Dean’s Diner

Lancaster, Minnesota

I was up visiting my dad last week in Hallock, Minnesota. The county seat of Kittson County is in the far northwestern corner of the state. With a population of 1200 people, it is not a big town. It is, at that, still the biggest town in the county. I grew up in Hallock, but my parents’ roots are in a far smaller town. Orleans is 10 miles north and, during its heyday, peaked at some fifty people.

Highway 59 Road Sign in Lancaster
How to get into and out of Lancaster

Fifty people is not a large enough group around which to build a full social circle. My parents had friends and family in both Humboldt to the west and Lancaster to the east. While I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Lancaster. Lancaster had, at that time, 462 people according to the sign outside of town. With a K-12 school, a few churches, a grocery store, dentist and some grain elevators, it was almost a self-contained town.

Dad still has friends in Lancaster, even though he’s lived in Hallock for nearly fifty years.  His best friend is Richard, and they got to know each other when Dad worked part time for my uncle after Dad retired from the U.S. Customs.  Richard works for my uncle, too.

Last Monday, when the kids and I arrived in Hallock for their spring break vacation, Dad suggested that we go to Lancaster to eat.  Dad doesn’t have much of an appetite these days, so this was kind of a surprise but a welcome one.  There are two restaurants in Lancaster.  The End of the Line is on U.S. Highway 59 on the north end of town.  Dean’s Diner is the other one, right on Main Street.

Susan built the café in the 1970′s.  It’s a steel building, rectangular and architecturally unremarkable.  When I was in high school, my social circle was a small group of kids from Kennedy, Hallock, Humboldt and Lancaster.  We gathered at the different restaurants in our respective hometowns.  Kennedy and Humboldt didn’t really have “hangout” places, so we were either at the Mileage Café in Hallock or Susan’s Café in Lancaster.

For some reason, Susan didn’t seem to like me very much.  I have no clue as to why.  I was as agreeable as a kid as I am now as an adult.  Whenever we would go into her restaurant, she would smile at my friends and then give me a disapproving glance.  It didn’t seem to matter how nice I was.  It might have had something to do with some mischief my cousin had created, or perhaps my older brother.  I had certainly never skipped out on a meal without paying for it.

Susan’s Café had a jukebox.  One Sunday we were in the café, and a guy from Lancaster I barely knew put in a quarter and picked out “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith.  It was a song that I didn’t really care for when it was new, and only later did I learn to appreciate it.  I asked who the guy was, and they told me his name is Dean.  I said, “Hi,” and he just kind of looked at me and gave me a disapproving glance.  Sometimes I just can’t win with people.  So we left and drove around Lancaster, talking on the CB radio with truckers.  (Seventies, remember?)

I saw Dean here and there over the years.  I never really said, “Hi,” to him again, and he never really said, “Hi,” to me.  I just knew him as the guy who liked Aerosmith but not me.

He took over the restaurant in 2006.  Several people had tried to make it work since Susan sold it to enjoy her retirement, but nobody could replicate the cooking and the magic until Dean took over.  Now it’s a going concern again, and it is Dad’s regular restaurant.

Monday night we sat down at a table; Dad, the kids, Richard and me.  We ordered dinner, or “supper” as they call it in the rural areas of Minnesota.  Ella ordered a California burger, Bing a bacon cheeseburger, Dad a hamburger, Richard a cheeseburger with fries and me a patty melt and a bowl of chicken wild rice soup. Dean’s Diner has a full small-town restaurant menu, but we all wanted fried comfort food.

If  I may digress: Earlier that day the kids and I had stopped to eat at a Culver’s Restaurant in Grand Forks.  I had ordered a sourdough bread patty melt, but it was the single blandest-tasting piece of meat I had ever had in my life.  I couldn’t taste the meat, couldn’t taste the “sour” in the sourdough, couldn’t taste the cheese and could barely taste the fries.  The only things at Culver’s that had any flavor were the ketchup and the salt.

At Dean’s Diner, the patty melt had flavor.  The meat tasted like fresh ground steak.  The “Swiss” cheese tasted like white American cheddar and the onions tasted like onions.  I didn’t need to add ketchup or salt in order to enjoy my meal.  The soup was rich and tasty, too.

As we were eating, a family walked in.  Six girls and their mother.  The mother looked somewhat familiar. She is a person from my distant past.  I wasn’t sure who she was, so I asked Richard.  He told me it was Kelli Hewitt.  When she was younger, and she is the same age as I am, she was Kelli Porter.  Kelli had married my friend Jimmy Hewitt.  I kind of knew Kelli, but never very well.  I decided to go talk to her.

I had to remind her who I was, but after I did, she remembered me.  I found out that Jimmy had just returned from the War in Iraq the prior Thursday, and that their daughter Ashlee is headed back from Nashville to welcome him home.  Kelli and I didn’t have much to talk about, so Katrice (click the link to find out who Katrice is) and I talked about music for a few minutes.

I went back and sat down, and enjoyed my meal.  Dean came out from behind the counter and looked my way, but he didn’t say anything. Not even, “Hi.”

If you find yourself in Lancaster, Minnesota, stop in at Dean’s Diner.  Don’t tell Dean I sent you.  Just enjoy the meal.

Dean’s Diner is at 123 Central Avenue S. in Lancaster, Minnesota.  Daily specials until the food runs out. Map to Dean’s Diner.

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9 Responses to “Dean’s Diner”

  1. March 30th, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Trish Lewis says:

    I loved this piece! It was an amazing peek into our world back home. Thanks so much for sharing it. And you know, I still call dinner, ‘supper’ no matter what the rest of the world thinks… ;)

  2. March 30th, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I call it supper when I am up north, but slip back into big-city-speak “dinner” when I get back home.

  3. March 31st, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Larry Ayers says:

    Good personal essay! I enjoyed reading it.

  4. April 1st, 2009 at 1:27 am

    Nathan Myers says:

    I guess confrontations — “Why do you glare at me?” — are something you have to avoid in a small town.

  5. April 2nd, 2009 at 6:38 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Yeah, it’s not a good idea unless you are ready to fight. I am never “ready to fight.”

  6. May 7th, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Kristin says:

    We went to Dean’s last Friday for pizza and peach pie.I thought of you while we were there.

  7. May 7th, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Well, thanks, They didn’t have peach pie when I was there. I hope they do the next time we go up there.

  8. September 27th, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Keith Finney says:

    Great story Mike. I met Greg and your dad in Lancaster at The End of The Line a couple years back. Had a great visit with both of them.

  9. September 28th, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    So, do you live up in Lancaster, Keith?

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