Last meal

Updated: April 26, 2007 - 2:05 pm

After 80 years, Downtown diner shuts down

The pocketsize Hamlin’s diner tucked away in Renaissance Square on Nicollet Mall is an institution: Despite several name changes, it has been in operation Downtown for nearly 80 years and may be the only place in the city where high-powered lawyers routinely rub elbows with janitors and secretaries at an old-school lunch counter.

So when Barry Hamlin broke the news that he will close the restaurant on March 3 after nearly 30 years as owner, his loyal customers and employees didn’t take it well.

Hamlin, 53, decided to permanently close the doors after his new landlord said the diner didn’t factor into future plans for the 10-story office building at 5th Street and Nicollet Mall. Xcel Energy Inc. sold Renaissance Square to a limited liability company affiliated with a Nevada-based development group last fall.

“We’re the latest, maybe the last in a long line of caretakers, of this little hole in the wall,” he said.

Hamlin’s family has operated the diner since 1961. His wife’s great-aunt and -uncle managed the restaurant for years and then handed it to Hamlin and his wife 28 years ago.

The menu is classic and simple: basic breakfast options and standard diner fare. But the restaurant distinguished itself with its standout grilled cheese sandwich and homemade pies.

“In a way I’m a Luddite and that’s why we kept Hamlin’s the way it has been. You’re not going to get espresso here,” Hamlin said. “You’re going to get a lousy cup of coffee, even though it ain’t lousy.”

Hamlin is as saddened by the pending closure as his employees and customers and plans to leave the restaurant business for a job in manufacturing.

“It’s bittersweet and I’m just going to try to focus on the sweet part of it,” he said. “We’re all just kind of hoping we don’t fall apart on the last day.”

The diner’s six employees have become tight-knit like a family. Many have worked at the restaurant for decades. They’ve been given time off recently to search for other work.

Lorraine Dobberstein, 68, of Fridley has worked as a server for 21 years and doesn’t know what to do once the caf/ closes.

“I’m really sad,” she said. “It’s been wonderful. My boss is the best. He’s just like a brother to me.”

Some of Hamlin’s regulars commiserated over the closure during a recent lunch visit. A group of secretaries from the law firm Dorsey & Whitney said they planned to dine at the restaurant all of its remaining days. They were “devastated,” they said, that the diner’s days were numbered.

Mary Moore, who works at the Central Library, is greeted by name when she enters. She has been stopping by for breakfast and dinner for 15 years — drawn to the conversation and coffee, which she enjoys because it comes in a “real cup” as opposed to the Styrofoam offered at chains.

“I’m quite disappointed,” Moore said while eating lunch at the counter. “There should be more protection for small-business owners.”

AlLynn Becker, an employee at Qwest Communications who stopped at the restaurant at least once a week for almost 10 years, said diners like Hamlin’s are a dying breed. “It’s just one of those disappearing facets of urban life.”