The corner of N Sixth and Washington Streets in Brainerd has always been a destination for travelers. Several hotels and restaurants have stood there, some more memorable than others. One of the most impressive is Van’s Cafe.
Clarence and Clare Van Essen took over ownership of N.P. Lunch Room in 1925, and it was renamed Van’s Lunch Room. The name changed again in 1927 to Van’s Cafe. The eatery had an established reputation since 1909 for good food. When the couple purchased the land the restaurant sat on, they began renovating the space. The building was a basic square, two-story, brick affair that had once been administrative offices for a sawmill in town. The building was moved to the corner in 1908.
Clarence and Clare preferred a much more modern look, so in 1933 they remodeled the building to create a Streamline Moderne look. The exterior was covered in cream stucco, windows were given chromium trim, and five black horizontal metal strips were added to the upper level. Inside, the tables were on the right, and the booths were on the left. The counter was moved to the middle of the dining space. The walls were painted bright colors, and birch wainscotting was added. Recessed fluorescent lighting and ceiling fans hung from the light blue ceiling. There was even air conditioning so diners could beat the summer heat.
In 1941, the cafe was updated again with more modern finishes. The interior was pained a soft peachy color, and the ceilings were repainted a similar shade of sky blue with white clouds. Zig-zag linoleum flooring was added, and each of the pillars was mirrored. There were 17 booths and four tables in the main dining room. The counter was relocated to the side wall, and 11 stools were added. In the back of the cafe, a small private dining room was added, along with a banquet room.
Many residents and visitors remember the eatery for its delicious food and iconic location across from the historic concrete water tower. It was one of only a dozen or so Minnesota restaurants outside of the Twin Cities to be featured in the Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places.
In 1981, the restaurant was sold, and the name was changed to the Sawmill Inn. It closed in 2021.
Curried Turkey in Pattie Shells
- ½ cup onion, finely chopped
- ½ cup celery, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 3 cups cream sauce (see note below)
- ¼ cup red and green peppers, finely chopped
- ¼ teaspoon curry powder
- 4 cups cooked turkey, cubed
- 10 rich pattie shells (see note below)
- salt to taste
- Saute onion and celery in butter. Blend in flour and cook to a golden color. Then fold into the cream sauce. Add peppers and seasonings to taste. Blend in turkey and heat over low until hot.
- Pour into pattie shells and serve.