Newport’s North Pole Restaurant

First, you kick some serious ass. Maybe you kill a few dudes, maybe a building explodes, and maybe you need to wrap your bloody hand on the way out. After that, you swing into a diner for coffee, maybe throw down a light breakfast, maybe skim a newspaper page, maybe talk things over with That One Person You Trust. Then, you go back outside and kick some more ass. More bang, more boom, more hand-wrapping.

It happens in movies all the time, and that sequence makes perfect sense. Why? Why does gunfire and death, followed immediately by coffee and eggs, followed then by more gunfire and death, seem perfectly logical? We can agree it does, yes?

My theory: it works for those fictional characters the same way it works for us. The situations are different, but the escape is the same. Whether it’s a rough week at the office, a long haul on the highway, a fictional shootout that leaves 500 extras dead and expends 10,000 bullets, or Internet comment threads, we do what we gotta do and have a cup of Joe afterward. Good diners are essential for holding people together, real or imagined. Find yours and you’ve got nothing to fear, anywhere, ever.

I got lucky when I moved to Newport, and wound up living six blocks from the diner I’ve now made my Saturday morning station. A polar bear stands at the entrance, teeth bared, claws ready. Whatever burdens may trouble you out there, they sure as hell ain’t gettin’ in here.

It’s the North Pole Restaurant in Newport. Sit down and you’ll be lighter than you were when you came in, but you most certainly won’t be when you leave.

The Basics: The story of the North Pole Restaurant, according to legend, begins back in 1947. It was a humble soda station at first, quenching customers’ thirsts while they waited for prescription fulfillment at Village Drug. Robert E. North purchased the business in 1947, and it was eventually renamed Newport Drug. After relocating to its present home in the Newport Center, the business expanded and became the North Pole Restaurant. Present owners Dave and Mary North represent the third generation of ownership. Newport Drug is still there, next to the North Pole. There’s a doorway through which you can enter from one business to the other, like they have in neighboring hotel rooms but 1/100 as creepy. The website.

“You’re not trying to cut the line, are you?”

Dave and Mary’s son, Brian, does not go to work to slack off. He says hello shortly after I sit down, then teleports to the front podium to help with seating assignments. When I look toward the back of the restaurant, he’s back there cleaning tables and talking to staffers. My last time in there, we chatted briefly while he wiped off a counter. He somehow wrung my last six years’ worth of life story out of me in the time it took him to wipe two feet of countertop. He said it was nice to meet me, welcomed me to town, and poof! disappeared. When my mind caught up with it all, he was back up front.

The staff is the very same. It’s mesmerizing to watch. No movement is wasted. No words wasted, either. Millennials get praised for their ability to do five things at once – and rightfully so – but we seem to forget diner staffs have been doing it for decades. We’re just so used to it, y’know?

There’s a really nice overflow room in the North Pole called the Trapper’s Den. It’s cabin-esque, and its walls are loaded with hangings: a pair of ice skates here, an old oil lamp there, a sign that reminds diners to put out their campfires with water. It looks like fun in there, but I prefer to sit at these cute little counters near the coffee machines. I can tune myself out and focus on the whirs and clangs in the kitchen, the chatter swirling around me, and the joyous noise of a coffee cup being topped off.

It’s perfect there. Even if you did try and let the outside world creep into your head, good luck focusing when a plate like this shows up in your vision line.

A stack of pancakes on a counter at the North Pole Restaurant in Newport, Minnesota

With tax, three of these pancakes totals $7.77. You smear the butter around, and what doesn’t soak in runs back into the center. It forms a pool, and you dunk your bites in it for maximum butter. Do this right and you don’t even need syrup – but, if you like syrup, I hope you don’t deny yourself that for health reasons. The outside world is one poorly-worded tweet from oblivion, and you’re already dunking bites into liquefied butter. Use the syrup.

You can get them with blueberries or chocolate chips, too. Check the menu for pricing on those.

They don’t have a brunch menu, but they do have a menu section called “Breakfast Delights.” That’s what you call a menu with home-baked caramel and cinnamon rolls, a Belgian waffle with strawberries, chocolate chip pancakes and blueberry oatcakes. The country-fried steak, if you should be lucky enough to catch it on special, is dressed in a thick layer of breading and deliciously over-coated in gravy. I had enough gravy left for most of my hashed browns. Ever had gravy on hashed browns? You’re missing out if you haven’t.

A plate of country-fried steak, rye toast, hashed browns, and eggs on a counter at the North Pole Restaurant in Newport, Minnesota

The coffee is diesel, glorious diesel, delivered in a black plastic pot and made in a stained-up metal machine. This isn’t Instagram coffee; this is “Shut up and drink your damn coffee” coffee, and you’d better have room for a top-off next time the pot comes around. I don’t think I’ve ever successfully emptied a coffee cup here. They’ve a keen understanding of what coffee means to the diner-goer.

At dinner time, the Trapper Plate is a straight-up third-pound cheeseburger with French fries and coleslaw. All of their burgers are 1/3-pound, and a California goes for just $6.25 (fries are an extra $2.99). Dinner entrees range from chicken tender and fish finger baskets to a breaded veal cutlet and a beef liver and bacon dish.

Grilled cheese? Check. Grilled ham and cheese? Check. Grilled cheese with tomato and bacon? Check. The North Pole sandwich section runs 22 deep, not counting burgers. The most expensive one is $8.50, and it’s the sirloin steak.

The North Pole Restaurant is the calm before and after Newport residents’ personal storms. They know it, too: I rarely see the place at less than 75-percent capacity. It’s never loud, though. I’ve never stared daggers at someone on the other side of the room here. I think it’s because we’re all here for the same thing, and it might be one of the last places on Earth where people generally respect one another enough to let everyone have it.

We settle the tab, decide our next destination, and get set to make tracks. If you think you might need to wrap your hand later on, you swing into the drug store on your way out.