally accost your customers with some crazy questions about the food and then not actually return when it’s useful to do so, stay in back the entire time; your guests will thank you.
The Wife’s Biscuits and Gravy came with two eggs scrambled but she was never asked how she’d like them cooked. She was thoroughly confused as to why the server not only didn’t ask but why the cook just assumed scrambled. The homemade gravy contained some fairly spicy sausage but the gravy itself tasted off. We couldn’t put our finger on it but the fact that it looked oily and greasy and tasted like potatoes seemed to point to it being left to sit and separate all day long only to be reconstituted to order. The American Fries seemed ok but what I really wished she had ordered the “fresh hand-shredded hashbrowns made with real potatoes,” because I’d love to compare them to all those places serving fake hashbrowns and see what all the fuss is about with these new-fangled “real” potatoes. The biggest problem was that The Wife didn’t get the bacon she ordered and after mentioning it to the waitress, less than a minute later three slices of very thin and very curled bacon were placed before us. First off, $1.99 for bacon that rivals only the precooked microwavable kind you can now get in boxes at the grocery store is an outright atrocity. The Wife noted, “this place needs big, thick, bacon because that’s what I think of when I go to a diner and order bacon.” That all said, as a huge biscuits and gravy fan, The Wife said she wouldn’t order this one again and she wants 7 more strips of thin as paper bacon to make up for the $2 crime against humanity she was served.
The California Cheeseburger was ordered “as rare as you’ll cook it” and came to the table adorned with produce and cheese as expected. The burger itself was cooked medium-well and didn’t look hand-pattied as the menu promised. It also didn’t look anywhere near 1/3 of a pound and the slice of unmelted processed American was a little much for me even at $4.99. But, I bit into it and it tasted just like a Whopper. Yup, a Whopper. Just like Burger Time in Apple Valley sells for $2.50. I realize the place has only been open for two weeks, but seriously, if I ask you to cook the burger “as rare as you’ll cook it” and it’s going to come out medium-well, let me know that in advance so I don’t waste my money on a piece of charcoal.
The Egg Salad Sandwich was not only sized for a 2.5 year old, it suffered from being tasteless. I mean, egg salad is mayo, eggs and seasoning on bread with produce. Who could screw that up? Well, Betty’s apparently. They made the classic mistake of thinking they could take a classic and simply put it on their menu without any real work. In addition the ridiculously small amount of egg salad on the bread made me even more annoyed with what I was served. Yeah it was only $3.99 but I get more bang for my buck out of the prewrapped sandwich wedges at SuperAmerica. Seriously, use salt and pepper and throw a few more tablespoons of salad on the bread. This is a 1950s diner, not a 1940s diner serving up war rations.
And finally, the star of any classic diner menu: a classic open-faced Hot Beef Sandwich with Gravy and Mashed Potatoes. The one thing no one can screw up. Especially when you’re making your own mashed potatoes and gravy, right? Wrong. Believe me, the Cub Foods-sourced white bread (all of their bread was sourced from Cub; it’s clear this place won’t last long if they’re running to the grocery store for supplies like bread) was fine and the mashed potatoes and roast beef plenty but the single biggest thing missing from this was flavor and, likely, homemade gravy. The gravy was too dark to be real. It was probably made from a jar or a can but possibly from a mix. It definitely didn’t come from only the beef drippings because, well, it didn’t taste like anything and that’s just not how gravy made from drippings comes out. The meat was tender and fell apart but, like the gravy, had zero flavor. It looked like beef and had texture like beef but when you put it in your mouth it just didn’t taste like beef. What it needed, much like the egg salad, was seasoning, a lot of seasoning. I ate half of it and boxed the rest up. Why? I don’t know. Maybe after letting it age overnight in the fridge it will absorb flavors from the rest of the food stored there and be worth eating on day two. I have hope.
The final thing was their pie. Homemade in the kitchen right there in the restaurant and packing the display case like so many diners do, I was actually excited to try their pumpkin. At $3.50 a slice, I was expecting something a little bigger than what was delivered (yeah, I just had to put that quarter there for scale; seriously, that’s a single bite people) and I hoped it would be topped with real whipped cream. But hey, by that late in the meal I knew I was just lying to myself. The coffee we ordered never arrived but the mass-market bagged coffee they had stuffed under the counter isn’t going to deliver the hot and flavor combination a diner serving homemade pie needs. The pumpkin pie was weak. It didn’t taste much like pumpkin and all you could taste was pumpkin pie spice. While The Wife was not at all a fan of the crust, I thought it was decent and even believed I could taste the shortening. Maybe I was just dreaming to give this place one shot at a partial win.
Listen, if you’re going to open a restaurant and put right there on the menu that you do home-style cooking, I want to see it. I want to have flavor. I want to have big portions. I want to have an owner who is either doting or surly to really give off some character. Staring at a bunch of records on the wall and listening to oldies piped from a new-aged retro jukebox doesn’t evoke anything but annoyance when the food tastes like every other poorly executed restaurant in town who think they can survive on atmosphere alone. Next time, add some seasoning, give your customers more than 30 seconds after the food is delivered to decide if it’s any good and, if you’re really interested, come around after the meal is over to find out how you did–not right at the start.
We won’t be back but maybe you’ll have better luck.
Did you have better luck? If so what did you have and what did you think of it? How do you think they stack up to Ze’s or Junior’s? Do you think it looks anything like a 1950s diner? What about the SunThisweek article which used ‘classic’ five times? Think we should chip in for a thesaurus? Whatever you have to say about this one, go ahead and comment on as I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Betty’s Cafe and Pies
1981 Silverbell Rd
Eagan, MN 55122
Monday – Saturday: 6 AM – 8 PM
Sunday: 6 AM – 3 PM
See all the pictures from Betty’s Cafe in Eagan on Flickr here.