Downtown hidden gems

Updated: April 25, 2007 - 3:58 pm

Two hole-in-the-wall caf/s not to miss

Its skyscrapers, upscale restaurants, theaters and athletic venues often define Downtown, but the area is also home to a handful of less-obvious destinations -- hole-in-the-wall hangouts that are off the beaten path and well worth a second glance.

If you drive by them, you'll probably miss these caf/s and coffeehouses. They're the kind of places that catch the corner of your eye, but don't stand out with flashy lights or in-your-face marquees. These modest places, like their owners, are understated, relying on tasty homemade fare and loyal regulars rather than big-buck advertising or fancy d/cor.

Cook's cubby

In Loring Park, Eddy's Caf/ is tucked into the first level off a three-story office building on the corner of West 15th & Oak Grove streets across from the park. A caf/ sign with a Scotty dog logo is posted near a side entrance along West 15th Street.

From the outside, the caf/ looks like just another office. Inside, the d/cor is simple: a few Guthrie Theater posters hang on the walls and a sheet listing the specials sits on a table just outside the entry. And the caf/ holds more people than one might think.

"We're sort of a large hole in the wall," said owner Mary Cook, noting that the caf/ seats 44 people. However, even at its busiest times, Eddy's rarely has more than 12 customers at a time. "We're a hidden place, I guess. We don't have any big signs in front of the cafe."

Cook, 72, noticed the caf/ years ago while dropping off her husband, Robert Cook, at work at the architectural firm Parker Durrant International nearby.

She told the caf/'s then-owner, Sandy Rippie, she'd be interested in snatching it up should Rippie decide to sell it. About five years later, in 1997, Rippie called her looking for a buyer, and Cook agreed to take on ownership.

Cook, a former elementary school teacher, had recently settled into retirement and had already grown bored of watching television at her St. Paul home, so she jumped at the chance to become an entrepreneur.

Although she didn't change the name or the logo (Eddy was Rippie's family dog, who also happened to look like the Cook family pooch), Cook said "It gives me such a good feeling to have something of my own and have it be successful. I get a rush every day."

Eddy's out-of-the-way location works for her. With its small but dedicated patronage, she can largely run the place on her own, typically preparing about a dozen entrees a day. She said it's not too much more work than preparing food for her family -- the couple has four children, who, although they've moved away, drop by the caf/ on occasion.

Still, it takes a lot of time to run even a small business, and Cook puts in about 50 hours a week. Her husband chips in, too. Robert, who also serves on the neighborhood board Citizens for a Loring Park Community, helps his wife prep in the mornings and sometimes jumps behind the cash register during busy lunchtimes.

Among other things, Eddy's menu includes breakfast sandwiches, omelets, salmon filets, stuffed peppers and Thai lemon chicken soup -- dishes Cook learned from one of her former chefs, Eric Austin, who now owns Big E's Soul Food, just south of Downtown at 1831 Nicollet Ave. She also credits chef Steve Munyon, a friend of her daughter's who cooks for a Prior Lake country club, with helping her get her footing in the kitchen.

Most specials cost under $7. And Cook is generous with her customers, in more than just portion size. She takes the time to "try to chat with everyone," she said. And while some customers have a standing tab, others fill out an IOU card when they forget their lunch money.

The caf/ is open 8:30 a.m-2:30 p.m. on weekdays, after which Cook heads home to St. Paul where she tutors elementary school children.

North Loop niche

A small sign beckons attentive passersby into the old Ford assembly plant for lunch. Up perhaps the hilliest half-brick road in North Loop, and just across the street from the county's garbage incinerator, the revamped Ford Centre, 420 N. 5th St., serves as studio space for photographers, artists and designers.

The charming Fifth at Fifth Caf/, located on the first floor, serves the local creative-types.

Once inside the small, cozy caf/, customers immediately bump into a buffet showcasing the day's offerings. On a recent afternoon, meatloaf with a side of mashed potatoes took center stage.

John Trelstad, the caf/'s owner, said the menu is influenced by the whims of his regulars. Lately, his customers, mostly artists and designers, are keen on low-carb fare.

"Everything is 100 percent homemade and from scratch," Trelstad said. The food is also cheap -- the most expensive selections on the menu are $6.50.

The Fifth at Fifth Caf/ also boasts unique d/cor. A pair of golf clubs, a baseball mitt and a framed photograph of a mutt are on display in a backroom corner to the left of the caf/'s tables.

Fifth at Fifth is open 7:30 a.m- 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.