The foyer of Curran’s on 42nd & Nicollet is a romantic holding tank where diners waiting for tables bide their time by taking in the joint’s decidedly Irish pub-flavored décor. Ireland street signs hang next to framed photos and quotes from some of Ireland’s greatest writers and poets and, as diners linger about waiting for feed time, it’s easy to get lost in all those Emerald Isle words and forget you’re in a South Minneapolis dining institution.
“This one’s my favorite,” said Dennis Curran, the restaurant’s 65-year-old second-generation owner and namesake, pointing to a photo of playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw that’s festooned with the Shaw quote, “He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”
“That’s my favorite quote of all time,” said Curran, a soft-spoken husband and father of three. “I hung that there about 15 years ago. In the past I’ve always tried to stay away from politics, because we’re in the food business. You know, we sell food, not my opinion. But as of late, with about 97 percent of the people in this area against Trump, I guess I’ve expressed my view more than once here.”
Amidst paintings on loan from the Minnesota Arts Association, off the back dining room hangs “A Mother’s Note To Her Son,” a poster donated by Curran’s mother and restaurant co-founder Betty that’s sure to leave any son or mother a wee bit misty. Likewise, most of the place is decked out in Ireland travel posters, and these days behind the register hangs a sign counting down the days to St. Patrick’s Day.
“My father was all Irish,” said Dennis of his father Mike, who comes from a long line of Ireland-born Currans, as the menu chronicles. “We don’t have particularly any Irish food, except on St. Patrick’s Day, which is corned beef and cabbage. We go through about 600 pounds of corned beef, 250 pounds of cabbage, and 250 pounds of potatoes. St. Patrick’s Day is a hoppin’ day around here.”
“Here” is Curran’s, a square peg in the hipster hole that is foodie-mad Minneapolis. To be sure, in a town that boasts trendy bistros and James Beard award-winners and nominees on every corner, Curran’s is an after-thought, a relic — despite the fact that the parking lot and dining room is routinely packed.
“My mom and dad opened it on May 17, 1948, as a root beer stand,” said Dennis. “My dad and my grandfather built it. Started out with $5,000. We were a drive-in until ’73, then we converted to a restaurant. My mother and my father were honest and hardworking, and they liked people a lot. They could sit down with anyone and carry on a conversation.
“They were both farm kids who moved to Minneapolis, my father after the war and my mother during the war. My father, when he came back from the war, his sister and brother-in-law had a drive-in in Northeast Minneapolis, and he went and worked there. That’s where he got the idea for this place. Luckily for us, he chose beautiful South Minneapolis.”
Pop into Curran’s any late night and you’re likely to be part of one of the most decidedly diverse crowds around, one that would be the envy of any bar, pub or restaurant. Dennis says he’s noticed an uptick in high school students coming in for the ridiculously cheap breakfast, and one late night last week the place was jumping with post-gig musicians and some well-heeled clubbers getting take-out.
“We get such a cross-section of people in here. We get bricklayers, we get housewives, lawyers, doctors, professionals, and for me it’s a lot of fun to talk to ’em all. Sundays, we get ’em coming from church. St. Joan Of Arc, Incarnation, St. Leonard’s, St. Helena’s, Annunciation. Those are just the Catholics,” said Curran, who graduated from De La Salle. “I had a fun time one time during Easter season, I think it was Holy Thursday, and a congregation from a Catholic church came and a congregation from a Baptist church came, and they were on the opposite sides of the room, and I had ’em all singing ‘Alleluia’ together.”
Along with Curran’s role as a long-standing community hub in South Minneapolis, Dennis is most proud of his hardworking staff and the meals it cranks out seven days a week.
“We’re casual dining comfort food,” he said. “We try to prep as much as possible here. We cook our turkey here. We have turkey dinner on Mondays. Same with the corn beef. We have fresh sauerkraut for the Reuben, and it’s delicious. The roast beef we cook here. We have a pulled-pork sandwich we cook here. People love our chicken apple links. We work with a local butcher, and we’re the only place in Minneapolis that has these and they’re delicious. We have a German sausage we get from the butcher, and we try to shop local. We get our eggs from over on the Eastside of St. Paul, and our buns we get from a local bakery. So we just try to get comfort food that people … you know, you don’t come here for a dining experience, you come here for good food.
“We have all natural beef hamburgers, natural potatoes. We serve organic coffee. We try to have the best quality food we can possibly get. We sell a lot of liver and onions, and we have a Monte Cristo sandwich that I don’t think a lot of people have. The crust pies we have someone make for us, and we bake ’em here, and we make the cream pies from scratch. There’s no preservatives in ’em and it’s real whipped cream. We have fresh strawberry pie that’s been our staple for the last 50 years. Prices on that have gone up over the years. In the ’60s you could get a piece of pie for 35 cents, now it’s $2.30. We do have our pie special for $1.49 between 2–5 and 7–close.”
At the heart of it all is Curran, who obviously wields a steady hand with the kitchen and wait crew and an easy way with customers. Equal parts priest and barkeep, he can be seen at all hours of the day and night in his family-business element, behind the register and patrolling the dining room, all the while listening to customers and taking in the gossip of the day.
“I’ve always been interested in talking to people. I guess I’ve got the gift of gab,” he said. “I always tell people I’ve got the best job in the world, because where else can you get a job where you walk around and pour coffee and talk to people all day? It’s a ball.
“My father never sat down with me and said, ‘You do this and you do that.’ He just taught by example. He was a humble man, and he was up front with people, and I’ve learned that. You compliment people when they do a good job, and you don’t try to knock ’em down. I always tell our staff the customers are our guests.
“We seat 165 people here, and we can get people in and out in a hurry. And we don’t rush ’em. Generally speaking, like on a Sunday, we’ll be full and we’ll have a line out the door, and unless you’re a party, it’s a five or ten minute wait. We’ll get you in. We have an excellent kitchen crew, and they get the food out fast and it looks good and tastes delicious.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].